Theodicy at the Movies: Shadowlands (1993)


Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the fourth in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades, national cinemas, and faith traditions.

Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough and written by William Nicholson (based on his own stage play, which was based on his own BBC TV movie), tells the story of Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’s late-life romance with American poet Joy Davidman, who died of cancer just a few years after they were married. (And I should note, just so we’re all aware, the protagonist of this film is C. S. Lewis, the movie character, not C. S. Lewis, the man. The two are similar people, but they are not the same person. So, unless otherwise specified, the latter is the one I will be referring to throughout this post.)

shadowlands15The film begins in 1952, when Lewis is an Oxford don, successful writer, and fairly well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. Joy, a fan of his books, writes a letter asking to meet him when she visits England, and with some trepidation, Lewis (“Jack”) and his brother Warnie arrange a rendezvous over afternoon tea. Jack expects to spend an hour of hopefully not-too-tedious conversation, after which he will never see her again. Instead, he finds himself mysteriously inviting her further and further into his life. He gives her a tour of Oxford, invites her to visit him in his home, and even has her and her son stay for the Christmas holidays.

She is married, but her husband is not in England with her. Sometime after she and Jack have become friends, he learns that her husband had an affair and is seeking a divorce. Some time later, Joy moves to England permanently, and their friendship continues. Eventually, Jack agrees to marry her in a civil ceremony in order to extend his British citizenship to her. After she is hospitalized due to previously-undetected advanced-stage bone cancer, Jack realizes that he cares more about her then he had realized, and the two are married again, for real this time. Soon thereafter, Joy’s cancer goes into remission, and they enjoy a brief happiness together, which they know cannot last. When Joy finally does succumb to cancer, Jack struggles to deal with his own grief, and the grief of Joy’s young son Douglas.

shadowlands4The film’s opening scenes establish Jack as someone who has very little personal experience in certain areas of life, even though he speaks about them with great authority. Already renowned for his children’s books by this point, one of Jack’s colleagues mockingly asks if he actually knows any children. Jack curtly replies that his brother was a child once, and (“as unlikely as it may seem”) he was, too. In other words, no, he doesn’t know any.

Delivering a lecture on the courtly ideal of love in the work of Guillaume de Lorris, Jack explains what makes love perfect: “Unattainability. The most intense joy lies not in the having, but in the desire. Delight that never fades, bliss that is eternal, is only yours when what you most desire is just out of reach.” A student scoffs at this idea, and Jack presses him to voice his disagreement, but the student backs down, implying that perhaps Jack’s thinking on this subject has not been really challenged in some time. A life-long bachelor and medieval scholar, Jack is insulated from the experience of modern romantic love.

shadowlands1Finally, addressing the Association of Christian Teachers, Jack gives a signature talk on the problem of pain. He describes a letter he received asking where God was during a national tragedy that occurred the year before. His example is general and impersonal, and his answer to the question is repeated at various points in the movie:

Isn’t God supposed to be good? Isn’t He supposed to love us? And does God want us to suffer? What if the answer to that question is yes? Because I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up. I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that He makes us the gift of suffering. To put it another way, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect.

A few scenes earlier, one of Jack’s atheist colleagues had accused him of being in the “trade of supplying easy answers to difficult questions.” Perhaps this is not an easy answer to the question of suffering, but Jack delivers it in a facile manner, unencumbered by the raw experience of actual suffering. Within about 10 minutes, we see that Jack is a children’s author who doesn’t know any children, an academic expert on medieval romance with no experience in real romance, and a renowned speaker on theodicy who has insulated himself from pain and suffering. By the end of the film, all three of these things will have changed.

shadowlands11The first change, of course, is Jack’s acquaintance with Douglas Gresham, who will eventually be his stepson. Initially awkward together, they end up quite close (though their relationship receives little attention in the film). The third happens as Joy weakens and finally passes away. The second, which takes up the bulk of the movie, is Jack’s romantic relationship with Joy, which grows out of an unexpected friendship. Before their relationship can blossom, however, Joy must set about unmasking and piercing the emotional wall that Jack has erected around himself.

During one of their first meetings, she recites one of her poems for him, about the Spanish Civil War, and then confesses that she has never even been to Spain. Jack politely replies, “Personal experience isn’t everything.”

Joy: “I disagree. I think personal experience is everything.”
Jack: “So, reading is a waste of time.”
Joy: “No, it’s not a waste of time. But reading is safe, isn’t it? Books aren’t about to hurt you.”
Jack: “Why should one want to be hurt?”
Joy: “That’s when we learn.”

This is not so different from what Jack himself has been saying in his talks on pain. He knows it intellectually, but he has carefully insulated himself from anything that might lead him to experience it emotionally. Joy eventually realizes that this is why he has been holding her at arm’s length, and tells him off for it, but it isn’t until she is gravely ill that Jack realizes he already cares about Joy too much to lose her.

shadowlands9Up to this point, the movie could almost be a romantic comedy. Certainly several scenes play out that way, finding humor in the awkwardness Jack and the other stuffy Oxford dons feel when confronted by Joy’s blunt, outspoken nature (which is presented as a distinctly American trait). Cultures clash, opposites attract, sparks fly, etc. Now, the tone shifts dramatically away from comedy. Even Jack’s snarky atheist frenemy, Christopher Riley, stops haranguing him.

The day after he learns of Joy’s illness, Jack is giving another lecture, but he has departed from his familiar script, and the impersonal example of a national tragedy has been replaced with a story closer to his heart:

Yesterday, a friend of mine, a very brave, good woman, collapsed in terrible pain. One minute she was fit and well, the next minute she was in agony. She is now in hospital, and this morning, I was told she is suffering from cancer. Why? See, if you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer. You can’t bear it. You want to take their suffering onto yourself. If even I feel like that, why doesn’t God?

Why, indeed. Jack is no longer comfortable suggesting that God wants us to suffer because He loves us. That doesn’t square with his new experience of what love is. If God does want us to suffer, as Jack suggested earlier, does that mean He doesn’t love us? If He does love us, why doesn’t He feel the way Jack feels, or why doesn’t He act on those feelings?

Unable to reason through this problem from a position of emotional security, Jack falls back on his faith, desperately but not blindly. When a glimmer of hope prompts one of his friends to suggest that God has heard his fervent prayers and has decided to answer them, Jack disagrees: “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

shadowlands13Nevertheless, Joy recovers, and the couple enjoys a honeymoon in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley. Their destination is inspired by a painting of the valley Jack has had since he was a boy, when he believed it to be a picture of heaven (this is the topic of an early conversation with Joy). As they pause on a walk through the valley to shelter from the rain, Jack expresses how complete his happiness is at that moment, but Joy has a painful reminder:

Joy: It’s not going to last, Jack.
Jack: We shouldn’t think about that now. Let’s not spoil the time we have together.
Joy: It doesn’t spoil it. I makes it real. Let me just say it before this rain stops, and we go back.
Jack: What is there to say?
Joy: That I’m going to die, and I want to be with you then, too. The only way I can do that is if I’m able to talk to you about it now.
Jack: I’ll manage somehow. Don’t worry about me.
Joy: No. I think it can be better than that. I think it can be better than just managing. What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.

shadowlands3What Joy is suggesting, I think, is a variation on the old idea that only knowing sadness makes it possible to experience true happiness. Or at least that recognizing pleasure as fleeting forces them to appreciate it. Knowing that happiness can’t last is what “makes it real,” a tangible thing that you can be conscious of. However, this is a notion Jack struggles with, particularly once the “pain then” part of “the deal” arrives.

After Joy’s funeral service, Harry Harrington, the college chaplain, approaches Jack and says (rather tactlessly), “Thank God for your faith, Jack. It’s only faith that makes any sense of times like this. I know.” Lewis looks angry, but replies only with a curt nod and walks away. Later, Jack confides in Warnie: “I’m so afraid of never seeing her again. Of thinking that suffering is just suffering after all. No cause. No purpose. No pattern. […] There’s nothing to say. I know that now. I’ve just come up against a bit of experience, Warnie. Experience is a brutal teacher. But you learn. My God, you learn.” But what has he learned, exactly?

Attending a faculty gathering some weeks later, Jack must contend with the sympathy of his friends and colleagues. His old rival Christopher is one of the first to ask if there’s anything he can do.

Jack: Just don’t tell me it’s all for the best, that’s all.
Harry: Only God knows why these things have to happen, Jack.
Jack: God knows, but does God care?
Harry: Of course. We see so little here! We are not the Creator!
Jack: No, no. We are the creatures, aren’t we? We’re the rats in the cosmic laboratory. I’ve no doubt that the experiment is for our own good, but it still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn’t it?

Experiencing pain has transformed Jack’s conception of God from master sculptor applying his chisel in perfecting humanity, to vivisectionist slicing up human experiments in a lab “for our own good.” The similarities between these two analogies suggests that his fundamental understanding of God’s ultimate purpose has not changed, but his notions of God’s love and compassion have (at least temporarily).

shadowlands16All of this culminates in Jack finally going to comfort a grieving Douglas. Talking doesn’t seem to do either of them a lot of good. At last, though, their words are replaced by tears, and they just hold each other and weep. Crying proves to be more cathartic than conversation, and Jack seems to achieve peace over time by letting go of his attempts to explain or understand. In the final scene, we see Jack and Douglas walking together outside on a sunny day as Jack says (in voice-over):

Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice, as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.

Shadowlands follows Jack on a journey from believing he understands the purpose of suffering, to knowing that he doesn’t know very much at all, and that what little he does know is no help to him in dealing with his own pain. This is not simply a film that raises questions about suffering and about God. It is a story that is actually about theodicy itself. It exposes Jack’s intellectual theodicy as an academic exercise, unequal to the task of providing solace in the face of grief. His theodicy may have good (or, at least, interesting) answers to the big questions raised by the problem of evil in the world, but none of these answers are comforting to someone who has just experienced real loss.

Nevertheless, Shadowlands doesn’t ultimately contradict Lewis’s intellectual theodicy. Instead, it works out a sort of experiential theodicy that is more mature and more humble (“I have no answers anymore”), but not ultimately very different in its conception of God or of suffering. Lewis concludes that God is still ultimately benevolent, and he accepts suffering as a necessary part of life that he does not need to explain. Furthermore, Shadowlands finds value in working through difficult questions artistically (in drama, film, narrative fiction, etc.) that is (perhaps) lacking from a more philosophical approach. In doing so, it demonstrates something of what I had in mind when I began to think about “Theodicy at the Movies.”

I should note, in closing, that the 1985 BBC version of Shadowlands that I referenced at the beginning is apparently quite different from this film in several important ways. I have seen the stage play based on it, and it is so similar to the film version that I had always assumed the original must be much the same, as well. That, however, seems not to be the case, and fellow Christians and fans of C.S. Lewis who know about such things attest that the earlier version is more faithful to Lewis’s thought, and more faithful to the actual events of his life. I have not seen it, but it is currently available on DVD, so I plan to make time for that soon. Depending on my impressions, I may discuss it in a separate post.


~ by Jared on April 25, 2014.

3 Responses to “Theodicy at the Movies: Shadowlands (1993)”

  1. […] I mentioned in my “Theodicy at the Movies” post about Shadowlands (1993), there is an earlier version of Shadowlands, made for television in 1985 by the BBC. This version […]


  2. In a work of fiction this is unimportant, but have you found in your research who Christopher Riley is based on historically?


    • I’ve seen some people suggest that there are aspects of the character that are based on Tolkien, but obviously there isn’t much similarity there. I believe he’s pretty much entirely a dramatic construct.


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