The Return of 'The Divine Comedy'

Chuck Colson | BreakPoint | Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Return of 'The Divine Comedy'

October 14, 2008

This past summer, 706 years after its predecessors sent him into exile, the city council of Florence, Italy, voted to give Dante Alighieri the city’s highest honor: the golden florin.

This being Italy, there was an argument. A communist councilman said that Dante didn’t need to be “rehabilitated” by the council. He asked whether, if Dante had been executed, the council would have voted to resurrect him!

This, in turn, led the poet’s descendant to refuse the award because the apology was insufficient.

This all-too-human comedy aside, it’s easy to see why Florence would want to claim Dante as her own. Even those who have never read The Divine Comedy quote it in everyday speech: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” “seventh heaven,” and the “lowest circle of hell” are all the products of Dante’s imagination.

Despite Dante’s unquestioned greatness, it’s also easy to see why many of us have never read the Divine Comedy. It’s a long poem broken into three sections (The Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio), and it’s filled with allusions to myths and Dante’s contemporaries that make it difficult to keep track of who did what to whom.

That’s a shame because, as Ken Boa says in the latest installment of his Great Books Audio CD series, the Comedy is “the supreme literary work, not only of medieval Christendom but of all Christian faith. . . .” It’s only possible rival is another epic poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

What’s more, Dante’s “supreme literary work” has inspired other works worth reading. C.S. Lewis’ debt to Dante is especially clear in “The Great Divorce.”

That still leaves us with how best to read Dante’s masterpiece. Happily, just as Dante used Virgil as a guide, we have my friend Ken Boa to guide us through what he calls Dante’s “cathedral of ideas.” And a large cathedral it is! Ken has devoted two of his monthly Great Books CDs to The Divine Comedy.

Dante’s famous opening line—“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood”—sets the stage for what Boa calls a “drama of the soul’s choice.” A drama that explores the wilderness of the soul as it overcomes everything that keeps it from the love of God.

As Boa tells us, this drama takes the form of a quest. But unlike other medieval quest stories, Dante’s is an internal quest. The hero doesn’t seek external or worldly glory. He seeks the spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and especially love.

As Ken puts it, the theme of the Comedy is love. When we do not love, love the wrong things, or even love the right things in the wrong ways, the soul becomes diminished. The Comedy is about loving God, the lover of our souls, in the way He should be loved.

To think about Dante solely in terms of the grotesque images of Hell that have spilled over into the popular imagination is to miss the point of Dante’s classic work. Getting that point requires some reading, preferably with Ken Boa as your guide.

Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

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From BreakPoint, July 31, 2008, posted with permission of Prison Fellowship,