The good folks in IVP’s publicity department are sending to media this excerpt from my Patron Saints for Postmoderns book:
Loving the Universe and Saving Our Souls
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
When I first dove into Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) Divine Comedy, in a monastery in North Carolina, these opening lines captivated me. I was nearing my own “midway point” (my fortieth birthday) and struggling with my own doubtful agendas, shameful sins and dull regrets. How refreshing to find a Famous Person confessing that he, too, had struggled.
Before long I was hooked, and I followed “Dante the pilgrim” (the poet himself, inserted as the protagonist in his own epic poem) down through hell, up the mountain of purgatory and out into the cosmic “spheres” that medievals believed circled the earth in concentric rings, to the very topmost heaven. There he—and I—beheld God who is both indescribable and yet somehow “marked with our image.” There, with Dante, “my heart and will were wheeled by love, The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
In other words, I found as I read breathlessly on in that monastery a story of salvation. Yes, this is Dante’s own salvation, but also all of ours—for he pours into his tale not only his own experiences of making bad decisions, descending into despair and finding redemption, but also the imagined experiences of countless others. We see these people from the ultimate
perspective: the final divine reckoning of their lives’ choices.
Dante’s tale is an allegory. . . its players are historical people—though Dante can’t resist throwing in a few characters of myth and legend—and the cast includes many of the most significant figures from Christian history up to Dante’s day. . . . The people inhabiting this great “drama of the soul’s choice” show us—simply by being who they are—how to live. . . . the Comedy is a story not only about our salvation, but about Dante’s particular journey to redemption. In fact, it tells of three distinctive kinds of sin from which Dante needed to be redeemed. In telling of these . . . Dante was following the man who loomed over all of medieval theology: Augustine. . . . [T]hat great North African writer had taught that all sin comes from some disordered love. . . . [B]ecause of the Fall, we find ourselves habitually desiring good things in bad ways: we love too much, or too little, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way—and most of all, we tend to love created things, including other people, with an ultimate love that rightly belongs to God alone. In the Comedy, Dante takes his readers through his own personal—but also somehow universal—journey of being released from three ways that his own loves had become disordered.
From Chapter 3, “Dante Alighieri, Loving the Universe and Saving Our Souls.”