C.S. Lewis' writings have profound effect on Latter-day Saints

By James Jardine

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Nov. 22 2013 9:00 a.m. MST

On Nov. 22, much of the world will remember and celebrate President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Little noticed in 1963 was the death that same day of another extraordinary man, C.S. Lewis. His writings on Christianity and his Chronicles of Narnia novels have had a profound effect on Mormons as well as on large numbers of Christians, especially in the United States. Because of this, it is worth remembering his life, his faith and the remarkably enduring gift of his writings.

At his death, Lewis was perhaps the most influential Christian apologist of his time. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in September 1947, with the headline “Oxford’s C.S. Lewis — His heresy: Christianity.” And since his death, his influence and popularity have only increased, especially in the United States. He was featured on the cover of U.S. News & World Report in December 2005, with the headline “God’s Storyteller.” Estimates are that nearly 200 million copies of his books have been sold, half of which are books in The Chronicles of Narnia, with annual sales still at 2 million per year.

Lewis wrote about “mere Christianity,” focusing on what he saw as its core teachings and saving principles, and largely ignored doctrinal differences among Christian faiths. As a result, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and Mormons all find inspiration and insight in his writings. Since 1971, Lewis has been the most quoted non-Mormon in LDS general conference talks, with 31 references, compared to 20 for Shakespeare.

Among the most notable instances was President Ezra Taft Benson’s quote from Lewis’ chapter on “Pride” from "Mere Christianity" in his memorable conference address in April 1989. In other settings, Lewis was frequently quoted in the books and talks of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, beginning with his first book in 1967.

In 1972, BYU Studies published an article by Tony Kimball on Lewis, and noted Mormon author S. Michael Wilcox wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Lewis. In his seminal work, "The Infinite Atonement," Elder Tad R. Callister quotes Lewis more than a dozen times for various insights on that doctrine.

Perhaps more importantly, Lewis’ description of his Christian faith — clear and compelling — has enriched the faith of many young Latter-day Saints as their education intersected with and sometimes challenged their beliefs. Numerous Mormon testimonies have been magnified by reading Lewis. This I know from personal experience.

In short, for decades, Mormons have found inspiration and special kinship with Lewis. This experience is not exclusive to Latter-day Saints — Christians of all faiths find similar inspiration in Lewis’ writings. This year, for example, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams published "The Lion’s World," a book on the Narnia stories and what we may learn from them.

Lewis, born Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as “Jack,” was an esteemed professor of medieval and Renaissance literature, first at Oxford University and later at Cambridge University, two of the world’s leading universities. In his early years in Northern Ireland, Lewis developed an imaginary world of anthropomorphic animals, a preview of his love of fantasy.

After his mother died, his father sent him to boarding schools, where he lost his faith but developed his love of reading and his extraordinary analytical skills. In a way we can hardly imagine today, Lewis had read most of the classics in Greek, Latin and English by the end of his teenage years.

Lewis then attended Oxford, where he excelled in his studies in English, political science and philosophy. He then joined the faculty at Oxford, where he first taught philosophy and then English literature. He began to develop a distinguished professional career, with an emphasis on medieval and Renaissance literature. It was at this time that he rediscovered his Christian faith.

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