One day, a brilliant young atheist, roughly 18 years old and preparing to enter Oxford University, was waiting for a train. To pass the time, he browsed in the train station’s bookstore and eventually bought a novel, written by a certain George MacDonald, titled “Phantastes.” He was immediately entranced by its depiction of a world in which ordinary life is transformed into the magical realm of “fairie.”
He felt something deep and enormously meaningful in “Phantastes” but couldn’t identify what that “something” was. MacDonald’s Christianity irritated him, though he loved the novel “in spite of it.” So he read more of the author’s writings and finally realized that what had intrigued him about “Phantastes” wasn’t anything separable from MacDonald’s theism, but a quality flowing directly from that belief.
Decades later, having become a Christian himself (and a famous author and lecturer at both Oxford and Cambridge), that formerly young student, C.S. Lewis, explained that “I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness.”
In his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis described his reading of MacDonald back in 1916 as having “baptized” his imagination. Many years would pass before his intellect followed, but he was being prepared.
Through my own teenage years, my mother was a marginally active Mormon and my father a non-practicing Lutheran. My earliest church attendance was sporadic, and, I thought, very dull. I came to think of myself as an agnostic. My first intimations of faith came while I was absent from school for illness — perhaps real, possibly feigned. Bored, I picked up an old Mormon novel that we’d inherited from my grandmother a decade earlier. I’m not sure that I could read Nephi Anderson’s 1898 “Added Upon” again; it’s not great literature. But, it spoke to me then. For the very first time, in its tale of several friends as they pass from premortality into this obscure and difficult life and then on through the spirit world and the resurrection to the Millennium, I glimpsed something of the inexpressible vastness and grandeur of the “plan of salvation.”
I’d never encountered anything so epic, never seen any vision of human destiny so exalted. It felt true; it felt as if I had always known it. Still today, it’s foundational to my faith. I can conceive of no story, no message, so breathtaking in its scope, or so profoundly inspiring.
“Added Upon” won’t speak to all. Perhaps not even to many. Different imaginations will find different things appealing. (“Phantastes” doesn't move me.) But imaginations must be baptized just as minds must be convinced. The gospel must be recognized as beautiful, lovable and desirable. For this, we need artists, composers and writers to capture the imaginations of our youths and of those outside the church.
“For years,” President Spencer W. Kimball declared in 1977, “I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording, in song and story and painting and sculpture, the story of the Restoration, the re-establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle man, Joseph Smith, ... and of the giant colonizer and builder, Brigham Young.
“We are proud of the artistic heritage that the church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves.”
“We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” prophesied Elder Orson F. Whitney in 1888. “God's ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God's name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth. Let the smile of derision wreathe the face of scorn; let the frown of hatred darken the brow of bigotry. Small things are the seeds of great things, and, like the acorn that brings forth the oak, or the snowflake that forms the avalanche, God's kingdom will grow, and on wings of light and power soar to the summit of its destiny.”
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," blogs daily at Patheos, and speaks only for himself.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company