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Life of C.S. Lewis examined at BYU's Campus Education Week

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 1:56 p.m. MDT

A portrait of C.S. Lewis was displayed at A portrait of C.S. Lewis was displayed at "A Night with C.S. Lewis" in the Davis County School District in 2006. Sherri Mills Johnson looked at the life of Lewis during a BYU Campus Education Week presentation on Tuesday, Aug. 13. (Mike Terry, Deseret News archive)

PROVO — One of the most prolific Christian writers began as an atheist. BYU's Campus Education Week examined the life and conversion of C.S. Lewis in one of the approximately a thousand classes offered on campus during the 91st annual event.

Sherrie Mills Johnson, adjunct professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, provided context for Lewis' life, explaining the background for choices such as converting from atheism to eventually finding a testimony of Jesus Christ.

Lewis, called "Jack" by all who knew him, had strong ties to his mother and brother Warren, and a perpetually rocky relationship with is father. After the death of his mother at a young age, Lewis was shipped off to school where he endured a lot of emotional abuse, according to Johnson.

A collection of well-read C.S. Lewis books. Sherri Mills Johnson looked at the life of Lewis during a BYU Campus Education Week presentation on Tuesday, Aug. 13. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archive) A collection of well-read C.S. Lewis books. Sherri Mills Johnson looked at the life of Lewis during a BYU Campus Education Week presentation on Tuesday, Aug. 13. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archive)

It was while in school that Lewis became an atheist, in part because of a school matron named Ms. Cowley.

"She loosed all the framework, the ones with all the sharp edges of my belief; the whole thing became a matter of speculation," Johnson quoted Lewis as saying about his faith.

He eventually concluded Christianity was just another myth.

Johnson said Lewis was soon swapping out statements of belief with seeds of doubt. It was a time for his intellectual growth to flourish, rather than his faith.

Yet, Johnson taught, despite adverse schooling conditions and a disbelief in God, Lewis clung to a search he had begun early on in his life: the search for the feeling of joy.

As a child, Johnson explained, Lewis made a small garden on the lid of a biscuit tin.

David Dixon as J.R.R. Tolkien, left, Adam Stallard as C.S. David Dixon as J.R.R. Tolkien, left, Adam Stallard as C.S. "Jack" Lewis and Matthew Davis as Hugo Dyson in "Swallow the Sun" presented by the Provo Theatre Company in spring 2008. (Mahonri Stewart)

"An incredible feeling came over him that he identified as joy," Johnson said. "He spent his whole life trying to capture that. He tried to define it in his writing."

He would later go on to write the book "Surprised by Joy."

After failing the mathematics portion of his Oxford entrance exam, Lewis joined the army at age 18. But after being released during World War I because of gunshot wounds, Lewis was admitted to Oxford after all. A new policy allowed veterans to enter university without passing the entrance exam, according to Johnson.

It was while at university that Lewis began to meet with other writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and Owen Barfield.

"Lewis' conversion to Christianity begins because of these three men," Johnson said.

During one late-night argument over mythology, Tolkien, who was Roman Catholic, and the other two men, who were devout Christians, debated with Lewis.

"Finally one night, Lewis begins to realize, 'No, this is a mythology, but it's a real mythology,'" Johnson said.

Over the next week, he pondered these debates, Johnson said, until one day, he came to a decision.

"'We went to (the zoo), and when we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did,'" Johnson quoted Lewis as saying.

Lewis would go on to become a prolific writer of Christian works. He was also known among the masses for his beliefs and participated in radio shows during World War II, speaking about faith and Christianity with the sole purpose of boosting the morale of the nation.

After the death of his wife, Joy, Johnson said Lewis never lost his faith but, rather, clung to an ideal he embraced all his life — one that may be very familiar to members of the Mormon faith — "Come what may, and love it," as the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put it in a general conference address.

"He teaches us how to be a disciple," Johnson said. "His life teaches us that. He was a disciple of Jesus Christ."

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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