Wednesday, May 20, 2009

C.S. Lewis, Orson Scott Card, and Hugh Nibley

C.S. Lewis was born into a church-attending Christian home, but as a teenager he considered himself an atheist, a position he held until he was re-converted to Christianity during his college years at Oxford where, thanks to friends like J.R.R. Tolkein, he became a stalwart defender of the faith, and member of the Church of England.

As mentioned in the previous post, one attribute that has made Lewis popular with readers is his ability to write about Christianity from a non-denominational viewpoint. He is able to distill doctrine down to basic truths to which people of numerous faiths can ascribe. I think this is the reason Lewis is a favorite among Mormons. To my knowledge, Lewis was never exposed to LDS doctrine, although many of his beliefs fit nicely with ours. Of course, some of his stances seem like "religious gibberish" in light of the Restored Gospel. (I would love to know how he would rewrite some of his books in light of what he knows now that he has passed on! I can just imagine the discussions he has had on the other side and how he has modified his religious beliefs!)

I was fascinated in February to read an article in Mormon Times by Orson Scott Card in which he discusses the relationship between Lewis' writings and Mormon thought. For those not familiar with Card, in many ways he takes after Lewis in that he is a prolific writer in multiple genres: poetry, plays, musicals, novels, science fiction, and education. It doesn't surprise me that Card is a fan of Lewis' work.

I became aware of Card when we were both students at BYU in the 1970s. I attended the premier of his musical "Stone Tables," a thought-provoking interpretation of what the daily life of Moses might have been like. My sister (who was a drama major at BYU) and I also attended a couple of his productions at "the Castle," a Depression-era outdoor amphitheater behind the then-active state mental hospital in Provo. (The location was half the fun!) We were both impressed at the quality of work produced by one of our peers. Over the years, I have followed Card's career as he has gained fame, primarily as an award-winning author of science fiction. Now that he has a regular column in the Mormon Times section of the Deseret News, I can't wait for the paper to arrive to discover his views on current events and modern thought.

In Card's February 19 column, he talks about his introduction to and early experiences with the works of C.S. Lewis. One summer, Card's father gave him a copy of The Screwtape Letters, which he read and then discussed with his father. More books followed, and thus began Card's own journey into Lewis-land:

"C.S. Lewis was somehow different. He had put his religion lessons into the form of stories -- funny, ironic, sarcastic stories, yet with compassion and tragedy and redemption and joy. And even though he wasn't LDS, the kind of religion he was talking about still had everything to do with the way we Mormons try to live. My reaction can be boiled down to sheer astonishment: This is possible!

"Later, when I was in college, Lewis' work went through a kind of resurgence, and new editions of everything came out. I read it all -- not just the Christian apologetics, the 'space trilogy' and 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' but also his narrative poem 'Dymer,' his critical study 'The Allegory of Love' and his best novel, 'Till We Have Faces.' I read his memoir, 'Surprised by Joy' I felt as if he had seen into my heart. "[I realized] you can be a non-athlete who doesn't fit in at school, then end up a writer of good fiction and an unashamed Christian at the same time.

"So I carried Lewis around in my heart, as a kind of beacon."

In the Mormon Times column, Card then switches to another person he greatly admires, Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley. (I was fortunate to hear Nibley lecture at BYU Education Week in the 1960s in Denver. I recall thinking him the perfect example of an absent-minded professor--slightly rumpled and seemingly disorganized with his notes, extremely brilliant, taking all kinds of twists and turns in his presentation and forgetting his launch point, but somehow always able to make a powerful point.) In Card's column, he compares the two authors and explains how Lewis had prepared him to understand the deeper gospel teachings of Nibley. Card writes:

"As with Lewis, during my college years I came to read more of Nibley's writings. Nibley wasn't a fiction writer, but he had the kind of humor and verve and wit that typified Lewis' nonfiction writing. It was a joy to spend time in his company, reading what he had to say.

"He taught me, as Lewis did, that worldly intellectuals are only able to claim superiority to believers by using the dumbest examples of Christian thinking, and comparing it to the best of science; but the best of Christian (and, more particularly, Mormon) thinking takes all the findings of science and history into account, and finds no contradiction. ...It comes from a rigorous scholar, who never lowers the bar to account for faith. Indeed, it was Nibley who taught me that religion must meet the same standard as science: It has to work in the real world. You have to be able to replicate the results.

"What Nibley had in common with Lewis, besides their roots in the philological tradition, their extraordinary talent for language and their commitment to the revealed religion of Christ, was their brilliance as writers. For me, reading either of them was like sitting down with a scintillating conversationalist. They didn't just provide information, they involved me in the conversation, so that even though they weren't present, I found myself adding to what they said, finding my own examples, going beyond, when I could, and always going within."

Orson Scott Card very eloquently described the impact C.S. Lewis had on him and likely has had on others. My journey with Lewis is still new, but even now I find myself captivated with his writing style and his view points, and I am lead to ponder his ideas in relation to Gospel principles. It's easy to see why Lewis is often quoted in LDS talks and articles.

--Card's column can be found at

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