April 29, 2009

C. S. Lewis: Crypto-Mormon? Part I: Latter-day Saints on Lewis

Richard Ostling, a former TIME magazine religion editor, has mentioned the “extraordinary” interest in C.S. Lewis among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Ostling, Mormons seem to believe Lewis is “almost a crypto-Mormon," which “shows the extraordinary acceptability and the usefulness of C.S. Lewis, because of course most of what he says is perfectly acceptable to Mormons.”1 Ostling further claims Lewis “was aware of the LDS claims and totally rejected them,” which I believe is a significant overstatement that deserves further discussion.2 First I'll address LDS usage of Lewis. In a subsequent post I'll discuss Lewis's views of Mormonism.

Ostling is correct that many Latter-day Saints have shown interest in Lewis's works. The best treatment I've seen on the topic is Mary Jane Woodger's “The Words of C. S. Lewis as Used by the Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”3 She found that Lewis was not immediately known to Mormons but as his popularity in the United States increased during the 1950s he found his way into publications by Latter-day Saints. The earliest reference to Lewis Woodger found was a 1963 Richard L. Evans book called Faith in the Future.4 However, at least two references preceded Evans. In 1961 Hugh B. Brown included a quote from Lewis in Continuing the Quest,5 though it is unclear how Brown found the reference. The earliest known reference in an LDS publication is Louis Midgley's BYU Studies essay, "God and Immortality in Dostoevsky's Thought" in the Autumn 1959-Winter 1960 issue.6 In 1968 BYU Studies published a reprint of Lewis's essay called "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" and a 1969 issue included a review of Lewis's Christian Reflections.7 A full essay on Lewis's "defense of Christianity" followed in 1972.8  The first nod to Lewis in an official LDS publication appears to have been in the first issue of the New Era magazine in January 1971. Neal A. Maxwell responded affirmitavely to the question of whether the Church still expects the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. He concluded by stressing the importance of being ready.

"The youth and all members of the Church need to accept the reality of Christ’s return in majesty and power before that event occurs; for, as C. S. Lewis put it, it will do men little good to kneel down when it is no longer possible to stand up, for when the 'Author of the play comes on stage, the play is over!'”9
Six years later Lewis made his first General Conference appearance in a talk by Paul H. Dunn.10 Since then Lewis has been used in more than a handful of Conference talks. While he is sometimes referred to as having been "quoted more often by General Authorities than any other non-LDS writer,"11 Woodger found this to be untrue (and decisively so). As of 1997 she counted 18 references. Bringing her list up to date (April 2009) and adding a few she didn't originally include, the total has risen to 27. When Dallin H. Oaks quoted Lewis in his April 2009 talk he pushed Lewis into the number two spot, one reference ahead of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 26. The top referent is still Abraham Lincoln at 128 references, 54 of which took place between 1961-1980.

In addition to General Conference references Lewis has been quoted in many LDS books by General Authorities and other LDS writers.12 Honor's English classes focused on his works have been offered at BYU and BYU-Idaho.13 In 1998 BYU held a "Lewis Conference," a special symposium in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of Lewis's birth.14 General Authorities tend to focus more on Lewis's moral teachings which are generally applicable to most Christians. Some LDS authors have also focused on Lewis's writings regarding the potential godhood of mankind. Many of these references are responsible, but occasional quote mining is also manifest.15

Lewis himself was cautious not to remake an author he admired  into his own image. “One of my objections to some ‘neo-scholastics’ is that they often pick out Thomist texts and string them together with little regard to their real position in Aquinas’ thought, thus producing an account…which really corresponds to nothing their master ever thought or could have thought."16 Mormon writers should employ Lewis carefully and responsibly in favor of self-congratulatory selective proof-texting. For example, in 1998 Nathan Jensen published The Restored Gospel According to C. S. Lewis," a collection of proof-texts that is not particularly careful with Lewis. In the first chapter Jensen states: "This man who, as far as we know, had no substantial contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and yet has filled his writings with precepts and doctrines that are not only true, but most wholly unique to the restored church."17 This statement is inaccurate; even the more "unique" things to which Jensen refers were often not unique to Lewis. He was well read in older Christian literature and had studied the writings of many of the Early Christian Fathers.

Moreover, using Lewis in order to "show where Mormons get it right" so to speak, is not the best approach as a simple appeal to authority or "truth by commonality." It also tends to make Lewis appear more "Mormon" than he really was. Because Lewis was not a systematic theologian by any stretch of the imagination, and because his own understanding of various Christian doctrines was more fluid than it appears in his own published works, Lewis can easily be taken out of context. It should be readily acknowledged that Lewis and Latter-day Saints have some rather significant theological differences. Evan Stephenson's 1997 Dialogue article adeptly addresses several of these differences in depth.18 Stephensen does not go as far as Ostling's claim that "Lewis was aware of the LDS claims and totally rejected them," but does remark: "notwithstanding Lewis's broad-mindedness, he would not have favorably viewed the LDS church." In fact, Stephensen contends, some of the more unique doctrines of Latter-day Saints would have been "despised" by Lewis.19

What did Lewis know about Latter-day Saints? See "C.S. Lewis: Crypto-Mormon? Part II: Lewis on Latter-day Saints."

Douglas LeBlanc, “Mere Mormonism: Journalist Richard Ostling explores LDS culture, theology, and fans of 'crypto-Mormon' C.S. Lewis,” Christianity Today, Feb. 7, 2000. This blog post is a general overview, meant as a supplement to two other articles which are more comprehensive. See Mary Jane Woodger, “The Words of C. S. Lewis as Used by the Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Harvest Magazine, February, 2000 (discontinued). Accessible at crlamppost.org/woodger.htm. and Evan Stephensen, "The Last Battle: C.S. Lewis and Mormonism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 30, no. 4, (winter, 1997): 43-69. 

Ostling and his wife Joan co-wrote Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, HarperOne (2000). One section of the book discusses Latter-day Saint usage of Lewis on the subject of deification or theosis. Louis Midgley responded in his review of the book. See “Faulty Topography,” FARMS Review 14:1, pp. 139-92.  

Woodger, ibid. 

Richard L. Evans, Faith in the Future, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963), 111.

Continuing the Quest, Deseret Book Company (1961), p. 499. The final section of the book called "Musings and Browsings" includes various quotes Brown had collected. He included (without exact reference) Lewis's statement on what has come to be known as the "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" argument. He also included quotes from such notables as Charles Darwin and J.S. Mill.

Midgley referred to Lewis in a footnote without quoting him: "Kant's moral argument has had an enormous impact on religious thinking. Many have taken up the argument and have refined and sophisticated it. See especially the Anglican writer C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1947)." Louis C. Midgley, "God and Immortality in Dostoevsky's Thought," BYU Studies 1.2 (Autumn 1959-Winter 1960), pp. 55-69.

See C.S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” BYU Studies 9.1 (1968), pp. 33-48; Elosie Bell, "Book Reviews," BYU Studies 9:2, (Winter, 1969), p.221.

William Clayton Kimball, "The Christian Commitment: C. S. Lewis and the Defense of Doctrine," BYU Studies 12:2 (Winter, 1972), p. 185.

Neal Maxwell, “Q&A: Questions and Answers,” New Era, Jan. 1971, p. 9, quoting Mere Christianity, Book two, (Granite Publishers, Inc, 2006), pg. 65.

Paul H. Dunn, "We Have Been There All The Time," Ensign, November 1977, 24; quoting Richard L. Evans, Richard Evans’ Quote Book, (Salt Lake City: Publisher’s Press, 1971), 169; quoting C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, (1964).

Nathan Jensen, The Restored Gospel According to C. S. Lewis, (Springville: Cedar Fort, Incorporated, 1998), cover. A similar statement was made by Jerry Johnson in his article "C. S. Lewis is Gold Mine for Readers," Deseret (Salt Lake) News, 28 March 1998, E1.

Woodger credits Neal A. Maxwell with leading the pack in Lewis references in the book category.

For instance, David Ward taught Honors 221 at BYU-Idaho, a course dealing with the writings of C.S. Lewis, for eight years. “I think studying Christian literature benefits teachers and students because the slant on Christianity that Christian writers take can challenge one to rethink the place of Christ in their lives and readjust past assumptions so that they live more faithfully to Him,” Ward said. See Kelly Smurthwaite, "Tolkien, Lewis classes teach students Christian principles," The Scroll, January 22, 2002. According to Ward the class is no longer available, (personal correspondence to the author, April 21, 2009).

Some of the papers delivered at the conference were published in Andrew C. Skinner, Robert L. Millet, eds., C.S. Lewis: The Man and His Message, Bookcraft (1999). 

See "Quote Mining," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, March 22, 2008.

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. II, Books, Broadcasts, and the War: 1931-1949, Walter Hooper, ed., HarperCollins (2004), p. 205.

Jensen, ibid., p.1.  This chapter alone contains many errors of interpretation. For example, Jensen asks "How did [Lewis] know pride is 'the great universal sin' as taught explicitly by our past prophet Ezra Taft Benson?"(Jensen, ibid., p. 2). It is apparent that Pres. Benson and whomever assisted in the preparation of the talk knew this point from Lewis himself, as the talk refers directly to Lewis as a source. See Ezra Taft Benson,“Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4.
Stephensen, ibid. While I do not agree with all of Stephensen's conclusions and believe he made Lewis appear too rigid in some instances, overall it is a very good article. More particular points will be discussed in "Part II: Lewis on Latter-day Saints." 
Stephensen, ibid., 46.