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MormonTimes.com: C.S. Lewis enthusiast chronicles his passion

Not just a hobby for longtime educator

SHARE MormonTimes.com: C.S. Lewis enthusiast chronicles his passion

It all began in a faculty meeting at the Tempe High School seminary with a man and lizard visiting from hell. For S. Michael Wilcox, it was the introduction to a great passion.

Wilcox was a seminary teacher in Arizona at the time, and one of his contemporaries gave a spiritual thought relating a story from C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce." In the story, a man is among a group of sinners from hell who board a bus and visit heaven, where they are told they can remain if they are willing to give up "their most precious thing," which for the man is the lizard sitting on his shoulder. It's a symbolic tale about the struggle to shed cherished sins. Wilcox was "mesmerized."

"I really hadn't read anything from Lewis until that faculty meeting," said Wilcox, a full-time instructor at the Salt Lake University LDS Institute of Religion. "Then I began to read everything."

Wilcox's insights on Lewis are chronicled in a new two-disc recording called "Of Lions, Dragons and Turkish Delight: C.S. Lewis for Latter-day Saints."

Whether it be on CD, in the classroom or in person, Wilcox speaks with great emotion and personal affinity for the works of Clive Staples Lewis, the one-time atheist who Wilcox said became Christianity's "greatest defender." Now an authority on the famous Christian writer, Wilcox has discovered beautiful stories and universal truths in Lewis' works that have enriched his life as a teacher and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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The top shelf of the bookcase in Wilcox's office is packed with Lewis' works. Far from being sturdy hard-cover volumes worthy of display, they are worn, wrinkled paperbacks held together by masking tape and binder clips.

The collection started to build after Wilcox, himself an accomplished writer in LDS circles, was introduced to "The Great Divorce." When he moved to Boulder, Colo., to pursue his Ph.D., Wilcox settled on Lewis as the subject of his dissertation. He read everything he could find written by the man, from novels and works of reason to his autobiography and letters.

What Wilcox found was truth, simplicity and good old-fashioned story-telling.

"He made Christianity beautiful," Wilcox said.

Lewis wrote about the nature of God and how man's ultimate potential is to become like deity, something that seems to resonate with LDS audiences. But Wilcox thinks Lewis appeals to LDS readers for the same reason he does to all Christians.

"Everyone can kind of claim him," he said. "We can all kind of read and be nourished really well with him."

Wilcox maintains that many religions embrace Lewis because he focused on the "core" of Christian belief — how to live a good life. Lewis wasn't argumentative and didn't concentrate on denominational differences, Wilcox said.

"When he's talking about the personality of God, and Christ, and just what good Christian living is, he's hard to beat," Wilcox said. "He makes difficult things simple."

Wilcox puts most of Lewis' work into two categories — reason and romance. "Christian apologetic" works like "Mere Christianity" and "The Screwtape Letters" fall into the reason realm, while Lewis' fantasy, science fiction and children's tales like "The Chronicles of Narnia" are more romance writings. Wilcox suspects Lewis' greatest love was fiction.

"He did both, and he did both very well," Wilcox said. "But he loved the fantasy world, and he felt that it could purvey truth in a very powerful way."

But above all, Lewis, an Oxford don of literature, had a "fantastic imagination" and told great stories that appeal to all age groups, Wilcox said. It's through these stories that Lewis is able to teach Christian principles. According to Wilcox, the central figure in "The Chronicles of Narnia," Aslan the lion, represents Christ and takes on more of those divine characteristics as the series progresses.

"Lewis began to present Jesus through Aslan in just a wonderfully powerful way that you warm to that lion; you love that lion," Wilcox said. "And in loving him, Lewis' design was to help one love Christ."

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For Wilcox, the works of Lewis have been a supplement to both his teaching and testimony.

The longtime educator, who has been teaching at the institute next to the University of Utah for the past 20 years, estimates that he quotes Lewis in his class on a weekly basis. Throughout his career, he's witnessed the words of Lewis working in "wonderful ways" with students, who would often implore him to share an Aslan story.

When appropriate, Wilcox will insert a Lewis reference. What makes this effective, he said, is that Lewis' writings are both simple and relevant, necessary ingredients whether the subject is Aslan, Peter, Moses or Joseph Smith.

"When I teach the scriptures, that's the first thing I'm looking for is the relevancy of the scriptures," he said. "God didn't put this story in here without a purpose, and there is a reason, there's something that scripture teaches that is relevant and will make my life better ... That's the way I try to always teach."

Wilcox has always loved literature and truth. In college, while studying for finals, he would "reward" himself by taking breaks and reading J.R.R. Tolkien. He enjoys the works of George MacDonald, Alfred Tennyson and G.K. Chesterton. Currently, he's studying Chinese philosophy.

"There's a lot of great wisdom out there," he said.

Wilcox hopes Latter-day Saints recognize the value of discovering truth in the writings of great men like Lewis.

"There are a lot of wonderful people in the world in all ages and times that have been instruments in the hands of God to edify mankind, to lift us, to bring us closer to God," he said. "God has been working with a lot of great people to bring truth to the world."

In studying Lewis, an Oxford professor born in Belfast, Ireland, who lived from 1898 to 1963, Wilcox has deepened his appreciation for an uneducated man who died in Carthage, Ill., in 1844.

"Whenever I read other great men, great ideas, I always come back to Joseph Smith, and my testimony of Joseph Smith is increased and enhanced because he did so much and he didn't have a lot of education," Wilcox said. "He had the most expansive mind. His mind just amazes me, what he was able to do."

E-mail: ashill@desnews.com