Rev. John Morrison is an Episcopal priest living in Brightwaters, New York. A member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, he is a retired English teacher with degrees from Darthmouth, Hofstra, SUNY Stony Brook, and the George Mercer School of Theology. He has presented a number of papers on C. S. Lewis and Michael O’Brien, and will be giving a talk on January 8 titled ”C.S. Lewis and Michael O’Brien: Forgiveness as a Gateway to Eternal Life” at the next meeting of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.
After Rev. Morrison left an insightful comment on one of our posts here at the Ignatius Press Novels blog, we contacted him to see if he could take the time to speak about his insights on Lewis, O’Brien, and literature. He graciously agreed.
Visit the C.S. Lewis Society of New York’s website here to learn where meeting are held and to learn more about the Society.
In your talks you mention how you discovered Michael O’Brien’s books: via an advertisement. It’s great to hear that our ads are effective! But the reason you paid attention to the ad was that a trusted friend was quoted in it. What role do you think friendship and community should play in spreading literary culture?
Morrison: About eighteen months ago, I was in a pub having a pint with some acquaintances at the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxford. We were conversing about something in Lewis’s work, something Michael O’Brien had addressed in his novels, and I asked if any of them had read O’Brien. Having had almost no success with that question at the conference thus far, I was delighted when I received a positive response. It reminded me immediately of a point made by Lewis, I think in The Four Loves, that friendship might very well begin with an expression like “You too?” and realize that someone else was seeking the same truth, or at least acknowledging that such a truth was worth investigating. It’s a little different than the friend you might play bridge with or go to a ball game with, though that is not a mutually exclusive part of the relationship. In the sense you refer to in your question, while I have had a pint with Tom Howard and Peter Kreeft, and taken a seminar with Joseph Pearce, I have also read a good deal of what they have written and have found companions for the journey. I trust their insight; I have great regard for their credentials. My friendship with Tom and Peter is certainly at a distance and not of the social nature, but in so far as we are fellow pilgrims I think that sort of relationship can do an enormous amount in spreading what you call “literary culture.” As a priest and retired English teacher, I have had students, parishioners and friends read books that I have recommended based on trust and my credentials. I have been asked recently to coordinate a book study at a parish in Connecticut. I have spoken at the church in the past and built up a trust and relationship with regard to Christian literature, so in two months we’re beginning with The Great Divorce, followed by a performance by Tony Lawton and a follow-up guest lecture from Louis Markos. Michael O’Brien’s works are in the wings, but I thought something a little shorter than Island of the World would be in order for a first work. In short, friendship and community can play a significant role in spreading the gospel through literary culture.
You compare Michael O’Brien to C.S. Lewis. To someone who has never heard of Michael O’Brien before, this may sound like the sort of typically over-inflated text one might find in a dust-jacket blurb. Why do you make this comparison?
Morrison: I quite agree with your point about the dust-jacket blurbs. Too often they are mere generalities, easily applied to any piece of literature without any evidence that the one to which it has been applied has actually been read. In a few weeks, I will be presenting a paper on Lewis and O’Brien to the New York C. S. Lewis Society on the topic of forgiveness, a theme that is common to each of their writings. But that is only one of many points that form my basis for treating them together. More primary is their shared Christian perspective, though each uses different means to express it as far as their fiction is concerned. Lewis uses children’s fantasy, science fiction, a re-told myth, a dream vision, imagined correspondence between two devils, whereas O’Brien’s novels are anchored firmly in this world, often a world with which many in the United States may be unfamiliar, a world anchored in a Canada of the past as well as the present, a Mediterranean world, a Balkan and Russian world, even the world of outer space, and those worlds have much in common with the 19th century realism of Hugo and Dickens and Eliot. What Lewis and O’Brien share is a sense of urgency with respect to the gospel, that it must be set forth in the public square without hesitancy or compromise.
C.S. Lewis was writing in the middle of the last century, and Michael O’Brien is writing at the beginning of a new one. Do you think the challenges of these two points in time differ significantly?
Morrison: I can think of two points with regard to whether Lewis or O’Brien will ever be dated. The first is made with considerable power by Os Guiness in his book Prophetic Untimeliness. Let me cite just a few “blurbs”: a) Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant. b) In itself the good news of Jesus is utterly relevant or it is not the good news it claims to be. c) Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant. And then there is this from Lewis: Anything not eternal is eternally out of date. Lewis spoke to this issue in his inaugural address at Cambridge. As Guiness suggests, it is time to challenge the “idol of relevance, to work out what it means to be faithful as well as relevant, and so to become truly relevant without ever ending up as trendy, trivial, and unfaithful.” Because Lewis and O’Brien remain faithful to the gospel, to the Lord of the Church, I don’t think the challenges of their works being set at different points of time, not to mention real and imaginary worlds, is an impediment, though I suspect many in the academic world would disagree and have us move on to the ever new rather than to affirm what is good and true and beautiful no matter when it was written.
What do you think the “apocalyptic imagination” of writers like Lewis and O’Brien can teach us in a modern, skeptical age?
Morrison: An answer to that has echoes of the previous questions in the sense that one needs to pick up Lewis and O’Brien first. When I was still teaching in a public school, my students began with Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Why so? Good question; simple answer. My chairman assigned me a course in science fiction and Lewis was in the course. At that time I’d read only The Allegory of Love as an undergraduate and had no idea about space fiction, much less about Lewis. Once I read Out of the Silent Planet I was hooked and I added Perelandra and That Hideous Strength to the course, and then all seven Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings and some Charles Williams and Madeleine L’Engle. No O’Brien because I was retired when I got to know him. But if I weren’t, I would have put Island of the World into the AP Literature class. Oops; I’ve digressed. Lewis and O’Brien’s “apocalyptic imagination” focuses on the urgency of this present moment, of the “relevance” (there’s that word again) of Donne’s question “What if this present were the world’s last night?” What we have forgotten today is that, if you’ll pardon the bad analogy, we’re all like new cars, subject to recall at any moment. And yet we don’t live as if that were the case. The best thing about Lewis and O’Brien with regard to things apocalyptic is that they don’t engage in the hyper-sensationalism of “left behind,” and yet never lose the sense of immediacy, of what Lewis has George Macdonald say in The Great Divorce: “There are those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God will say ‘Thy will be done.”
If you were to pick just one, which of Michael O’Brien’s novels is your favorite?
Morrison: Without a doubt Island of the World. I have taught this book at a church just recently and two of the participants told me it changed their lives. It has the ring of truth; it causes one to say “Yes; yes; yes; this is what a ‘journey into Christ’ is like.”
Your next talk will be on forgiveness and how it is expressed via the imagination, focusing on the works of Michael O’Brien. Can you give us a little preview?
Morrison: The best way to give you a preview is to cite just a few examples from the works I will take a brief look at. Lewis believed that each of us had to forgive the unforgivable in others because God had already done the same for us, that to refuse it for them is to refuse his mercy for ourselves, that when our Lord said “forgive as” he meant it. We see this at work in Narnia and The Great Divorce, in the joy that abounds when forgiveness is offered and accepted, the despair when it is rejected. In O’Brien, forgiveness is expressed with even greater power because he is dealing with the novel and has more space in which to operate. One of the most uncomfortable Collects in the church’s calendar occurs during Holy Week. It has to do with the joyful acceptance of the sufferings of the present mindful of the glory that will be revealed. That can be pretty hard to swallow no matter how true it is and O’Brien uses Josip Lasta in Island to express that truth. I can remember sitting in the lounge of a cruise ship reading Josip’s forgiveness of those who had tormented him in a prison camp and killed his friends. When Josip encounters his tormenters years later, they are unaware of him and he is faced with the temptation to revenge. O’Brien writes that “It is as if his entire life had led him on circuitous and astonishing paths to this final moment, this end. Is this what he was spared for?” I won’t spoil the story for you and reveal what follows, but tears began to flow down my cheeks and one passenger remarked to me that what I was reading must be pretty powerful. You bet, and yet only a small echo of what Christ has done for us on the cross, but what an echo, true and undistorted. So that’s just a small preview.
You also have a book called To Love Another Person: A Spiritual Journey Through Les Miserables which has been hailed by Thomas Howard (an Ignatius Press author). Can you tell us a little more about it?
Morrison: Be happy to. When my wife and I first saw Les Miserables in the late 80s we couldn’t stop talking about it on the way home—no radio, no checking on the sports scores—or the traffic—just the musical. We weren’t particularly caught up in the songs, though some are extraordinary, but in the eternal truths captured by those songs. Arguably the best thing about the musical is that it sent me back to the book, all 1200 pages, and soon after, with the support of my department chairman, my students had to read it (as a reward, we took all my classes to the show, some several times as they begged to be allowed a second trip). The theological correspondences between book and musical were inescapable and the idea for the book was born, sort of pushing itself in quite of its own accord. Then I began to take notes and write. When I sent the manuscript to Tom Howard, he urged me to get it published and his encouragement finally led to success. I think the writing was born of a passion for the gospel, for the truth that is Christ the Lord, for the many ways in which the novel and the musical attempt to convey that truth. For each of us, it’s “One day more, another day, another destiny, this never-ending road to Calvary” and I hope my book has helped some to take that journey with greater insight and commitment to what it means to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus. Certainly O’Brien’s books do that.
Thanks for speaking with us. If our readers in the New York area wish to learn more about the C.S. Lewis Society of New York and its events, where should they look?
Morrison: The best way is to look at the Society website. Just google New York C. S. Lewis Society and you’ll find all you need.