Teaching college with C.S. Lewis as his guide

Shelly Frome
Black Mountain News | USA TODAY NETWORK
Montreat College English professor Don King leads a literature class on campus last week.

Many believers make sense of their lives through the tenants of their Christian denominations. Don King's faith inspires him to plumb the depths of life's mysteries.

The Montreat College English professor tunnels into life through the work of novelist, poet and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, a fiction writer whose relentless search for meaning influences King’s writings and approach to teaching literature.  

King's calling wasn't apparent to him while he was growing up in Virginia Beach, however.

“As a kid,” he said recently, “I was taken with the biographies of famous people like George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Benjamin Franklin. My favorite was Winston Churchill as a statesman. At the same time, I wanted to play football, or basketball, or baseball. But I wasn’t big enough to play football or basketball or athletic enough to play baseball.

"In high school I took courses with the idea I’d wind up to be an engineer. My love of reading continued, and I fell in love with Edger Allen Poe and the Sherlock Holmes stories. At Virginia Tech I still thought I was going to be an engineer, but couldn’t get through the physics courses.”

Montreat College English professor Don King holds an outdoor class with Keeli Kalisch, left, and Mary Willis Fife in this submitted photo.

Though King had been brought up in the Southern Baptist church, religion didn’t play a role in his life until his early college years. It was then that he underwent a conversion experience.

“At the time, my roommate was talking to another classmate,” King said, “who quoted Pascal’s dictum that there’s a vacuum in every human heart only God can fill. One night, between sleeping and waking, I saw this vacuum in my heart like a lava lamp.

"Soon after, because I’d been taking English courses to keep my GPA up and continued my love of reading, I thought the Lord wanted me to be an English major. Then, while working in the dining hall, this fellow came up to me and asked if I’d ever read C.S. Lewis’ 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.'”

Reading Lewis for the first time, King’s imagination broadened; he devoured the entire The Chronicles of Narnia series, best known by "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Supplemental texts for his upper-level medieval literature course included Lewis’ "The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition."

That was how King discovered that Lewis was both a fantasy writer and a literary critic.

“In the 1960s,” King said, “to be a Christian meant to check your mind at the door. But with Lewis you didn’t have to do that because he was a rigorous thinker. His faith, in a wholesome, perceptive way, intersected with his literary pursuits. He tackled fundamental questions like, does God exist? Lewis  provided arguments, not proofs."

Studying Lewis helped King sustain his mind as a Christian by reflecting on hard issues such as, if God is a God of love, why do we suffer so much pain? ... and ... how do you come to terms with miracles while being part of the natural world?

King published a number of books on Lewis' world ("Plain to the Inward Eye: Selected Essays on C.S. Lewis," among them). King wrote about Lewis' poems and his letters, as well as the writings of notable figures who touched on Lewis’ life, such as the poet Ruth Pitter.

King said he teaches at Montreat College "to enable students to discover what they believe. My hidden agenda is to make them a scholar in whatever academic field they choose. I just want them to dive deeply.”  

King said he is happy he has lived half of his life here in the Swannanoa Valley, where he believes he was meant to be. He said he is delighted to have the opportunity to walk the ridges and slopes here each and every day.   

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic feature about what draws people to the Swannanoa Valley.