Fifty Years On -- JFK and C.S. Lewis

On the same day that Kennedy was killed, across the Atlantic a Cambridge University professor named C.S. Lewis died after renal failure, just shy of his 65th birthday.
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While many in the United States are commemorating, memorializing, and pondering the fifty-year mark of John F. Kennedy's assassination, another way of observing the date has been overshadowed. Some might argue it is actually a more important marker for the day. On the same day that Kennedy was killed, across the Atlantic a Cambridge University professor named C.S. Lewis died after renal failure, just shy of his 65th birthday.

Lewis, a highly respected scholar of medieval and renaissance literature who began his career at Oxford, converted to Christianity around 1931. He had proclaimed himself an atheist in his teens, but later on, partly through the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien, he found intellectual arguments for Christianity compelling and joined the Anglican church where he remained for the next three decades. By the late 1930s he began publishing books, both fiction and non-fiction, that bore a clear Christian stamp as he bounced from scholarly tome to fantasy to middle-brow theology. He became well known in the UK for his wartime BBC radio talks that were gathered into the book Mere Christianity. Around the same time he started publishing his well-loved children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Coincidentally, the philosopher Aldous Huxley also died on 22 November 1963. Like Lewis, he also toggled between futuristic fiction (as in Brave New World) and middle-brow theology (as in the collected works in Perennial Philosophy), even experimenting with mind-altering substances like mescaline to find new "doors of perception." A Boston College philosophy professor named Peter Kreeft wrote a creative book some time ago called Between Heaven and Hell, in which Lewis, Huxley, and JFK meet up in the afterlife and discuss life, death, truth, and God. The deck is stacked (the book was published by the conservative press, InterVarsity) in favor of Lewis, though it's an interesting mind game. Huxley sees Jesus as a "guru," which is refuted by Lewis. In the end, they all end up heading toward a "light," though it's not clear who moves in toward it. It's all quite otherworldly, and I think I'd like to imagine the three of them spending a lot more time discussing what they had for lunch, and what their latest favorite music is.

For his part, Lewis has remained one of the best-selling Christian authors of all time. His Mere Christianity, originally published 70 years ago, still surfaces from time to time on the tops of best sellers lists in Christian publishing charts, and at the turn of the last century, the leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today named it the best book of the twentieth century. His Chronicles of Narnia are currently being turned into films, and most, if not all, of his books have remained in print.

I grew up intellectually, in part, because of reading Lewis (it was the Space Trilogy that got me), though I've left most of that variety of thinking behind. But he remains an enigma, fifty years on. What has become strange and interesting is that this High-Church Anglican (just a step shy of the Roman Catholicism his friend Tolkien professed), who had quite liberal theological takes (universal redemption among them), became a patron saint of the evangelical Christianity in the United States (if they believed in patron saints).

But I think even stranger is his (admittedly compelling) narrative that he came to Christianity on the basis of intellectual argument. This is just bizarre. And people continue to believe that arguing about the existence or non-existence of God actually changes people's lives. There are the odd characters, like the lonely Cambridge professor who died fifty years ago, and a smattering of others, but people do not, on any sort of regular basis, convert or deconvert for intellectual reasons. Such narratives are the real stuff of fantasy and science-fiction.

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