Faith Works 11-23-13
Fifty years of reassessment
Fifty years ago yesterday, a president, a professor, and a provocateur died. They each left this life in different locations, for entirely unrelated reasons, but their careers are still being debated and their respective influences considered to the present day.
President John F. Kennedy died, and live TV coverage was born. His life and service had implications well beyond his death, but it's his assassination that colors so much of how we think about him. He took office having used TV in his debate with Nixon to great effect, and the power of televised media would have grown in any case, but Kennedy's skill in live press conferences, then the national role network coverage had in bringing a shocked country together in the next few days, culminated in the state funeral so many of us remember.
I was two years old when Kennedy was shot. It seems to me that I remember my mother crying, and I believe I recall the procession with the riderless horse and the reversed boots, and John-John saluting . . . but it could be the tricks that repeated video clips can play with memory. That, too, is what we learned from the aftermath of Kennedy's death: even with film, there is still uncertainty. The handsome images and gripping pictures still do not tell the entire story.
Clive Staples Lewis was a scholar of languages and philosophy who taught and wrote on how words can conceal and reveal; he was distinguished in his academic fields as only makes sense for someone who was a professor at both Oxford & Cambridge in his career, but that's not what he's best known for today.
When he became, relatively late in life, a "reluctant convert" to Christianity, it was bare years later that he found himself in front of a BBC microphone during World War II, trying to explain the basis of faith and build up the foundations of hope to a listening population battered by Luftwaffe bombings. The popular response to those radio talks became books, which gave rise to more books, which became a calling as perhaps the English speaking world's best known and most read theologian of Christian orthodoxy. His death was quiet and private, but it also released under his name to the public his previously anonymous "A Grief Observed." It was his attempt as a Christian to come to terms with the loss of his wife, Joy, and some suggest it may be gratefully read for generations to come, with an enduring appeal beyond even that of his popular "Narnia" series.
Kennedy died in Dallas, Lewis in Oxford, and Aldous Huxley succumbed to cancer in California. Both Lewis and Huxley were overshadowed in their passing by the drama of a US President cut down in Dealey Plaza, even though they were public figures in their own right. Lewis is probably better known today than he was at his death, but Huxley has not fared so well. A late in life infatuation with psychedelics gave him a brief posthumous notoriety in the Sixties, but what has kept his reputation alive if not his name is the book "Brave New World."
The title comes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but the text is a tract for modernism and its discontents. Cynics have asked in recent years if, aside from governmentally mandated universal in vitro fertilization as proposed in this dystopian classic, it might be that Huxley was right. Was he a prophet? Is the world he warned against one we are largely living in today? That debate has just enough credibility to the proposition for it to continue, and it will, for some time to come.
Huxley asked if we were quietly letting drugs adjust us into a sort of stuporific happiness, and allowing the pursuit of personal pleasure to transform us into selfish shadows of the creative people and communities we could be. He was not big on answers, but his questions have a way of sticking with a reader.
Nov. 22, 1963 was a significant day for those three people, and for their world. It marked an ending and, cliché or not, a very real beginning. Their deaths began our search for the role each are playing still. Political celebrity, popular theology, and the pathology of self-improvement: these questions have not died.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you've been influenced by Kennedy, Lewis, & Huxley at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.