A quiet death for the man from Belfast

50 years ago today (November 22nd), three notable men died within 8 hours of each other. 

C. S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley and John F. Kennedy left this world behind on what would remain a fateful day in history.

The world stood in shock on November 22, 1963, as news spread of the assassination of US president, John F. Kennedy. The deaths of Huxley and Lewis were completely overshadowed by the tragic assassination of President Kennedy.

JFK was 46 years old when he was killed. The Irish-born writer, Lewis, died a week before his 65th birthday, and the English novelist, Huxley, died at the age of 65.

Hundreds of thousands came to the White House to pay their respects for JFK and representatives of ninety nations were present for his interment at Arlington Cemetery. Huxley was cremated and quietly remembered in Los Angeles, California. Lewis was buried at Holy Trinity Church near his home but it was a poorly attended funeral.

In 1908, Huxley and Lewis each lost their 45-year-old mother to cancer. Reflecting on this loss, Lewis wrote, “With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life…. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis” (Surprised by Joy). Then, only nine years old, Lewis was sent from his Belfast home to a strict English boarding school.

While Kennedy’s death continues to receive far more public attention, C. S. Lewis (as author and Christian apologist) was no doubt the most influential. It would be hard to estimate the number of people whose lives have been changed by the writings of C. S. Lewis. One of his most influential book, “Mere Christianity” continues to sell 250,000 copies a year (and 50,000 in audio), placing it in the top 50 best-selling religious books each year. Over 100 million copies of the Narnia books have been sold in more than 40 languages.

Lewis (although raised in a Church-going family) became an atheist at the young age of fifteen (no doubt, under the influence of his tutor, W.T.Kirkpatrick). He later admitted to being an atheist who was “very angry with God for not existing.”

Under the influence of men like George MacDonald, his friend, J. R. Tolkien and, particularly, G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, Lewis turned from atheism to theism to Christ. He recounted his experience as a great struggle up to the moment of his conversion, like one “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” (See: The Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933 and Surprised by Joy, 1955).

Lewis loved mythology. In 1931, however, he was persuaded by J. R. R. Tolkien that myths were not always “lies breathed through silver, but fragments or glimpses of an original truth…”. Lewis would come to reconcile his love of myth with his acceptance of God, finally placing faith in Jesus as the “myth become fact.” Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” As a Christian apologists, Lewis had a gift for combining argument with depiction. This is perhaps one of the keys to his abiding influence.

One obstacle Lewis had to overcome for becoming a believer in Christ was what he called “chronological snobbery.” This is the assumption that whatever is out of date is not worthy of consideration. This kind of snobbery rejects the idea that a 2,000-year-old faith could have any relevance to my life today. A friend challenged Lewis to first ask why an idea was considered out of date and then, if it had ever been conclusively refuted.

In 1956, C. S. Lewis married American writer Joy Davidsman. She was 17 years younger than Lewis but, tragically, she died from an aggressive kind cancer (at the age of 45 like Lewis’ mother) only a few years after their marriage . Three years later Lewis died.

One of Lewis’ more popular works is The Problem of Pain (1940). In this book Lewis explores how a loving God relates to a world of pain and suffering. Twenty years later (1960), Lewis found himself struggling through the applications of his own insights on pain and suffering in the midst of loss and anguish over the death of his wife. Lewis’ journey through profound pain and confusion is found in his 1964 work, “A Grief Observed.”

In an earlier collection of fictional letters to a friend named Malcom, Lewis reflected on the nature of prayer. There he wrote what he later learned in deeply personal terms, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed — is the monument to a petition that was not granted.” (Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, 1964).

In his opening line of A Grief Observed, Lewis admitted that, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” In graphic terms, he wrote that, “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

Most of the attention of the world today will be on the death of JFK and relatively little on Lewis. But, as Lewis’ stepson Gresham said of his late stepfather (affectionately known by his friends as “Jack”), “I think he’d enjoy the idea, to be left alone and not bothered. He’d rather his spirit were remembered than his body, and anniversaries weren’t a big thing for him…”

I am grateful for the extensive, ongoing influence of C. S. Lewis. Quoting him seems like an endless exercise, but here are a few of my favorites for reflection on this 50th anniversary of his departure.

  • Is Christianity important? 

“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

  • Why should life have meaning?

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”

  • A larger aim in life

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

  • Danger in the middle years: 

“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the devil.”

  • Giving thanks at all times

“We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is ‘good,’ because it is good, if ‘bad’ because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”

Steve Cornell

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See also: CS Lewis: The Belfast boy whose death was overshadowed by JFK – The Belfast-born author of the ‘Narnia’ children’s books died an hour before Kennedy. His stepson recalls the day

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About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Atheists, C. S. Lewis, Christian worldview, Christianity, Death, Loss, Suffering and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A quiet death for the man from Belfast

  1. Pingback: Seven Key Ideas from C. S. Lewis | WisdomForLife

  2. Beautiful tribute Steve.

    Like

  3. Lindsey says:

    Very nice!

    Like

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