I remember standing, an 11-year-old, in the hallway as my parents opened the front door. Their dinner guests’ first words were ‘President Kennedy’s been shot.’ They had heard the news on their car radio.
The death of Kennedy on 22nd November 1963 had a huge international impact. My knowledge of politics and the ways of the world was limited, and yet in the following days I took out my Lego bricks and constructed a ‘President Kennedy Memorial Tower.’
News of the death, earlier the same day, of another well-known person was swamped by the electrifying events in Dallas. He was C. S. Lewis, academic, poet, author, novelist, a man committed to demonstrating the reasonableness and relevance of the Christian faith to which he had returned in his early 30s, ‘the most reluctant convert in all England,’ after becoming convinced that God was seeking him out.
Which of these two men – C.S. Lewis and J.F. Kennedy – has had the greater influence?
Many of us in the late 1960s and ‘70s, when the word was that science could explain everything and that religious faith was in terminal decline – were encouraged that a thoughtful, highly-intelligent person had remained convinced of the reality of God and of a spiritual dimension, and was able to give convincing reasons for this conviction while showing understanding of the inner struggles of people seeking God.
I remember around the age of 20, in despair because I longed for but never seemed to find God, being encouraged by Lewis who judged that a longing for God is an indication that ‘a person has in fact found God, although it may not be fully recognised yet.’ And he added ‘At any rate, what is more important is that God has found this person, and that is the main thing.’
Later in the 1970s I met people to whom Reepicheep had been a childhood bed-time friend, and to whom the words Cair Paravel are among the most beautiful in the language – people who had been brought up on the Narnia Chronicles.
I discovered that C.S. Lewis, articulate defender of Christian faith was also author of these children’s books in which through descriptions of relationship between Aslan the great lion, the inhabitants of Narnia and the Pevensie children he allows readers – whether or not people of faith – to enter imaginatively into the experience of relating to Jesus Christ and seeing reality through the eyes of earth’s Aslan.
The beliefs of Christianity, and the facts about the death and resurrection of Christ had always left me cold and unmoved. But Lewis’s Narnia books and science fiction works were one of the influences opening my eyes to the power of symbol and metaphor and story to breathe life into theology’s dry bones.
And the Narnia Chronicles, despite their datedness in some respects, still speak powerfully. For instance, there’s a sequence in The Last Battle where some creatures who have been disloyal to King Tirian of Narnia and Aslan himself are in the small, dark stable which has been central to the story.
Through Aslan’s magic, Tirian discovers that the interior of the stable is in fact a whole new dimension of unimaginable perfection. The disloyal creatures are unable to appreciate their surroundings – they think they are still in the darkness. To them, fresh violets smell like straw and dung, a delicious feast tastes like turnip and cabbage, fine wine like polluted trough-water. Aslan growls gently, but they find rational explanations for the sound. They are held captive in the prison of their minds ‘so afraid of being taken in,’ as Aslan says, ‘that they cannot be taken out.’
To me this speaks so powerfully of the rich reality we miss if we will not allow our eyes to be opened to new ways of seeing.
Later still, I read C.S. Lewis’s A grief observed – an honest, visceral, heart-breaking reflection on the death of his wife in which Lewis questions everything he ever believed and defended before coming to find rest in Christ as the one who bears our suffering with us.
No other author has addressed me with consistent relevance at each stage of my journey.
J.F. Kennedy, a flawed figure who came to symbolise hope and new things is now a figure in history, an inspiration perhaps but not, I think a living voice. C.S. Lewis, despite his own imperfections, is represented on the shelves of almost every bookshop on both sides of the Atlantic, his writings signposting a hope of new things which does not disappoint.
And here I am 50 years after his death typing a memorial in words to a man who still speaks powerfully, still opens the eyes of those of us who are stable-bound, a man through whose thoughts God still beckons.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 21st November 2013)