At 5:30pm (U.K. time) on Nov. 22, 1963, C.S. Lewis collapsed in his home in Oxford after a long illness and died a few minutes later. At the same time, across the Atlantic, President John F. Kennedy was landing at the Dallas airport after the short flight from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. Within an hour, the fatal shots were fired that ended the president’s life.
Not surprisingly, the assassination of the U.S. president eclipsed the news of the death of the British writer, the latter’s death going almost unnoticed, buried in the small print beneath the JFK-dominated headlines. Today, 50 years on, it is interesting to ponder how the reputations of the two men have fared. How have they weathered the inexorable passage of time?
Whereas Kennedy went out in a blaze of glory, albeit not the sort of glory or exit he would have chosen, and whereas Lewis departed in unnoticed silence, not with a bang but a whisper, it is ironic that JFK has been eclipsed more totally by his own death than Lewis ever was. Today, if the average American is asked what he knows about John F. Kennedy, he is much more likely to mention the assassination than any of the actual achievements of Kennedy’s term in office. Almost every American, however ignorant of history or politics, has heard of the assassination; very few know anything of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis or Kennedy’s symbolically charged speech in West Berlin.
Almost every American associates JFK with Lee Harvey Oswald; very few have even heard of Nikita Khrushchev. Indeed, it says a great deal about the sordid side of Kennedy’s legacy that more Americans will know of his alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe than of his diplomatic standoff with the Soviet leader.
If Kennedy’s reputation can be said to have been totally eclipsed by his assassination, Lewis’ reputation has been in the ascendant ever since his unnoticed and understated death.
Rather charmingly, Lewis was convinced that his works would not be read following his death and that he would be completely forgotten within a generation or so. How wrong he was.
More people are reading Lewis today, half a century after his death, than ever read him during his own lifetime. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a Lewis industry, which churns out new editions of his books with unceasing regularity and makes film adaptations of his works (The Chronicles of Narnia series) and movie dramatizations of his life (the Hollywood and BBC versions of Shadowlands). From Screwtape on Broadway to Aslan in Hollywood, Lewis and his characters seem to go from strength to strength.
In a purely worldly sense, JFK is now remembered for the wrong things, while Lewis is remembered for the right ones. JFK is remembered for the very thing that stripped him of his power — the assassination — and not for anything he did with his power. He is remembered as a womanizer who had secret affairs with Hollywood stars or, to rephrase these activities in the language of the Catholic faith that he claimed to profess, he has the reputation of having betrayed his marital vows and his Catholic faith.
Lewis, on the other hand, is remembered as he would have wished to be, as an indefatigable Christian apologist and as one of the finest writers in English literary history. Never in his wildest dreams did he foresee the enormity of the popularity of his works. Never would he have imagined that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would become one of the top 10 bestselling books of all time.
In short, and to cut to the chase, posterity has been much kinder to Lewis than it has been to Kennedy.
There is, however, another judgment that is much more important than the judgment of time, and that, of course, is the judgment of God. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the world thinks of us. It is what God thinks of us that matters. It is for this reason that Catholic art and literature through the ages have given us the memento mori, the reminder of death that leads us to contemplate the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. One such work of Catholic literature is Peter Kreeft’s wonderful book, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death With John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Inspired by the providential coincidence that Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley all died on the same day, Kreeft supposes them meeting in the afterlife and discussing the meaning of life and the meaning of life after death. Such ponderings bring us to the most important question about John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. Where are they now?
Lewis in his life was outside the Church, but looking towards it and leading numerous others towards it also. He has played a significant part in the conversion of countless people to the Catholic Church, the present author and the aforementioned Peter Kreeft included. He not only believed in purgatory; he believed that he was going there. Shortly before his death, he asked his friend, Sister Penelope, to visit him in purgatory, if visits from heaven were allowed.
Is Lewis in purgatory? It is not for us to say, but, surely, it is inconceivable that one who loved Christ so much and led so many others to Christ and his Church could be in hell.
Is John F. Kennedy in purgatory? Again, it is not for us to say. It is true, however, that he was a “cafeteria Catholic,” like his latter-day counterparts Nancy Pelosi and Melinda Gates, who have turned away from the Church, preferring to serve the zeitgeist to the Heiliger Geist, the spirit of the age to the Holy Spirit. There has to be a price to be paid for those self-professed Catholics who have led so many others away from the Church in their open defiance of Rome and their scarcely concealed contempt for her teaching. There is little doubt that Dante would have consigned JFK to hell. We should hesitate to do likewise.
Where are Lewis and John F. Kennedy now? Let’s just say that purgatory leads to heaven and that heresy and apostasy lead to hell.
Joseph Pearce is writer in residence at
Thomas More College in New Hampshire
and editor of the St. Austin Review.
The new edition of his book,
has been published to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death.