On November 22, 1963, at 2:30 pm central time, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. An hour earlier, across the Atlantic, C.S. Lewis had died at his home in Oxford. A few short hours later, in Los Angeles, the English writer Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian classic Brave New World, would also die. This strange and somewhat morbid coincidence would later inspire Peter Kreeft to write Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley.
The media coverage of Kennedy’s assassination totally eclipsed the deaths of Lewis and Huxley, whose passing went almost entirely unnoticed at the time, much as, many years later, the passing of Mother Teresa would go largely unnoticed in the wake of the death of Princess Diana.
Today, 50 years on, as the dust of time settles on the memory of that momentous day, it is intriguing to see how the inexorable passage of time has affected the respective reputations of Kennedy, Lewis, and Huxley.
There is no doubt, of course, that the anniversary of the assassination will once again overshadow the lesser-known anniversaries of Huxley’s and Lewis’ deaths. It is, however, ironic that Kennedy is best known to posterity for his death as opposed to his life, the tragic and violent nature of the former eclipsing the achievements of the latter. Although the more educated will no doubt be aware of JFK’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis or perhaps his symbolically charged visit to West Berlin, and the more sordidly-minded will be reminded of his alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s a sobering fact that he is probably associated in the public consciousness more with Lee Harvey Oswald than with Nikita Khrushchev. As for Huxley, there is no doubt that his authorship of Brave New World has earned him a place in the literary canon, but he has written precious little else that has survived the test of time. Lewis, on the other hand, seems to go from strength to strength. Today, fifty years after his death, his global readership dwarfs the readership that he enjoyed in his own lifetime. His classic children’s story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is one of the top ten bestselling books of all time, and it would be no exaggeration to say that there is now a whole C.S. Lewis industry generating millions of dollars in sales of his books and in the merchandising of ephemera connected to the film and television adaptations of his life (Shadowlands) and his work (The Chronicles of Narnia).
A lesser known but nonetheless powerful part of C.S. Lewis’ legacy is the impact that he has had on the conversion of countless numbers of people to the Catholic Church. This is indeed an astonishing phenomenon considering that Lewis never became a Catholic himself, unlike many other literary converts, such as John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene, to name but an illustrious few. Although the reading of Catholic authors, such as Chesterton, and the friendship with Catholics, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, played a crucial role in Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, he was never seriously tempted to cross the Tiber into the welcoming arms of Mother Church. And yet, in spite of the residual anti-papist prejudice that he inherited as a Belfast Protestant, many of the core beliefs he embraced as a “mere Christian” placed him decidedly on the Catholic end of the theological spectrum. He believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which he referred to as the Blessed Sacrament; he practiced auricular confession; he vehemently opposed female ordination, condemning in forthright terms the danger of having “priestesses in the Church”; he declared his belief in purgatory and in the efficacy of praying for the dead; and, last but not least, he crusaded against the errors and heresies of theological modernism. It is perhaps, therefore, not so surprising that C.S. Lewis has ushered so many people into the Catholic Church.
The great American literary convert Walker Percy, commenting on the numerous converts who had come to Catholicism through the writings of Lewis, remarked that “writers one might expect, from Aquinas to Merton,” are mentioned frequently as influences, “but guess who turns up most often? C.S. Lewis! – who, if he didn’t make it all the way, certainly handed over a goodly crew.”(1) Here is an overview of some of the “goodly crew” to whom Percy alludes, those who have been influenced on their paths to Rome by C.S. Lewis. As the present author owes his own conversion, in part, to the works and wisdom of Lewis, it is gratifying to know that he is but one of many whom Lewis led Romewards.
Beginning with prominent British converts, the most famous is Leonard Cheshire, who attained position number 31 in a BBC poll in 2002 to find the 100 Greatest Britons of all time. He was also listed in 1993 as one of “the 20 outstanding Christians of the 20th century”, alongside John Paul II, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Oscar Romero, Edith Stein, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Padre Pio, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, John XXIII, Teilhard de Chardin, Jackie Pullinger, Charles de Foucauld, Malcolm Muggeridge, Mother Teresa, and, last but not least, C.S. Lewis.(2)
Cheshire, who was received into the Catholic Church on Christmas Eve in 1948, was the official British observer of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, an event which led him to a deep skepticism about the future of modern civilization. It was in this frame of mind and heart that he found himself receptive to the works of Lewis, whose broadcast talks for the BBC were being published at this time. Grappling with the problem of evil and sin, Cheshire had been particularly impressed by The Screwtape Letters, which he described as “a rather good introduction to the Faith” and as “very compelling.”(3)