They died on the same day, November 22nd 1963, within just a few hours on one another. One, struck down by an assassin’s bullet in a scene captured on film for all time and seared into our brains, a scene which played out on the world stage again and again. The other quietly in his home in Oxford after a long battle with kidney failure. They could hardly have been more different in their deaths nor more different in their personalities in life. They could hardly be more similar in their legendary, nearly cultic status in their deaths.
With Kennedy much of the discussion centers on what could have been. Would America have never plunged so deeply into Vietnam if he had not been killed. If so would the resulting turmoil of the sixties never happened? Would Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy not likewise been shot and killed? Would Nixon have never been elected in 68 and Watergate never happened? It is a story of unknown might have beens and even unknown what had beens. Did Oswald act alone? Was it the Russians? Maybe the Cubans? The Mob? The CIA and military industrial complex? After fifty years of searching there are still no answers to satisfy the conspiracy theorists and like the might-have-beens of his shortened life, we are left empty and longing.
Lewis on the other hand is a story of what had been. It is the story of an Oxford Don Atheist turned Christian Apologist. It is of a man who prefered a life of solitude and a few close friends finding love in a most unexpected relationship. It is a story of being crushed by the grief and pain of death when his beloved died.
In contrast to the quiet life of Lewis, Kennedy was constantly in the public eye. He seemed to relish it and had a way of commanding the room, stadium, or even entire city, think of his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We thought we had a view into the family life of Camelot with the photos and film of Caroline, John-john, and Jackie in the White House. He was president, yet he seemed so approachable and one of us.
How ironic that fifty years one we have learned that appearances are not always what they seem. Kennedy had a hidden side as a serial womanizer that the press ignored and to which the public remained oblivious. Lewis on the other hand also had a private life that few knew of. But his was the opposite of Kennedy. This quiet man, who preferred life in his study or sharing a few pints with Tolkien and others at the “Bird and Baby”, their name for the local Oxford pub, was actually a prolific correspondent who wrote personal replies to thousands of letters that he received. He carried on an ongoing ministry of encouragement with people around the world. Additionally, the world has looked into his heart as he wrestled with coming to faith and experiencing the loss of his wife Joy.
With Kennedy and Lewis we have public personas that do not exactly match their private realities. With one it is a flamboyant and charismatic facade over a hidden, darker self. With the other, it is a public picture of reticence and a preference for privacy that masks a loving heart that quietly and humbly served people in Christ’s name.
The legacy of Lewis will I believe continue to deepen. He has laid a foundation that others are building upon, having been someone who understood post-modernism and post-christendom, long before most post-moderns were even born. It is a legacy of what can and will be in God’s Kingdom. It is a legacy of hope in the midst of pain and of God’s victory in the end. The legacy of Kennedy will continue to be one of what might have been, could have been, we wished would have been. One leaves us hopeful and looking to the future, filled with wonder. The other leaves us empty and always looking to the past filled with doubts and questions.
As a footnote, Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, also died on November 22nd 1963. Peter Kreeft has penned a fascinating book in which Lewis, Kennedy, and Huxley are all sitting together in the waiting room to heaven following their deaths. It is written as a dialogue between the three very different men who each expected some sort of life beyond the grave. It is well worth the read. There is a link to the book below.