Remembering the Other Jack

Fifty years ago last Friday marked the death of a man whose impact on the world could fairly be described as mythic in the best sense (more on this in a moment).

I don’t mean, however, the man who has dominated media coverage for the last several days. True, Jack Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, the insertion of personal and national tragedy into a distinctly American version of Camelot. And yes, JFK’s story certainly remains a distinct influence on our country’s political and cultural life.

But as it turns out, Kennedy’s death overshadowed that of the man I have in mind. Oxford don and Christian author/intellectual C. S. Lewis—“Jack” to his friends—died in his home that same day.

While Lewis’s death went largely unobserved at the time, his legacy continues to resonate with remarkable force. It’s nearly impossible to find someone who enjoys as much widespread appreciation across the spectrum of Christianity as Lewis does. No doubt this owes greatly to Lewis’s emphasis on “mere Christianity,” his term for the wide consensus of the Christian faith and the title of one of his most famous books.

But it would be a mistake to say that the effect of the man’s life was merely broad and not deep. On the contrary, I suspect his great popularity also owes much to his rare ability to foster both understanding and delight…all while trafficking in matters of great and lasting significance. That he could employ several different tools to do so—philosophical apologetics, children’s fantasy, literary criticism, cultural commentary, science fiction, theological instruction, and very often a combination thereof—certainly doesn’t hurt either.

The milestone anniversary of Lewis’s death actually got me to thinking about his gigantic influence in my own case. I think I can safely say that no author has made a more direct and profound impact on my life and faith. To articulate why in any full sense would likely overtax my powers of explanation, not to mention your attention span.

But if I were to offer a crude summary, I’d say that Lewis makes me “glad I’m on the team,” for lack of a better way of putting it. That is, reading Lewis consistently deepens my understanding of, confidence in, and excitement for my Christian faith. He has routinely sharpened my thinking, helped to re-enchant my imagination, and uncannily explained a good deal of my experiences.

As part and parcel of the above, I will forever appreciate Lewis’ pregnant description of the gospel as a myth that happens to be true, a story that produces wonder and longing while at the same time corresponding with reality.

This is not, of course, to suggest he was without flaw or that I always agree with him. But after years of engaging with his works, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer Lewis the same tribute he once paid to a man who had tutored him: “My debt to him is very great, my reverence to this day undiminished.” Now fifty years removed from his passing, no doubt many others would echo the same.

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If you’ve never dipped into C. S. Lewis’ non-fiction works, you could do worse than begin with Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, or God in the Dock. You can find his exceptionally insightful account of his own conversion in Surprised by Joy. My personal favorite might be a collection of addresses called The Weight of Glory. And if you’ve never read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I can’t recommend it highly enough…whether you’re five or fifty years of age.

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