No Ordinary People

lewis-c-s-1898-1963[1]The date of November 22, 1963—50 years ago tomorrow—is forever etched on the American consciousness as the date of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I imagine that most Americans remained in a state of shock beginning shortly after 12:30 p.m. (CT) that Friday, when Walter Cronkite broke the story, and into the long weekend which culminated in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on live television Sunday morning. I myself was only four years old at the time, and have no direct recollection of those days, but I felt their reverberations throughout the rest of the ’60s. It was such a momentous event, coming as it did at the height of Cold War and arousing suspicions that still persist, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some time before most Americans realized that President Kennedy was not the only important 20th century figure to die on the 22nd of that month.

Tripping into Death

About an hour after Kennedy’s assassination, in Los Angeles, California, Aldous Huxley, author of the classic, Brave New World, lay in bed, unable to speak, dying of cancer. He reached for something to write with and jotted a note to his wife, Laura, requesting an injection of of the hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Laura knew her husband was dying. She later wrote:

huxley-aldous[1]I went quickly to fetch the LSD, which was in the medicine chest in the room across the hall. There is a TV set in that room, which was hardly ever used. But I had been aware, in the last hour or so, that it was on. Now, when I entered the room, Ginny, the doctor, the nurse, and the rest of the household were all looking at television. The thought shot through my mind: “This is madness, these people looking at television when Aldous is dying.” A second later, while I was opening the box containing the LSD vial, I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Only then did I understand the strange behavior of the people that morning.

[Laura Achera Huxley, excerpt from “O Nobly Born!,” the final chapter of This Timeless Moment, (Berkeley, CA, USA: Celestial Arts, reprinted 2000). See also, Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, (New York, NY, USA: Grove Press, 1987), 205-206.]

Laura complied with her husband’s request in the presence of a physician at 11:45 a.m., Pacific Time, and repeated the procedure a couple of hours later. At 5:21 p.m. he quietly died at the age of 69.

Huxley had been experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs for at least a decade, and it would be nearly three years before California and Nevada became the first states to ban LSD’s possession as the result of several tragic and highly-publicized “bad trips” (cf. “The Law & LSD,” Time, June 10, 1966). In 1954 he published his book The Doors of Perception in which he detailed his experiences with mescaline and advocated its use as a means to enhance the perception of reality. A decade later Jim Morrison and three of his friends formed a rock band and called themselves The Doors, based on the title of Huxley’s book. The Sixties, as we have come to know and remember them, were upon us.

One day, around the time The Doors got together, I sat in first grade at the Catholic school I attended as a crazy lady addressed us. My memory of her has dimmed somewhat over the past four decades, but I assume she was a teacher’s aide. In any event, one vivid memory I retain is of her herding us into a partitioned section of the classroom to show us pictures—photographs of people who had died from drug overdoses. They were pretty horrific. I remember her shrill voice better than I recall the details of her long, emphatic lecture. I knew it had something to do with something called “drugs,” and how we should never take them, and if someone came up to us on the street and offered us pills we should just run away. But frankly, for a six-year-old like me the disturbing images of corpses crumpled at the bottoms of fire escapes in back alleys with mucous draining from their nostrils and vomit dripping from their mouths overwhelmed the thrust of her presentation. Some time later the lady stopped showing up in our classroom. I don’t recall hearing any explanation. Rumors circulated. Her son ran away from home and that made the local news, so we all heard about that. But we soon forgot about her and moved on.

While she could have done a better job of tailoring her message to her audience on that one most memorable day, little did any of us know just how timely and urgent her warning was. It would not be long before a bewildering array of controlled substances was seeding the clouds of youthful discontent that were already gathering. In 1967, the year of the fabled “Summer of Love,” the U.S. population reached 200 million. Just seven years ago (2006) it reached 300 million. But in 1967 nearly half the country’s population (about 45 percent) was under the age of 25 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Population: 1970, Volume I, Part 1, Section 2, 1-591). In 2000 it was closer to a third (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census of Population and Housing, Summary Population and Housing Characteristics, PHC-1-1, 26). I have long believed that the combination of a large youth population during a protracted period of war accompanied by a military draft was enough of a recipe for massive unrest, even without the drugs, racial discord, and general in-your-face anti-establishment sentiments that forever cascade from the lips of various elitist college professors. The disharmonic convergence was inevitable.

A long time ago I read an article in which someone argued that instead of thinking of that period of social upheaval we call “The Sixties” as beginning in 1960 and ending in 1969, it’s more helpful to think of it as beginning with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and ending with Richard Nixon’s resignation during the Watergate scandal in 1974, since those two events, it was argued, frame the turmoil our nation was going through more relevantly than mere dates on a calendar. I’m not so sure about that. I think such reasoning overstates how much actually happened after the seventies began. The commotion and violence that accompanied radical social activism and opposition to the Vietnam War, which we witnessed on our streets and college campuses across the nation, was already beginning to subside and had diminished considerably by the time Nixon was elected to his second term. During that period I recall reading articles about apathy setting in among college students, an observation which was later confirmed by Francis Schaeffer, who wrote:

…for the majority of young people, after the passing of the false hopes of drugs as an ideology and the fading of the New Left, what remained? Only apathy was left. In the United States by the beginning of the seventies, apathy was almost complete. In contrast to the political activities of the sixties, not many of the young even went to the polls to vote, even though the national voting age was lowered to eighteen. Hope was gone.

[How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, NJ, USA: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976), 209-210.]

I bought a copy of the jazz-rock group Chicago‘s 1972 album Chicago V not long after it came out and listened to the two-part song “Dialogue” before it became a radio hit. It consisted of a musical conversation between band members Terry Kath and Peter Cetera in which Kath portrays a socially-conscious individual discussing a variety of societal ills with Cetera, who portrays a socially-oblivious college student.

Terry:
Don’t you feel repression just closing in around?
Peter:
No, the campus here is very, very free
Terry:
Does it make you angry the way war is dragging on?
Peter:
Well, I hope the President knows what he’s into, I don’t know
Terry:
Don’t you ever see the starvation in the city where you live, all the needless hunger, all the needless pain?
Peter:
I haven’t been there lately, the country is so fine, but my neighbors don’t seem hungry ’cause they haven’t got the time

[Robert Lamm, “Dialogue, Part I,” in Chicago V, Columbia Records, 1972.]

It seemed that Nixon’s “silent majority” rhetoric (from his November 3, 1969 televised address to the nation) had been a fairly accurate representation of reality after all, not only for his own generation but for the one that seemed to be causing all the trouble. The Sixties were over, and nothing that would happen on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University would change that. In fact, the Kent State shootings probably hastened their demise. By the time I graduated from high school in 1977, it had been a long time since you heard kids saying “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” but you did hear a lot of them saying things like “Party on, dude!”

The two deaths of November 22, 1963 had great cultural significance for that time. One death marked an end, the other a beginning. While the assassin’s bullet took not only Kennedy but also the short-lived, youthful, innocent, Peace-Corps-idealism he had come to symbolize (especially in retrospect), Huxley’s was like the quiet omen of a coming earthquake that can only be sensed by animals. We should note, however, that the rumble underneath our feet and the teargas canisters in our skies did not last significantly longer than the hopefulness that preceded them.

“All Things Must Pass,” read the title of ex-Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison‘s 1970 debut solo album. Rock bands break up. New Frontiers turn into dead ends. Great Societies crumble. Just as youthful idealism shatters, so also youthful zeal wanes. Everything has a shelf life. Everything comes to an end.

Except for those things that do not.

Dying into Glory

On that same day in November 1963, before either of the two aforementioned men passed from the scene—about an hour before the shots near Dealey Plaza (it was 5:30 p.m. in England and 11:30 a.m. in Dallas)—C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other works, finally succumbed to a kidney inflammation that had been plaguing him for the previous two and one-half years. He collapsed and died in his bedroom two weeks before his 65th birthday.

For the average American at the time, and for decades afterward, the name C.S. Lewis evoked no particular cultural memories. Unless you had a special interest in Christian literature, which comprised much but by no means all of the published work from this Northern Irish scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, or unless you had become acquainted with his series of children’s stories, or his science fiction “Space Trilogy,” you probably never heard of him. His name was not associated with any of the great events of recent American history, and his obituary, like Huxley’s, was completely overshadowed in the U.S. by the news of the Kennedy assassination.

But I wonder how his death was reported in Great Britain, where anyone who was old enough to remember World War II—and that would have been quite a few in 1963—would have recalled his popular BBC radio broadcasts from those perilous days. At a time when German bombing often made it dangerous to be in a radio station, or anywhere in London, for that matter, the BBC’s Home Service had asked him to address the masses on the subject of Christianity, and despite initial doubts about his aptitude for the task the results were enormously successful as millions of Britons tuned in and he became a household name.

So was his obituary featured on the front page of the Sunday newspapers in Britain, along with Kennedy’s and Huxley’s? It would be interesting to know. Here was a man who had written and spoken on things that would endure forever at a time when everything of value appeared to be ending. If his words have a shelf life, they have yet to reach their expiration date. His best ideas never will.

World War II was undoubtedly the most significant global turning point in the 20th century, and it was that moral and cultural catastrophe that gave Lewis a platform to speak across generations. His wartime radio lectures were eventually published in one of his bestselling books, Mere Christianity, which in 2000 was voted the best religious book of the 20th century by 100 writers and church leaders in a poll taken by Christianity Today magazine. He had not written all that much about the Christian faith before the war, but somewhere along the way Canon T.R. Milford of Oxford’s University Church of St. Mary the Virgin got hold of a copy of Lewis’s 1933 book, The Pilgrim’s Regress, a philosophical recasting of John Bunyan‘s, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and was impressed enough to invite Lewis to preach at Solemn Evensong on June 8, 1941.

It was just over twenty-two years before the fateful day in Dallas, in the spring of 1941. Twenty-four-year-old John F. Kennedy was trying to get into the United States Navy after being rejected by the Army because of a back problem. Forty-six-year-old Aldous Huxley was living Llano, California, where he was trying something called the Bates Method to improve his very poor eyesight. Meanwhile, 42-year-old C.S. Lewis entered the pulpit of a twelfth-century church and spoke “to one of the largest congregations assembled there in modern times” in a message titled “The Weight of Glory” (Walter Hooper, “Introduction,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, [San Francisco, CA, USA: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 2001], 17).

Outside, though mostly off in the distance now, the war was raging. Technically speaking, The Battle of Britain with its intense daylight bombings had ended eight months earlier, though German historians date the battle’s end to the very month before Lewis preached at Oxford, when Hitler’s bombers were withdrawn in preparation for his June 22 attack on the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarosa. On the other hand the Blitz, which would later serve as the backdrop for his The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, killing 43,000 people from London to Belfast, had only ended a few weeks earlier, the most recent attack coming against Birmingham May 16, roughly 65 miles from where Lewis was preaching. The Germans would follow up with other blitzes, not to mention V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket attacks. About 375,000 civilians, mostly in London, were homeless, and it was still six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would bring the United States into the conflict. It was hardly the most cheerful of times.

One might think that the ideal sermon for people living in the middle of war-torn England on June 8, 1941 would be one designed to the turn hearers’ minds away from constant angst of air raids and potential invasion to the end of the conflict and the rebuilding of their lives. Perhaps what the people needed to hear that day was a rousing oration on endurance, and the rewards for perseverance. Now that the beauty of spring had descended upon the English countryside, why not speak of the renewal of hope during the darkest of times? But perhaps one should steer clear of the topic of heaven and the afterlife, due to the potentially morbid overtones of those subjects. One might think that to be a wise course.

If so, one would not be C.S. Lewis. His most famous oral address, “The Weight of Glory,” which he delivered that day, was not about the glory derived from victory in battle, although it does mention that concept by way of illustration. Nor was it about the glory of fame, although it does refer to it. It was about the glory of heaven, and how, despite all our carefully-cultivated inhibitions, it is not at all inappropriate to desire it.

In spite of what some might take as a pie-in-the-sky, bye-and-bye, when-you-die subject matter, this is one of the most practical sermons you will ever read. Surrounded as they all were by countless proofs of the brevity of life, Lewis told his audience, “When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive” (Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” ibid., 44). But before he told them that, he showed them how to humble one’s self as a little child in order to enter God’s kingdom.

Then he reminded them that it was not only each one of them who would continue existing throughout all eternity, but the people next to them in the pews, the people all around them, the family, friends and neighbors they meet each day. “There are no ordinary people,” he said (emphasis his), “You have never talked to a mere mortal” (ibid., 46). If we truly consider this, he admonished, we will look upon our neighbors with something approaching awe. And when Lewis spoke of one’s “neighbour” (British spelling) that day, he was referring to someone whose remains the next day might have to be dug out from under a pile of rubble.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from that sermon:

The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised (1) that we shall be with Christ; (2) that we shall be like Him; (3) with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; (4) that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and (5) that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple. The first question I ask about these promises is “Why any one of them except the first?” Can anything be added to the conception of being with Christ? For it must be true, as an old writer says, that he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only. …

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. …

I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. … Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. …

A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. the following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, culture, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat [is truly concealed]the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

[C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” an address delivered at the Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, June 8, 1941, in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (San Francisco, CA, USA: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 2001), 34, 35-36, 37, 45-46.]

All theology is intensely practical. Lewis has shown that when you truly understand and believe the message of Scripture that believers shall one day be glorified with Christ, it will profoundly humble you. When you truly understand and believe any of the great doctrines of Scripture, you will often be transformed in ways precisely the opposite of what unbelievers expect and predict.

Since I began writing this post I discovered that Peter Kreeft noticed the coincidence of the three deaths of November 22, 1963 long before I did, and wrote a novel based on it titled Between Heaven and Hell, (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1982) , in which the three men meet each other in the afterlife and discuss the claims of Jesus Christ. I first came across this reference in the “Trivia” section of Wikipedia’s article on Aldous Huxley. If the definition of an original thought is one that no one has ever had before, I often wonder if I have ever had one.


This article was originally posted at RonHenzel.com on November 22, 2007. It has been slightly updated and revised for this post.


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