Only one completely isolated from the world could have missed the fiftieth anniversary this past Friday of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The media was inundated with stories—some nuanced history, others conspiracy theories—about the President and that tragic event in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.
There were also stories this week that focused on President Kennedy’s family: beautiful Jackie, sweet Caroline, and precocious John who loved to salute his daddy, both in life and in death. One article related the family weekend the Kennedys spent together the week just before that fateful, and fatal, trip to Dallas. It evoked images of sun and health and idyllic joy. Fifty years later, we still speak of that family as if from a storybook, and when describing them, we still use the mythic, royal term, “Camelot.”
But ours is a selective memory of that time and even that family, isn’t it? We now know the kinds of things about President Kennedy’s private life that today would be regular media fodder but in Kennedy’s day were kept discreetly private. And there was the Bay of Pigs; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the beginnings of American involvement in Vietnam; and domestically, just two months before Kennedy’s assassination, the racially-motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham which killed four little African-American girls.
I want to be careful and clear at this point: I don’t raise any of these things to besmirch the memory of President Kennedy, whom I greatly admire. I do so to remind us all that the Camelot storyline for the Kennedy presidency and family was not one that existed concurrent with those events. Camelot was an image created, launched, and cultivated later, almost immediately after the assassination in fact.* Camelot was not a description of the Kennedy era, in other words. It was—and is—a mythic yearning for a “once upon a time” in which lives are not snuffed out in the millisecond it takes to record a frame of fuzzy film; in which the good triumphs, families are preserved, and love rather than terror carries the day.
Which brings me to the other fiftieth anniversaries we observed on Friday, November 22. Two other internationally notable figures died on that day in 1963, but their deaths were but an afterthought to the assassination of an Arthurian president.
The first was Aldous Huxley, who died from laryngeal cancer and whose dystopian novel Brave New World was required reading when I was in school. Huxley wrote Brave New World in the midst of the Great Depression, when, after the excesses of the 1920s, the world seemed to deteriorate toward utter collapse. He wrote the novel in Italy, as he experienced first-hand Benito Mussolini’s fascist answer to a world out of control. Huxley’s book is set five hundred years in our future, during a time when human beings have traded creativity and joy in favor of social stability and material well-being. They live as drones in an artificial society run by one called, appropriately, “The World Controller.” Huxley identifies with a character in the novel named John but usually called simply “the Savage,” one who is raised outside of the controlled dystopian society. When the Controller explains to the Savage that the Controller’s society ensures stability and comfort, the Savage replies, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry…I want freedom, I want goodness.”
It is Aldous Huxley’s desperate cry for his own kind of Camelot, for a kingdom in which the reigning king is good, and in which goodness itself reigns. It is a vision Huxley believes to be forever out of reach, both in his book and in our real world, and in the end his Savage hangs himself.
The final person to die on November 22, 1963 was none other than C.S. Lewis. Lewis died of renal failure fifteen minutes after Huxley and an hour before Kennedy.
No less than those who grieved John F. Kennedy, no less than Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis imagined a mythic alternative to the reality we experience in our daily world.** But whereas the Kennedy Camelot was nostalgia for something that never fully existed, and whereas the agnostic Huxley was ultimately hopeless, Lewis’ vision—which permeates virtually all of his books—is one on which he’ll stake his soul.
In the fourth book in Lewis’ Narnia series, The Silver Chair, a mysterious queen traps the book’s children in a dark and dreary, underground kingdom called “Underland.” She convinces them that their surface world of light and life is false, something they’ve dreamed but that never really existed.
Puddleglum, a wonderful, frog-like Lewis character who is the children’s companion, refuses to fall under the queen’s spell. He responds, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things: trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”
I bring up these three remarkable men not primarily because of the concurrence of their deaths, but because of the alternative images of reality they invoke. And these images are particularly important on this day not primarily because of the anniversaries of their deaths, but because this is Christ the King Sunday. Today is the one day of the year we are encouraged particularly to focus on what it might mean to call Jesus the king of our world.
Too often when people claim the kingship of Jesus they are really hearkening back with wistful nostalgia to a Camelot-like religious world that never quite existed, in which people were God-fearing, values were upheld, and the threat of people different from ourselves was kept at bay. But in truth, that world was as fraught with danger and uncertainty as JFK’s political world, and Jesus no more ruled hearts of men and women then than he does now.
Others, including many Christians (perhaps some of us), punt the idea that Jesus reigns altogether. Theirs is a fatalism gentler than Aldous Huxley’s to be sure, but in less guarded moments they’ll acknowledge that, while they wish a world of goodness and grace existed, they hold little hope that it ever will.
Lewis’ vision is different. Make no mistake; though Lewis wrote seven children’s books, he is no Pollyanna. Lewis saw death and despair in the trenches of World War I. He experienced the Blitz. He lost a wife to cancer. And his scene in The Silver Chair, in which Puddleglum chooses to hang onto a vision of the surface world even if it’s a dream, is not C.S. Lewis merely making Pascal’s famous wager that it is safer to bet on God’s existence than against it. Rather, Lewis is revealing—as he does over and over again—that Jesus is the King when we live as subjects. There can be no more important message in our world, in our church, and in our lives.
The call of Jesus the King is to quit pining for a past that never was, to quit shouting into the darkness of a hopeless world, and to choose—to commit ourselves to—the vision of a world in which Jesus reigns. It is the world St. Paul articulates today, in which Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of [light].” It is the world in which God is constantly, actively working “to reconcile to himself all things.” It is the world in which Jesus the Christ—who is nothing other than the embodiment of grace—is “that for whom all things are made, and in whom all things hold together.”
When we commit ourselves to this vision, we become subjects of this king. And when we live as subjects of this king, the vision begins—person by person, heart by heart, action by action—to become the world’s reality.
In Lewis’ work, even a swamp-dwelling, frog-eyed amphibious biped like Puddleglum can be the subject of this king, the courageous voice that declares the supposed victory of despair we see around us to be the false reality, the one who says the vision of light and life is ultimately real and will ultimately triumph. Even Puddleglum; even us. We are subjects of Jesus the Christ, you and I, and we seek not Camelot but the kingdom of God.
*For the origin of the Camelot image with regard to the Kennedy administration, see: http://www.thenation.com/blog/177333/kennedy-week-myth-camelot-and-dangers-sycophantic-consensus-journalism#
**Though I’m not usually a fan of Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times, Mr. Douthat keyed me onto the juxtaposition of Puddleglum and the Savage. In my first draft, I utilized The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to exemplify Lewis’ alternative vision for the world, but Douthat’s insight about Puddleglum works much better. The specific quotes I employ from both Brave New World and The Silver Chair are also from Mr. Douthat’s column: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/opinion/sunday/douthat-puddleglum-and-the-savage.html?ref=rossdouthat&_r=0