Lewis, Huxley were giants in intellectual world

Today, 50 years after a notable death, a memorial stone will be placed in an edifice steeped in history.

The building is not in our country, and the man being honored is not President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963.

Two intellectual giants, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley, also died that day. Their passings were overshadowed by the shocking news from Dallas — just as Kennedy tributes are filling news pages and TV schedules all this month.

At London’s Westminster Abbey today, a memorial stone in Lewis’ honor will be placed in the Poet’s Corner of the Gothic church. Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “The Screwtape Letters,” “Mere Christianity,” “Surprised by Joy” and other fiction and nonfiction works, all with underpinnings of Christian thought.

The C.S. Lewis memorial stone will take its place near those honoring William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

“I think his lasting contribution, first of all, he gave a human face to Christian theology,” said the Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton, the priest at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church in Freeland, on Whidbey Island. Lewis “helped give meaning to suffering,” said Taber-Hamilton, who grew up in England.

Clive Staples Lewis, born in Belfast, Ireland, was a scholar and teacher at Oxford University in England. A former atheist, he embraced Christianity and joined the Church of England. Late in life, he married Joy Davidman, a younger American poet.

When she died of cancer, he wrote of his agony and enduring faith in “A Grief Observed.” It was the basis for the 1993 movie “Shadowlands,” starring Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as the wife he lost. Lewis was 64 when he died.

Taber-Hamilton said Lewis’ writings soundly answered the idea that suffering is cause not to believe in God. “The story of Christianity is that God walks beside us in suffering,” he said. “If the Crucifixion means anything, it means that.”

Karen Ford, who is part of the parish leadership at St. Albans Episcopal Church in Edmonds, said “Mere Christianity” has been used in adult Sunday school classes.

“Everybody thinks of ‘Narnia,’” said Ford, 70. She believes “Mere Christianity” is Lewis’ most important book. She also recommends “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis’ novel that sees human failings from a devil’s viewpoint. “He makes Christianity real,” Ford said.

Huxley is most remembered for a single book — “Brave New World” — although the English writer left a vast collection of writing, including other novels, essays, short stories and poetry. He was 69 when he died in Los Angeles.

“‘Brave New World’ is really still part of our popular consciousness,” said Roger Berger, a literature instructor at Everett Community College. “It had a lot to do with the whole idea of trying to create a scientific utopia.”

Rather than a perfect world, Huxley’s 1932 science fiction book brought forth a dark view of a technically advanced future. In England, Huxley had been a teacher of George Orwell, the author of “1984.”

Berger, who will teach a science fiction class next quarter, said Huxley became a key figure of the 1960s counterculture after writing “The Doors of Perception.” That 1954 book, about Huxley’s experience taking mescaline, inspired the name of Jim Morrison’s band — The Doors.

Huxley’s take on science gone wrong, with that title “Brave New World,” has become part of today’s language, whether people use it to describe cloning, Obamacare or some futuristic nightmare.

Lewis and Huxley were men of letters who had known great renown. Yet even in England, their deaths were overshadowed.

Taber-Hamilton was 10 that day.

“I was sitting with my parents and my brother watching TV in London. The TV screen got a black edge all the way around it. The broadcaster told the news — the president of the United States had been assassinated,” he said. “I remember that.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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