By Dave Berry, Pastor of Jacob’s Well, Normal, IL
November 23, 1963
I was twelve; I was in seventh grade; and I was paying attention.
The previous afternoon, the distinguished Mr. Floyd, Superintendent of Schools for Community District #305, Manlius, IL, had interrupted our music class with a solemn and shocking pronouncement, spoken (as was typically the case when he was very serious) as he grasped his right ear lobe with right thumb and forefinger. His words: “Mrs. Johnson, children, the President of the United States is dead.”
He turned, walked out, and left Mrs. Johnson to pick up the pieces. In retrospect, I can’t believe how quickly and decisively she acted. She stepped out from behind the piano, assured us that even though this turn of events was frightening and sad, everything was going to be alright. We must be courageous. Some of my classmates started sniffling softly, one of my buddies mentioned “the Russians,” and Rick – probably the toughest kid in the class and definitely the biggest JFK lover (he had a picture book about the Kennedys in his desk) – actually let out a long wail and then another. If Rick could so quickly be reduced to wailing, it seemed to the rest of us that all the world could soon start spinning out of control.
Mrs. Johnson to the rescue.
My house was less than 150 yards from the “ag shop” which also housed CUSD #305’s choral music room. She turned to me and said: “David, why don’t you run home and get a radio? We’ll listen together to see if we can found out more information.” Even though I was as much in shock as the rest of the class, I also recognized a previously unparalleled privilege to leave the school grounds during the school day.
A gentle but cold rain had been falling all day, but I didn’t bother to throw on my jacket, I just raced through N. A. Johnson’s (no relation) yard, blew threw the front door, informed my mom that “the President of the United States is dead,” scrambled to the bedroom I shared with my two older brothers, grabbed brother Greg’s coveted turquoise clock radio, and hurried back out the door and on to the ag shop and some shaken seventh graders.
It seems that the gentle but cold rain had made the apron to the entrance quite slippery. As I was more concerned with speed than stopping, I hit that apron and tried to slam on the brakes. My feet flew right out from under me, the radio flew right out from beside me, and we were both “broadcast” onto the concrete. Happily, my fall from grace had been unobserved. Sadly, the radio was cracked and scratched. (At that moment, I feared my brother Greg more than the Russians.) Thankfully, the radio still worked.
Mrs. Johnson turned on the radio, settled us all down, and helped us process the hard truth and confusing messages coming across the airwaves. The next few days, even weeks and months, were also times of hard truth and confusing messages. But I was twelve… and I was paying attention.
Our family read the long-since defunct Chicago Daily News back then. Naturally, the November 23, 1963 edition was utterly dominated by the news from Dallas. I scoured the front page and then the second for any insights I could gain into the tragedy. And then I saw it, bottom left/page two, an entry that seemed to violate the sanctity of the nation’s grief. I don’t remember it word-for-word as I do Mr. Floyd’s pronouncement, but this is essentially what it said:
British author C.S. Lewis died on November 22 at his home in Oxford, England.
I remember this distinctly, not because I knew anything about Lewis but because I couldn’t imagine that the demise of any British author, Shakespeare included, deserved to occupy space on the same page as the news of an assassinated American President. I certainly didn’t know the word “unseemly” at that time, but I knew the feeling. And this miniscule mention seemed an intrusion on the sensibilities of an injured nation’s soul. It made me mad, this interruption by an interloper, but because I was paying attention, I packed away that name into a corner of my brain. Ten years later as a senior in college, I unpacked it, and changed my mind about the import of that British author.
The January term at Illinois Wesleyan University, dubbed “Short Term,” included a class called “The Image of Man in C.S. Lewis.” Our professor, Chaplain White, had written a book by that title. Class consisted of 18 days in which we read the chaplain’s book and, in their entirety, the following:
Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, Christian Reflections, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Do the math – a book a day, with a quiz every morning on the reading of the day, then on to the next day and the next book. My future wife was in this class with me, the only time we were able to take a class together. (She majored in nursing, I in English.) Looking back, this class taught both of us that we could read faster than we thought, retain more than we thought, and (most significantly) discover that here was a Christian writer who greatly encouraged our nascent faith. Maybe for the first time, we knew that, as Christians, we didn’t have to check our intellects at the door of our classrooms, dorm rooms, or favorite hangouts. I, for one, felt emboldened for the first time to “stand up” for the historic Christian faith on campus. Reading Lewis helped me examine arguments both for and against the faith. Reading him gave me (and others) a voice.
This immersion in Lewis was a baptism in brilliance for many of us in the class and an important step in the beginning of faith journeys that I believe have been fruitful. We began to reference him in writing or quote him in class. Such temerity had heretofore seemed fruitless and self-limiting in the IWU arena of ideas. Not only was the strength of his apologetics so empowering and refreshing, I think that we may have been most inspired by identifying with his fictional characters. There was truly great joy in rereading and discussing these stories, whether we put ourselves on the Dawn Treader… or the bus to heaven… or the spaceship to Perelandra.
Without question, one of the great appeals to us was the joy of reading Lewis together, aloud. The sophistication of his arguments and plots, his allusions to things ancient, Medieval, and British, and his humour (sic) were best appreciated by a group because somebody in that group just might know something about Greek goddesses, Norse legends or Oxford traditions.
For me, this all began in 1973. I have been reading Lewis ever since.
Fast forward to 2004. Having traded in my businessman’s hat for that of church planter, I set out to connect with college students and other young adults in Bloomington-Normal. I was soon “surprised by joy” (couldn’t resist) to find that the desire to read Lewis together – aloud – was shared by a new generation. There were typically six to eight readers. All through the years the degree of familiarity with Lewis and his work has varied greatly, but that has only served to encourage the well-read to share and the neophytes to soak it all in.
In recent years, we have averaged 15-20 readers. Most, but not all, are college students. We try to make it refreshing and a break from the pressures of academia by doing all our reading together. There are no assignments. Further, we sometimes celebrate with British-themed teas or meals and expand our horizons with Lewis-related outings (movies, trips to the Wade Center in Wheaton, or outings to the library or bookstores).
There is “deeper magic” in our little literary society. It has always been comprised of folks from quite varied religious backgrounds. (In year one, we had a regular who is a Muslim from Iran who was attending grad school at ISU; delightful, he loved reading with us and talking about Aslan.) This current “crop” of Clive lovers is an exciting and eclectic mix from high church, low church, and in-between church. Reading Lewis has encouraged us all to view the faith beyond our backgrounds and share the journey with great freedom.
It has become my great joy to welcome college freshmen into the group and share four years of reading Lewis together. As their experience with Lewis grows, so does their ability to connect the “variations on a theme” which appear again and again in his works. It is encouraging to hear someone offer, “Doesn’t that remind you of Ransom?” or “That’s so much like his argument about animals… and Eden… and the restoration of all things.” The groups have also grown to appreciate the subtleties of Lewis’ humor and will often be reading along and burst out laughing at a nuance or turn of a phrase, offering something like, “He enjoyed writing that!” And that’s part of the pleasure for me in all this: the readers fall in love with the soul, skill, and style of this “prophet to the skeptic.” I continually find that his work has grabbed them just as it did me. Lewis gives us a dose of something we desperately need, something whispered by the apparition of the albatross to Lucy in the crow’s nest of the Dawn Treader as she tried to peer through seemingly impenetrable darkness:
“Courage, dear heart.”
And I think that’s why we love to read Lewis. He feeds the courage of our convictions. He does it with essays and stories and literary criticism and poetry. He does it with amazing prescience and disarming humor. He does it by turning a phrase or phrasing a turn. Thus, we continue to read, together, aloud and we continue to be encouraged.
I needed courage on November 23, 1963. How interesting that it has come not from the President who penned Profiles in Courage, but from “the interloper” who wrote, “Courage, dear heart.”
by Dave Berry