November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the death of writers C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. And it comes at the end of a week in which we observed the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
At first, there doesn't seem to be any connection among the four anniversaries. Some have described Kennedy's assassination as a "tectonic shift," that is, a moment when the very continents on the face of the earth moved. It was certainly tragic in the classical sense of the word, and everyone my age and older still remembers where they were when they heard that it happened. But Kennedy had been president for barely a thousand days, and except for his wise handling of the Cuban missile crisis and his helpful response to Dr. King's Birmingham campaign, he did not have a great deal to show for his presidency.
At the time of his death, C.S. Lewis was little known outside academic circles, but in the years since his death he has become (pardon an overused word but in this case it seems absolutely essential) an icon of evangelical Christianity. His books, especially Mere Christianity, have influenced millions of lives for the better.
Aldous Huxley's intellectual heritage was impressive. His grandfather, Thomas H. Huxley, was the principal defender of Darwin's views and allegedly coined the term "agnosticism." Aldous was a prolific author and is best known for Brave New World, a brilliant and bitter critique of the dehumanizing potential of technology and unbridled capitalism.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address lasted only about two minutes, but apart from the Bible, it is one of the best known and most frequently quoted documents in the world.
All four anniversaries are united by the power of words. There is no such thing as "mere words." Words can change the world. The Gettysburg Address helped shift people's perception of the Civil War. From being a war to save the Union, Lincoln's address at Gettysburg recast that conflict as a war to save democracy and promote it throughout the world. Our "forefathers," Lincoln said, "brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The Confederacy, on the other hand, was dedicated to the proposition that all men (and women) were most certainly not created equal.
In President Kennedy's inaugural address, he memorably challenged his listeners to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for you country." And in response the Peace Corps was created which has done incalculable good throughout the world.
Huxley warned us of the potential of technology to dehumanize. In the "brave new world" which he envisions, children are engineered and reproduction has become an industrial process.
C.S. Lewis's works of theology and fiction have brought many of us (including me) to faith (or at least renewed faith) and have delighted generations of children.
Words are powerful and can do great good or great harm. But we knew that already. The most powerful words in the world are in the Bible. From beginning to end, the Bible informs our understanding of the world and human nature. The words of Israel's prophets have inspired social change wherever they have been read: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream." (Amos 5.24)
Above all the words of Jesus, who, we believe, was himself the Word made flesh, have shed an entirely new light on the world: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley - may they rest in peace. And may we be careful of the words we say and write, for words not only describe the world - they can also change it.