Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Notes: Between Heaven and Hell - A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley

“Between Heaven and Hell, A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley” is a curious and fascinating little book. Written in the form of a play, or Socratic dialogue, it is fully scripted, is based on a brilliant premise and proceeds with ingenious dexterity.

The deaths of two literary giants, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, which occurred only a few hours apart, were barely reported on the day on which they both met their demise. This was because they somewhat misguidedly chose November 22nd 1963 as the day for their mutual expirations. That day, will forever be remembered as the day on which John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, an event which pushed even worthy literary obituaries off the news-agenda.

The strange co-incidence of these three deaths however sparked an idea in the mind of Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft. In his mind, these three great men meet up in the transitional zone between life and the afterlife. They spend one whole night talking, discussing, and debating the ideas that defined their lives on earth, with the expectation that when morning comes they will discover who was ultimately right.

The reason that the three make such fascinating sparring partners is that they each had a specific and competing understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ, who he was and what he achieved in his life on earth. Huxley, identifies Jesus as a great teacher in a long tradition of pantheist gurus. Kennedy on the other hand is a pragmatist who wants to interpret the life of Christ through the lens of a demythologised humanism. Lewis, of course, is there representing orthodox or ‘mere’ Christianity.

The debate that Kreeft imagines for them ranges widely across all manner of subjects from authority, morality, judgement, the veracity of the gospels, the claims of Christ as recorded there, to the meaning of divinity. Anyone who has read Lewis’ Mere Christianity will be familiar with much of the territory of the discussion.

Kreeft’s fondness for Lewis is ultimately both the strength and the weakness of this book. Many of the arguments that Kreeft lifts from Lewis’ works and then places on his lips are convincing and plausible. Friends of Lewis have also commented on how accurately he captures Lewis in the way he spoke. What is probably a moot point is the extent to which Kreeft has done justice to the other characters he has sought to animate, but with whom he has less sympathy. That Lewis appears to have the edge in this argument might well be because his arguments are more cogent, but equally might be because Kreeft has rigged it!

Nevertheless, despite this obvious criticism which a Lewis-derider might throw at the book, it does provide a fascinating and easy entry point to many of these debates. It also provides a very readable yet profound introduction to several of the key lines of argument in Christian apologetics. What makes this book stand out is the fact that Kreeft knows enough of the subject to have written yet another dreary textbook; but instead amuses the reader with this unlikely post-mortem dialogue.

Perhaps this book is not as great as some of its reviewers might suggest; however I do love books that allow me to learn as effortlessly as this one did! It’s wise, witty, amusing, and quite unique.

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