Archive for November, 2013

We see through a glass, darkly

Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of death of a man who gave millions hope for a better world and richer lives, and challenged them to ask not what they could get, but what they could give to something higher than themselves.

I’m referring not to John F. Kennedy, but to C.S. Lewis, who died the same day in 1963 and was for more than two decades the most important defender of the Christian faith.

As a young man, Lewis was an atheist and was angry at God for not existing. But as an Oxford don and writer, he was led to faith through reason by his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and through a personal encounter, by the Holy Spirit.

C.S. Lewis

Lewis’ best known work of apologetics is “Mere Christianity,” which grew out of a series of broadcasts he gave for the BBC during World War II and which, as its title suggests, is an explication of the core beliefs of the Christian faith that Baptists, Catholics and everyone in between can agree on.

Lewis was an Anglican, which is sometimes described as “Reformed Catholic” and a middle way between those two great traditions.

For several weeks this fall, I took part in a class on “mere” Christianity called the Alpha course, which originated in an Anglican church in London, Holy Trinity Brompton, and has reached 22 million people around the world, including 3 million in 127 different denominations in the United States.

The interesting thing for me was that I participated in it through the Baptist church in Bardstown I’ve been attending, which is strictly Calvinist in its beliefs. I didn’t even know what the word “determinism” meant until the first night when we broke into discussion groups and I learned this church’s way of looking at the big questions was quite different from the way I was taught to believe as a child raised in the holiness tradition and as an adult who came to faith through United Methodist and Episcopal churches.

One thing those denominations have in common is a belief in free will. That’s the idea that God, through Christ’s atonement, offers his saving grace to all who accept it and repent. That was the message of John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded Methodism.

If I understand it, Calvinists, or students of John Calvin, believe that God, before the beginning of the world, destined some for salvation and others for damnation, and those he chose to save, known as the “elect,” cannot resist him.

Calvinists also believe God determines everything that happens — even evil things like the recent typhoon that claimed thousands of lives in the Philippines and left millions homeless.

While I was taking the Alpha course at Redeemer Fellowship, I began reading a book coauthored by Jerry Walls, a Wesleyan scholar I once interviewed at Asbury Theological Seminary on the broad topic of faith and reason. Walls argues that some of the biblical verses on which belief in predestination is based are taken out of historical and grammatical context and are interpreted in such a way as to contradict other scriptural passages such as 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which says that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

He also tries to show that determinism as it pertains to election is nonsensical because it holds that we are responsible for our sins though we could not have acted otherwise and could not have repented of our sins because God determined that we would not.

If God is just (and he is), where is the justice in that?

Those who say Christianity is simple haven’t delved deeply into it. The Alpha course, the other reading I did and my discussions with sincere fellow believers broadened my knowledge but left me with more questions than answers. It also whetted my thirst to know more — not for the sake of knowledge, but that I might grow in faith.

As a journalist, I’m trained to be a skeptic, but Lewis reminds me: “The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. … To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That “we see through a glass darkly,” in Paul’s words, doesn’t mean we should willingly remain blind.

Press aide doubted JFK was killer’s target

Malcolm Kilduff, speaking at a press conference in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, after the fatal shooting of President Kennedy.

Every anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas brings with it a new wave of JFK mania, and this year being the 50th, new books, magazines and TV documentaries are re-examining John F. Kennedy’s glamorous life and gruesome death.

Still the question persists — who really killed the president?

Secretary of State John Kerry last week raised the specter of a conspiracy by saying he had “serious doubts” the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, acted alone when he shot and killed Kennedy from a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository as the president’s motorcade made its way through Dealey Plaza Nov. 22, 1963.

Malcolm Kilduff, on the other hand, didn’t doubt Oswald was the killer, but he doubted that Kennedy was the one he wanted to kill.

I’ve met some fascinating people in my journalism career, and Malcolm Kilduff was one of the most unusual. When I was a young reporter in Irvine, Ky., my boss, Guy Hatfield, introduced him as the man who had announced JFK’s death to the world. I figured he was putting me on because I was green and gullible, but it was true.

Kilduff, who was Kennedy’s deputy press secretary, had been with the president in Dallas that day because his boss, Pierre Salinger, was in Asia.

Mac met his wife, Rosemary, in Washington when she worked for a senator, and years later, when they moved to her hometown of Beattyville, Ky., the former White House press aide became the editor of the weekly Beattyville Enterprise.

I interviewed Kilduff many times through the years. The last time was for Lexington’s ACE Magazine after Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” was released. The movie starred Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney whose bizarre investigation painted a conspiracy tapestry that implicated everyone from the Mafia to the military in Kennedy’s murder. It was, Garrison’s character said, “a coup d’etat with Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings.”

That’s rubbish, Kilduff told me. He saw and heard what happened and later studied the evidence. The Warren Commission’s conclusion was right: Oswald alone killed Kennedy. But Kilduff thought Texas Gov. John Connally was the one Oswald meant to murder.

Oswald, a Marine sharpshooter and a Marxist, was dishonorably discharged from the military after had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship and defected to the USSR. He lived there for 32 months and was sent back to the United States, where he lived in Dallas with his Russian wife.

Oswald was court-martialed as a deserter, Kilduff said, and his discharge order was signed by Connally, who was at that time the secretary of the Navy. Connally had the authority to grant him a new trial, but refused to do so. Oswald had written Connally a series of threatening letters, and Kilduff thinks he carried out the threat that day.

Oswald worked in the building from which the shots were fired and knew where the motorcade would be because its route had been printed in the newspapers.

Kilduff vividly remembered how it unfolded.

“I was riding in the third car of the motorcade,” he said, in the front seat with Merriman Smith of United Press International. As they passed the building, Kilduff asked Smith, “What in the name of God is a school book depository?” As they turned onto Elm Street, he heard the first shot, then the second and third. He turned and looked at the building from which the sound came and saw Secret Service agents running toward the president’s car. One of the shots struck Connally in the chest and would have gone through his heart had the governor not turned to look at Kennedy.

Oswald had bench-tested the mail-order Italian rifle and knew the shots drifted downward and to the left, Mac said. As the motorcade descended the hill, it picked up speed, causing Oswald to miss.

“I have always felt that Kennedy was not his target,” Kilduff said. “In my opinion, he was out to get Connally, and had the motorcade not sped up, he would have gotten Connally on the first shot. As it was, he adjusted and got him on the second shot.”

Kilduff thought the conspiracy theories were nonsense and dishonored Kennedy.

“It’s self-perpetuating. It keeps going on and on, and it won’t stop in our lifetime,” he told me. “I wish they’d just let him lie in peace.”

Today Mac Kilduff lies in peace. After Rosemary’s death, he moved into a retirement home, then later a nursing home because of serious health issues. He died 10 years ago, and I learned of his passing from his obituary in The New York Times. I hadn’t talked with him since that last interview, and I regret that.

I wish I could sit with him again at the Purple Cow in Beattyville and have a cup of coffee and another talk because I still have a thousand questions for him — not questions about Kennedy’s death, but about his life.

A man’s life is more interesting than how it ends.

November 2013
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