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Overcoming fanaticism with fascination

Eighty years after their formation, the Inklings fascinate millions.

In the 1930s a group of friends called “the Inklings” began to gather for drinks, conversation and mutual encouragement. Led by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the group consisted mostly of Oxford dons but included members from other fields as well. Eighty years after their formation, the group continues to fascinate millions. Together, they testify to the powers of imagination and friendship, and they hold out hope for anyone seeking to overcome evil with good.

The Inklings shared an interest in writing and ecumenical Christian faith, and one reason they merit attention is the imaginative character of their faith. Lewis’ own journey back to Christ offers a version of the appealing effect the Inklings have had on the faith of many.

Hints of a greater reality
Raised in a Christian family, Lewis abandoned Christianity around age 13. Various reasons contributed to Lewis’ loss of faith, and one was his growing conviction that “the universe was, in the main, a rather regrettable institution.” When viewing reality on the basis of what he took as rationalism, Lewis settled into a pessimistic materialism. Yet he was also haunted by hints of a greater reality through experiences of what he called “joy.” Joy was a sensation that would come over Lewis and fill him with a yearning for beauty, bliss and experiences beyond description. These experiences became for Lewis a signal of a better world for which he longed but in which he could not believe. Early in his friendship with Tolkien, Lewis dismissed claims regarding such a blissful world as “lies breathed through silver.” During his young adult years, Lewis lived in two worlds, which he kept strictly separate: the imaginative world of joy and the rationalistic world of despair.

Lewis’ return to faith took place through a series of encounters that he depicts in Surprised by Joy. Two key encounters include the discovery of author, George MacDonald, and a late night walk with Tolkien and another friend named Hugo Dyson. Lewis writes that MacDonald’s depiction of holiness baptized his imagination years before his intellect became open to God. Tolkien and Dyson helped to bring Lewis’ imagination and intellect into harmony. On a memorable walk together, they helped him understand that myths are not obsolete science but, rather, enduring expressions of truth in imaginative form. Lewis came to see the incarnation of God in Christ as the “true myth” that expressed the reality to which his experiences of joy had pointed. Later in life, while offering rational defences of Christianity, Lewis also witnessed to Christ through imaginative works such as his space trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. By such means, Lewis hoped to sneak Christian convictions past the “watchful dragons” of defensiveness and derision, based on the bad experiences people have with boring expressions of faith.

Prophetic reverence
Like Lewis, the other Inklings also presented the Christian faith not in terms of a narrow anti-intellectualism but instead in terms of imaginative vision. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien offers a subtle witness to Catholic Christianity as the fulfillment of humanity’s highest aspirations. In Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield gives an account of the evolution of human consciousness in a way that opens rather than closes minds to the reality of God, and in Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams presents the Christian faith with such sympathetic wisdom that he played a major role in the reconversion of W.H. Auden. By their respect for worldviews from past epochs and other cultures, the Inklings were able to present a full-blooded version of Christian orthodoxy loosed from the embarrassing apparatus of fundamentalism. Indeed, Malcolm Guite argues that, far from being reactionaries, the Inklings were prophetic in their rejection of a mechanistic model for the universe and in their insistence on reverence for creation.

In addition to testifying to the power of imagination, the Inklings also illustrate the power of friendship. Margaret Mead once asserted, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” While Mead probably exaggerates, she does make a valid point about the strong effect a group of friends can have. In relation to one another, the Inklings’ influence came in the forms of encouragement, collaboration and also challenge. When they read their works to one another, they did not spare each other from criticism. In fact, in the case of Lewis and Tolkien, the early ardor of their friendship cooled as they settled into lasting disagreements. Still, even though marred by jealousies and other sins, the friendships among the Inklings spurred them to greater works than they could have accomplished in isolation. Lewis encouraged Tolkien mightily to complete his immense labour on The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien thanked Lewis and others by writing, “We owed a great deal to each other.” Charles Williams put it more strongly by stating, “We are necessary to each other.” (See: The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.)

Offering resistance to fanaticism
Because of their influence on one another, the Inklings were able also to influence the world. In their excellent study of this group of friends, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski observe that the Inklings’ work, “taken as a whole, has a significance that far outweighs any measure of popularity, amounting to a revitalization of Christian intellectual and imaginative life” (The Fellowship, 510). Such revitalisation can inspire Christians today to seek friendships based on faith and hope that offer resistance to both the malaise of secularism and the fanaticism of militant Islam. Perhaps Jesus had something like that in mind when, soon before sending his disciples into the world with a message of forgiveness, he said to them, “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

When I picture Jesus carrying out his Father’s mission by forming groups of friends, I do a variation on Lewis’ Screwtape Letters by imagining a correspondence not between a senior and junior devil, but, instead, between a senior and junior angel. In my admittedly silly scenario, a senior angel assigns a junior angel to watch over two friends who can offer resistance to religious fanaticism by holding out the alternative of religious fascination. The senior angel writes: “I want you to guard two friends who will inspire imaginative Christianity for generations to come.” The junior angel responds enthusiastically, “Will these two friends have influence because they are sports stars or movie stars?” The senior angel replies, “No. One of them will teach Medieval and Renaissance literature, and the other will specialise in Anglo-Saxon writings, along with Icelandic sagas.” Dubious, the junior angel asks, “What are the names of these friends and how can they possibly do any good?” The senior angel answers, “Their names are C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and they can overcome evil with much goodness because our Lord has arranged for them to collaborate with a group of friends called the Inklings.”  

The Eagle and Child, better known in the Oxford community as The Bird and Baby, was the informal Tuesday midday gathering place of the Inklings.

  • Joel E. Kok has served as pastor of Willowdale Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont. since January 2010. Prior to Willowdale, Joel served churches in Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Joel graduated from Calvin College & Calvin Seminary; he also earned a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from Duke University. Joel is married to Tricia (Timmer) Kok, and they have three children.

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