“So then, I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to behave yourselves in a way that is worthy of the calling with which you are called. I urge you to behave with all humility, and gentleness, and patience. I urge you to bear with one another in love. I urge you eagerly to preserve that unity which the Holy Spirit can bring by binding things together in peace.” Ephesians 4:1-3
We spoke of love for our Lord Jesus Christ, though our words were different. It was that love and a desire to reach our broken culture that inspired our group of Master’s level apologetics students from diverse Christian traditions to trek across the Atlantic to Oxford, England for lectures and fellowship. Amid the awe-inspiring architecture and sumptuous gardens of the city of “dreaming spires”, we met to learn about a small band of believers from similarly diverse backgrounds that had gone before us in the endeavor to draw others to Christ – the Inklings. Unity in Christ formed a bond for both the Inklings and our small band of merry travelers. Would we be able to overcome our differences and work towards a common goal, as the Inklings had done? Given its history of religious conflict, England was quite an interesting place to explore an answer to that question.
“Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.“― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
In her book Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, Diana Pavlac Glyer traces how the conversations between the members of that famous Oxford literary group – filled with both encouragement and sometimes jarring critique – helped shape and enhance the writing of each. This was one of the books we were to read before our trip in order to gain an appreciation of the inner workings of such literary groups. What struck me in my reading were the incredibly diverse backgrounds (economical, educational, and ecclesiastical) of the Inklings.
How did they do it? How did they overcome their differences to such a degree that they could respect both the praise and criticism of each other, and then benefit from these in their own literary endeavors? Lewis’s quote above asserts that indeed the diversity had to be overcome, and we learn from Glyer that it did not happen overnight. More on this in a moment.
Back to Oxford: What an enchanting city – the “city of dreaming spires” as poet Mathew Arnold called it. Even the side streets and alleyways seemed charmed. In fact, I preferred these narrow, cobblestone passages to the main streets where tourists thronged. Yet in the midst of the splendid structures and tranquil gardens, a painful history of religious persecution leaves a dark residue. Even away from the droves of tourists in these “innumerable little lanes and courts” of Oxford, I could not escape the witness of martyrs whose cries for mercy ring down through the centuries. Oxford is a mixture of marble and mud indeed, and a stark reminder that man’s greatness is often overshadowed by his wretchedness.
Among everything that we learned this week, what stood out to me most was the reality that the United Kingdom represents a place where people’s belief in God has been worn thin from years of religious persecution, and that of a singularly pernicious kind: the martyrdom of believers at the hands of other believers. In considering the bloody feuds that raged for centuries between Catholics and Protestants there, often over trivial doctrinal differences, it’s really no surprise to me that this island nation is pretty much godless today. I was aware of the battles, but seeing in person the many monuments erected to the martyrs – from both sides of the Catholic / Protestant divide – was powerfully troubling and humbling. My own young country has had its religious conflicts, but they were and are nowhere near the same severity as what has occurred here. May my beloved America never see the likes of it.
On a day trip to London we visited the site where many were put to death because of their Catholicism. At the right is a ground plaque that commemorates the spot where public executions were held from the 12th to the 18 century. Nearby is Tyburn Convent, founded as a way to remember the approximately 105 Catholics that were martyred here during the Reformation.
In Oxford, on a walking tour with medieval scholar Dr. Eleanor Parker, we learned about the continual struggles between Catholics and Protestants in the city’s history. Pictured on the right is the Martyr’s Cross, in the middle of Broad Street in Oxford. It marks the spot where several Protestants were burned at the stake for opposing Rome. It is just outside the 13th century Balliol College – the college that the famous Bible translator John Wycliffe attended in 1360.
This highlighted all the more why the Inklings were an extraordinary group of men. In many ways, their backgrounds represented just about every side of the hundreds of years of religious conflict that had burdened the United Kingdom. Ironically, Tolkien the Catholic, Lewis the “mere Christian”, Barfield the theosophist, and Williams the Anglican with occult leanings represented in microcosm the diversity of views that had battled it out on that island for centuries. How were they able to overcome the age old prejudices and distrust?
In their book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Carol and Philip Zaleski write that “the Inklings were anything but monolithic” for “even in the early years, the club embraced a variety of professions” and the “members’ shared Christianity also included a wide spectrum of views.” The Zaleskis note that it was the Nicene Creed that provided the “glue”, along with a “shared set of enemies, including atheists, totalitarians, modernists, and anyone with a shallow imagination.” The Fellowship was particularly helpful in setting the stage for how these men came together despite their backgrounds. A veritable gold mine of both biographical and historical data for Inkling lovers, the book uncovers the factors that enabled these men to form what the Zaleskis refer to as a “a perfect compass rose of faith”. United in their hopes to “to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to re-enchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty”, they were able to transcend the centuries old divides that had caused so much pain and sorrow in their country.
For me, this is heartening indeed after hearing of all the bloodshed and persecution and seeing all the sites of remembrance for the martyred men and women. Yet England has within its history the antidote to their religion fatigue in this small band of “dabblers in ink”. Learning about the Inklings’ unity in diversity was a welcome antidote to the religious disenchantment I was beginning to feel after hearing story after story of murderous wrongs done in the name of God.
One of the guest lecturers during the week was Dr. Jason Lepojarvi, a junior research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall. He is working on clarifying the concepts that divide Catholic and Protestants in the hopes to create a common language between the two in order to facilitate more productive ecumenical dialogue. His lecture, “Interrogating C.S. Lewis: What’s the difference between worship, veneration, and idolatry?” was both encouraging and challenging. It was heartening to learn that someone like Dr. Lepojarvi is tackling the problem of vernacular when it comes to the different traditions within Christianity. It was challenging because I had to set aside my knee-jerk reactions to such things as praying to saints and the veneration of Mary in order to truly listen with an open heart, even if I disagreed in the end. Those that practice these disciplines are, after all, my precious brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, there we were – apologetics students in Oxford trying to learn from Lewis and the other Inklings. Our conversations were not without religious disagreements that threatened to overshadow our common interest in cultural apologetics. One particularly heated exchange began in, of all places, The Eagle and Child, the very pub where the Inklings met on a weekly basis to encourage one another. Thankfully, things did not get out of control and we recovered, but it certainly was a challenge!
I am convinced that we have to meet such challenges head on, determined to “preserve that unity which the Holy Spirit can bring by binding things together in peace” regardless of our doctrinal differences. Our Lord has not left us alone without an example, either. I am so thankful for the Inklings.
I believe that the lesson we learn from this small literary group that formed in the early 1930’s is indispensable for the modern Christian community as it goes forward. As the broader culture becomes more hostile to Christian beliefs and practices, more and more we will be called on to transcend that which divides us doctrinally in order to unite around our common goal of reaching the lost for Christ and serving Him.
In my next post, I’ll explore the mission that united the Inklings with a bit of background on the unique relationship between Tolkien and Lewis. I’ll also describe what I learned about how vital such literary groups (really fellowship!) are for writers, in general, and for Christian writers, in particular. I will also discuss some of the specific dynamics of the Inklings as described by Glyer in her book Bandersnatch.
In the meantime ….
 Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 198.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 3.