Saturday, February 8, 2014


 I have come that you might have life – and have it in all abundance. ~Jesus, in John 10:10

C.S. Lewis
In preparation for a community ed class that I presented recently, I have spent a lot of time in the last few weeks with C.S. Lewis* and his chums – a group who playfully dubbed themselves “The Inklings.” I intend to mine a lot of blog gold (or at least ore) out of the riches I have been exposed to in their
fascinating company (and writings),
J.R.R. Tolkien
but for now I want to make this observation: These men had a good and simple life; perhaps good in large part to the degree that it was simple.

By “good” I certainly don’t mean that their lives--or their life together--were free of pain or discord. Both Lewis and his closest friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, saw action in World War I, Lewis being badly wounded; and their friendship—intimate for decades—cooled in later years (although they remained mutually admiring and respectful of one another).

And, although they were all Christians, I am not speaking of a narrowly pious approach to being “good.” They loved their beer, and one of them, Lewis’s brother, Warnie, was probably an alcoholic. Lewis’s affection for the pipe and pint gave many American evangelical Christians—now among his most devoted fans—cause for some skepticism about the genuineness of the faith of this eccentric disciple from across the Atlantic. (And it was Tolkien’s conservative Roman Catholicism—and a doctrinaire opposition to divorce—that challenged his friendship with C.S. Lewis upon Lewis’s late-in-life marriage to an American divorcee.)

I have listed what I don’t mean – let me suggest what I do mean: That sense of a life of fulfillment and abundance that is the product of loving relationships, meaningful purpose, and mental challenge (perhaps even in that order). “The good life.”

Dozens of colleagues and participants came and went to and from meetings of the Inklings over the years – it was not an exclusive circle. The chief and most lasting among them, however, were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Warnie Lewis. Our mind’s eye can see them--all together, or a couple of them over pints of ale or cups of tea--deep in conversation or light-hearted in laughter. In one way or another, their friendship(s) had come about as a result of the kind of epiphany that C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself...."** Friendship for Lewis is very much a meeting of the heart and the mind in equal proportion.  “We need friends to know anything,” says Lewis, “even ourselves.”

Heart, yes – and mind. Something to talk about. Something that means something. Ideas. The heart and the mind come together in Lewis’s joyous description of an Inklings meeting: “When Warnie, Tollers (Tolkien), Williams and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking theology!”

These men were, of course, “intellectuals.” I have sometimes puzzled over the definition of that term, and have come to the conclusion that an intellectual is anyone who cares about ideas and the words or images that carry them. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. for that, and neither does it mean that an intellectual is pigeonholed as a dour academic. The Inklings certainly breathed the rarified air of Oxford (although Warnie Lewis was a professional soldier who became, on his own, an expert in matters of French royal history, and Charles Williams was educated at what amounts to a community college and was largely self-taught – before landing an Oxford lectureship), but they weren’t parsing the fine-points of the present participle over pints at the Lamb & Flag (not that there would have been anything wrong with that)—they were talking, and laughing, and interrupting one another over what matters in life; how could one believe this or that to be true, and occasionally listening to Tollers read out a few of the new pages from his latest “hobbit book” (The Lord of the Rings). Until one of them would say, “All right, enough – enough hobbits for now. Landlord, another round!”

(I am reminded of a comment once made by someone regarding a weekly discussion group I attend: “Whoever takes a breath is the listener.”)

I used the word “simple” in the first paragraph, and I suppose I mean that in a comparative sense. What I mean is that they had their books and pens and pipes and the round table and their cups of tea and pints of ale and walks along the banks of the Thames and one another. What they didn’t have (here’s the comparative part) is cars (for the most part), television, the internet, smartphones, screens, and other iDevices. This is not an anti-device rant. I like—maybe even love—my techno-things, and value what they do for me. But perhaps a part of me is just a little envious of an environment that was a bit simpler even though these were far from “simple” people. (One might consider the list of gadgets, above, another way: What contribution do these things make to “the good life?”)

I mentioned in passing that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings were all Christian (even then, a kind of dying breed in academic Oxford). This fact—perhaps ironically—was not a part of my inspiration for this essay. However, it would now (it seems) be disingenuous of me to imply that their shared faith had no part to play in their friendship or the fullness of life they discovered in their relationships and their conversation and their life together. Oxford may have been the air they breathed, but Christianity was the atmosphere in which they breathed it. The richness of life they found in the community of one another was an extension of each of them—in Lewis’s phrase—having “handed over your whole self to Christ.” As he concludes in Mere Christianity, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.”
* For those who say, "C.S. Who???" A primer: C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, born in Belfast in 1898, entered his adult life as a confirmed atheist. By the time he died in 1963—a highly revered professor of English Literature at Oxford and Cambridge and an internationally acclaimed author of Mere Christianity and the classic Narnia children’s series—he had become one of the most influential proponents of Christianity of the twentieth century. Fellow-professor J.R.R. Tolkien was a significant light in Lewis’s journey from atheism to faith. 

**Yes, "Man." Although Lewis can be excused for being a product of his times, his writings do reveal, it must be acknowledged, a streak of masculine-centered sexism.

Good Books: C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath; The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter

The Lamb & Flag and The Eagle and Child (The Bird and Baby), two of the Inklings' favorite pubs. They stand across from each other on St. Giles Street, Oxford.

No comments: