Onward, then, to more colleges.
Later that afternoon I popped in to the Eagle & Child pub where the Inklings regularly met on Tuesday mornings (and where, surely, the idea of the Prancing Pony Inn was inspired!). I sat in a lovely cubby hole right by the Inklings’ plaque above their usual spot. I enjoyed a nice bottle of Orchard Pig cider, one I haven’t tried before, and read one of the books lying on a nearby shelf (that kind of pub), a collection of Auden’s poems. Thinking about this place, where the inklings fed their friendships, bellies, and imaginations, reminded me again of the importance of ‘place’ itself. There really is something powerful about being in particular settings which are conducive to profound reflection, especially day-to-day. Where you think certainly does something to what you think. Although the imagination is its own creature and cannot be coerced, it must be fed upon a healthy diet of wonder, reflection, and aesthetic beauty if it is to be all it can be. It is yet another reason why we must never assume that one’s ‘context’ is entirely irrelevant to one’s ‘content’. It is vital that one immerses oneself (even if only occasionally) in places that arouse wonder in the soul.
The Inklings themselves, of course, know all about this. They carry a Romantic attachment to place. They are earthy. They go on walking tours, drink ale and tea, smoke pipes, eat ham suppers; they debate long into the night, they read and translate Icelandic sagas for the sheer thrill, and they write copiously about how wonderful the world is, and what it could become if we took it less (and more) seriously. The lifestyle behind these activities, it seems, was one of Rivendellic repose; of reflecting, writing and thinking in comparatively splendid isolation. The problem with Rivendell, of course, is that you can’t stay there forever. There’s a mission to do, a war to wage. To stay in Rivendell is to place your head in the sand in the hope that all the bad stuff going on beyond its borders is not quite as bad as you heard it was. But even Tolkien knew – at least, in the world he created if not in his own life – you can’t stay in Rivendell.
The paradox, at this point, should be evident. Like most good Evangelicals, I am very much inspired by Wesley & Whitefield and by Tolkien & Lewis. I’m certainly not alone in holding up all of these figures as heroes and distant mentors. And that’s the problem: whose path does one follow when one is stirred by both? It’s important, of course, not to make the contrast too sharp; we need not ‘choose’ between them necessarily. The scholarly literary life of the Inklings could certainly be interpreted as being equally ‘missional’ if, perhaps, we widened our conception of what mission is. (Though, if you really cornered me, just between you and me and these brackets, I might admit that when I read the New Testament, the orientation of life certainly seems more suited to the Holy Club than the Inklings, despite all the good cases that could be made to the contrary...). Of course, we must also recognise that we are dealing with unique, exceptional, inimitable callings, so perhaps it’s not a line we should even attempt to draw.
Still, though, what if we could do both?
For the Inklingsian path, the danger will always be that you could become so academically nuanced and reflectively cosy that you can no longer proclaim the Gospel and live sold-out for Christ anymore. It might be a little unfair, but I did wonder, how many evangelistic conversations were had with onlookers at the Eagle & Child on a Tuesday morning? Are we really saying that if you want to pursue ‘culture’ you no longer have to look like a fool for Christ anymore? Surely, to die to the world and live to Christ is a standing order for all Christians of all personalities in all settings. It is very easy to have a theological justification for the pursuit of academia or aesthetics which gives us an excuse to block our ears to the radical life of mission. Principally, it all comes down to a refusal of the paradox God has presented. We often cannot see how people could possibly be ‘nuanced’ and ‘reflective’ in their thinking whilst simultaneously wanting to convert people and count their life as rubbish and die for their faith. But see it we must.
In his journal, Whitefield shared a bittersweet testimony of those Oxford ‘holy club’ members who ultimately fell before the comfort and prestige of the academy:
They were dead to the world, and willing to be accounted as the dung and offscouring of all things, so that they might win Christ. Their hearts glowed with the love of God, and they never prospered so much in the inward man, as when they had all manner of evil spoken against them falsely from without. Many came amongst them for a while, who, in time of temptation fell away. The displeasure of a tutor or Head of a College, the changing of a gown from a lower to a higher degree – above all, a thirst for the praise of men, more than that which cometh from God, and a servile fear of contempt – caused numbers that had set their hand to the plough, shamefully to look back.
But – and this is crucial – simultaneously, Inklingsian Evangelicals must have an entirely different root to those who are simply loving the world in holy clothing. The fire of the Gospel must never be extinguished for the hazy Autumnal breeze of literary reflection. The great divorce of aesthetics and mission must be annulled. We must demonstrate that it was an invalid, unauthorised divorce. But it must be truly annulled, not merely tweaked by a counter-lean in the opposite direction. We don’t want more of the usual disaffected Evangelical twentysomething’s bitter yearning for ‘culture’ so they can be done with all that boring prayer and evangelism and Bible-reading and church-going and song-singing and sin-accountability. Such adolescent attitudes (too often found amongst those who should know better) are doomed to fail because they forget that the urgency of mission never ceases to be urgent, and the importance of redemption never ceases to be important, and losing your life never ceases to be the very life of a Christian. What we need to break the power of the divorce is, obviously, a re-marriage, rather than a pendulum.
We need not cease to heed Whitefield and Wesley’s inspiration in our lives just because we also heed Lewis and Tolkien’s. I have no idea how to do both at all times. But neither do I know how to be married at all times. I just carry on being married.
For more of Aaron's Theological Travel Writing Series, see the following links.
For the Preface, click here.
For Part , click here.
For Part , click here.