Let me begin by saying that I had the privilege of visiting Oxford in February 2019 with my housemates. We all readily agreed that Oxford was one of our favorite places we visited on our European excursion. A friend of ours was attending one of the colleges, so she and her fiancé knew all of the ins and outs of the town and were able to show us around. While we wandered the streets and marveled at the beauty of the architecture and cool “university town vibes” Oxford had, I couldn’t help but reflect on why Oxford stood out above all of the other places we had traveled. At the core of these feelings, it was the overwhelming sense of Oxford’s legacy that weighed on my mind, something that The Secret History of Oxford hits upon.
Reading through the book, one of the things that stuck out was just how rich the history of Oxford is. Even though the book is a short and light-hearted romp through the town’s history, one cannot help but reflect upon the legacy that Oxford has left upon the world.
When my housemates and I were planning our trip through Europe (a fast paced five countries in ten days experience), we settled on staying in Oxford for two days to finish the trip. Our old housemate had moved to Oxford with his fiancé a few months before and we wanted to experience it through his eyes. But while that was the “surface motive” for going to Oxford, I pushed it for an ulterior reason: I wanted to visit The Eagle and Child.
For me, visiting The Eagle and Child was a sort of holy pilgrimage. I’m an avid reader of fantasy and have always dreamed of publishing my own fantasy novels. When one thinks of fantasy, the first name that will likely come to mind is JRR Tolkien, the father of what today is considered “epic fantasy.” Add to the fact that this was pub that Tolkien met with CS Lewis (another big influencer in the development of my spiritual life), and it was a no-brainer that we needed to visit it.
When we finally arrived and sat down, my friends and I kept joking around, saying things like, “I bet Tolkien and Lewis sat right there” or “We just stepped where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis stepped on their way to the restroom.” Yet, at the same time there was a semblance of almost being on holy ground. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What conversations were had here?” The Eagle and Child bears with it a legacy and it bears that weight well. And yet, at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder, “What are the conversations happening here right now?”
Oxford is special not just because it has rich legacy, but because that conversation isn’t over. As we walked the streets, we saw many university students walking along with their friends. These young scholars come to the university with dreams – dreams that further the legacy that is continuously being written there. This legacy may look different in the years to come, but it is built on the backs of those who came before.
For true innovation is built on the back of tradition and legacy.
Let me continue with Tolkien to elaborate this point. For many, JRR Tolkien is seen to be father of epic and high fantasy. The themes he uses (which in and of themselves are not unique, but an innovation on classic mythological texts), the archetypes of his characters (again, an innovation or inspiration of classic myths), and even the creatures he uses (once again, innovation or drawn directly from classic myths) have become the benchmark of what people know about fantasy. If one were to read the vast amount of literature that came after Tolkien, one can easily see his influence on their writing.
Robert Jordan, the author of The Wheel of Time series and often regarded as the “modern day Tolkien”, once said in an interview that the opening chapters of his first novel The Eye of the World were written in a way that would purposely evoke the imagery of the Shire. Jordan introduces the reader to a vast cast of characters that journey from the small town of Emmond’s Field under the guide of a “wise wizard”-type character, Moiraine, because the Dark One is hunting this unseemly party of farm kids. Is Jordan’s work original? In many ways, yes. However, it is built on the foundation that Tolkien laid with the publishing of The Lord of the Rings.
Innovation can be seen in all areas of life. If one were to look at who influenced their favorite musician, one can likely find interviews where the musicians points out an older musician who influenced their sound. I remember watched a History of the Eagles documentary where the band members shared who some of their biggest influences were or which ones inspired them to learn to play music. They are building on the foundation of those who came before them.
As leaders, what does this notion of “legacy” have to do with us? In my undergraduate program, I was required to take a General Baptist Heritage class (my school was sponsored by the General Baptists). The professor was an older General Baptist preacher who was working at a local Methodist church as an interim pastor. One day, as we were discussing the material, he looks at our class and tells us how important having a heritage is. In a moment of musing, he said, “You know, for me the hardest thing to see is many of these ‘non-denominational’ churches. I often wonder what they have to fall back on when things get tough.”
I remember that this statement struck me fairly hard. I had never considered the implications of tradition, history, or legacy at this point. As General Baptists, we had a history that we were carrying with us or that we could look back on to see how things have changed. It was a history that molded and shaped us into who we were today.
But that doesn’t stop the process of innovation. When we look back at our history and our legacy, we see where it is we come from and can have an idea of where we are heading.
As we step into our Doctor of Ministry program, we follow the steps of those who came before us. We step into their legacy as much as we form our own. We step into the mistakes that were made, but we also step into the triumphs that were celebrated as well.
And that is something to be excited about.