One of the highlights of any trip I’m a part of is a visit to Oxford. I was introduced to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as a graduate student (by fellow students), and both have served to inspire me over time. Lewis and Tolkien were great storytellers who created worlds that capture readers’ imaginations. The characters and stories are memorable. For me, these writers gave me hope that one could be a committed Christian and be a person who pursued the life of the mind. Lewis and Tolkien carried “weight” in their academic disciplines, and they also translated their Christian commitments into stories that were understandable by the general reader. (There have been many others to be sure, including Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams and Flannery O’Connor, to name but a few.) Thus, visiting Oxford is a pilgrimage for me, and I think the students could appreciate that.
I am not always sure why we like visiting the spaces that great persons occupied. When we were visiting Ireland we learned that it was fairly commonplace for churches to possess “relics” – some object (or perhaps even the bones of a saint) that had been touched by a saintly person. The people of that era believed that relics provided special access to spiritual power. If saints – those who were the closest to God – touched or blessed certain objects, then it stood to reason that the objects could convey similar power to the disciple. After all, one woman was healed by touching just the hem of Jesus’ garment!
Today, scholars and even the followers of Jesus will note that our forebears misunderstood Jesus’ message and failed to understand that the “power” was in Jesus, not in any object or bones that one might possess. True enough. But God made us physical beings, and touch and sight are important. We still claim the truth that the “power” of the Gospel resides in Jesus, but symbols and even places can be living reminders of the faithful presence of Christ over time. (I am not trying to defend the use of relics by the way!).
I believe that this is why we enjoy visiting, seeing and touching places that are associated with Christians who we believe followed God closely. It may not bring any special spiritual power to the visitation, but it helps us identify with God, and in this case, with two great writers who loved Jesus – Lewis and Tolkien. At least that is my explanation!
While in Oxford we visited C.S. Lewis’ home, the Kilns (it was purchased by an American group that has restored the home). We walked around the pond and forest that surrounds the home and the area that inspired some of his stories. We visited his church and sat in the pew near the Narnian stained-glass window that he and his brother Warnie used each Sunday. (Yes, even C.S. Lewis sat in the same pew in church over many years.) We went to Magdalene College where Lewis taught and took the Addison’s Walk where Tolkien and Hugo Dyson helped Lewis move to a belief in Jesus Christ (see photos below). Finally, we visited the famed British pub (The Eagle and Child, pictured above) where the Inklings gathered weekly to discuss their works together (and yes, drink alcoholic beverages as well).
Our students seemed to enjoy the visits as much as Mark Weinert and I did. They took pictures and reflected on their own reading of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The architecture of Oxford is magnificent, and the heritage and history of the place draws thousands. But, in general, I think most people are drawn here because some of the best minds of humanity have studied here and achieved here. Visiting Oxford gives you a sense of rootedness that our culture lacks. The fact that humans have been studying and working together here for centuries certainly conveys a sense of hope. Even the more recent story of Harry Potter finds its roots at Christ College, and it proved to be one of the favorite destination points of our students (more on that in the next blog).