Book Review: C.S. Lewis & Friends
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Despite writing’s inherently solitary nature, writing groups, whether collaborative or supportive, have been around for a long, long time. Shoot, even Shakespeare co-wrote scripts later in his career, and it’s hard to argue that his fellow actors didn’t have at least some input on the plays. Nevertheless, there have been few groups as monumental as the Inklings. Despite an informal nature and fluid membership, this group of Oxford intellectuals had a tremendous influence on the literature which followed them.
Although not strictly an Inklings book, this collection of essays provides a deep insight into the philosophy and theology of six authors whose collective work has had far-reaching ripples. Although not as well-known as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (the book’s first and last subjects), Austin Farrer, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and Rose Macaulay were just as contextual and influential to each other as they were to the literary lions they called friends. Rather than present a biography, the book’s contributors discuss on how each author thought and wrote about the interplay between faith and imagination. In many ways, this tells you more about each subject’s character than a standard treatment.
The book does cover bits and pieces of each author’s life (less so with Lewis and Tolkien, about whom much has been written), but only insofar as the historical events contributed to their writing and philosophy. What unites the essays as a cohesive whole is the belief that one’s imagination is central to understanding the Christian faith. For many people, I think, imagination has a frivolous or even negative connotation. It’s something to be used by children or while daydreaming; it has little practical application for serious-minded adults, especially those seeking to deepen their faith. The writers in this book, both the living and the dead, argue differently.
In their introduction, the editors maintain that “to recognize and engage with the effective presence of God, in the midst of [life’s] particulars, imagination is not just helpful; it is necessary” (p. 5). At its core, imagination is about dealing with images. The original Latin root, imago, means image. Our word imagination is essentially the verb form of imago; it is the act of creating images. Such action is central to Christianity, although I don’t think many people stop to consider this fact. The Scriptures are filled with stories which stir pictures in our minds. From the burning bush to Daniel in the lion’s den to Jesus on the cross, our faith is filled with word-created pictures, necessitating a complementary imagination. “Through reading great literature,” Lewis said, “I become a thousand men and yet remain myself” (p. 25). This is just as true when reading the Bible as it is anything else. One of the great joys of reading is that we can walk beside people we might never meet; we can, in some cases, become them, if only for a short while. In John 15: 4, Jesus says “remain in me, as I also remain in you.” As abstract as this might sound, by reading the Bible, the stories of God and Jesus, we have a tangible way to do just that. Our imaginations allow us to walk by the Sea of Galilee and reach out a hand to a group of poor fishermen. Indeed, we can follow the path Jesus took to its ultimate conclusion because we have a book which lets us imagine what it was like for Him and the disciples to do so at the beginning.
This is a wonderfully dense, complex book, and one which I think merits a slow reading. The contributors are arguably as erudite as their subjects, and I found myself with much to ponder in only 133 pages. In fact, I marked 20 or so passages which I have yet to return to properly. To put that number in context, I frequently read whole books without flagging a single sentence. As slim as it is, Hein and Henderson’s collection merits the time and effort it asks of a reader. It most certainly requires an active mind, but thoroughly encourages one as well. In the end, I think that duality would have won the Inklings’ approval (and maybe even a pint down at the pub).