I took my family for a walk the other day down a path called Addison’s Walk: a mile-long footpath around an island created by the river Cherwell in Oxford, England. The island and the path are part of Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges that makes up Oxford University.
It was there on Addison’s Walk that CS Lewis and his friend Jack, AKA J.R.R. Tolkien, had a conversation late one night after dinner, which Lewis later said was a turning point in his journey from atheism to Christianity.
Tolkien and Lewis both taught at Oxford and they were both part of the Oxford literary society known as “The Inklings”. The Inklings would meet regularly at two pubs in Oxford: the Eagle and Child, which they nicknamed “Bird and Baby”, and the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs are still there today, on opposite sides of the same street. At their meetings, the Inklings would discuss literature and share their writings with each other. It was at the Lamb and Flag that Tolkien read his first drafts of The Lord of the Rings.
Lewis and Tolkien shared a love for stories. They both felt the power of stories, and Tolkien had written a book titled, On Fairy Stories, which discussed how even in a scientific age, an “age of reason,” for some reason, people still desire to hear and to read fictional stories, even stories which talk about a supernatural world. The reason for this, he said, is that the characteristics which make up all the stories which people love: good overcoming evil, escaping time, overcoming physical limitations, interacting with non-human creatures and other-worldly beings, etc.; these reflect the deep longings of the human heart.
The reason we can’t get enough of these stories, Tolkien argued, is because deep down we believe that this is the way the world SHOULD BE, even if it’s not the way it currently is. The reality of life is that good doesn’t always win, that eventually we are separated from those we love, and so on – but even if this is how things are, it’s not how we believe that they should be. And so we love to read stories which describe life the way we believe it should be.
CS Lewis agreed with Tolkien on this point, and believe that this was indeed the power of stories. However, Tolkien took it one step further that night on Addison’s Walk: he told his friend CS Lewis to consider the gospel story of Jesus Christ. This story, he said, contains all of the elements which make every great story great: love which overcomes death, life out of death, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, overcoming physical limitations, the promise of a world where things finally will be the way they should be… Lewis agreed.
Then Tolkien went one step further: he said, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all other stories point.
The gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all the other stories point.
CS Lewis then asked how he could be sure, to which Tolkien encouraged him to look at the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection.
It was that conversation which CS Lewis credited with leading him back to Christian faith. He went on to be one of the most effective apologists for CHristianity in the 20th century, partly because he was so intelligent, partly because he had been an atheist and was personally familiar with the arguments against Christianity, and partly because he was a layman and not a Christian minister.
I walked with my kids along Addison’s Walk, along the River Cherwell, and I told them the story of how Clive Lewis and Jack Tolkien had taken that walk along the same path, and I told them how Tolkien had shared with his friend this message of the gospel, and how all the things which cause us to love the stories we love point to “the true story of the world” – the story of Jesus and what he did for us.
As I did, my voice cracked a little bit as I tried to hold it together; you see, my heart has these deep longings as well. The promise of the gospel is that these things will not only remain longings, but one day they will once again be true, because of what Jesus did for us.