It was a brief and intensely happy time of my life. My wife and I moved from rural Japan to the grand city of Vancouver. Never having lived in anything more than a small town and moving from a mountain village to a big city, we were at first daunted by the sheer size–a couple of million people squeezed in between the ocean, rainforests, and mountains. This was a big step for the Dickieson family.
Almost immediately, we discovered that Vancouver was our town. We had a tiny, lovely garden entrance suite in an older part of the town. We became friends with our landlord and their ever-growing family. We found a great, weird church just a few feet from our back door. We lived a few blocks from the Commercial Drive community: a poor, colourful, diverse, street-driven, creative, eclectic international collective thrown together by necessity and intention along a mile-long strip just to the east of Chinatown. My wife found her feet and established a career working with kids in need at the Britannia project, and I fell in love with “The Drive” with its cheap pizza and sushi, its fruit markets and record stories and beggars who insist on organic food in their handouts–all to the constant sound of drumming at Grandview Park and the ever-present hint of green in the wind.
We loved Vancouver, and love it still. There were some life-changing bad things that happened there, but in the majority of our memories, Vancouver is a special place for us. As my wife was working out her career, Vancouver was the place where I began to give voice to my vocation with others.
A lot of that was my grad school, Regent College. If the language existed then, Regent may have been called a hipster seminary. “Unseminary” was the term they used at the time. It was at Regent with its fairtrade coffee, organic soup days, eclectic chapel services, art gallery, environmental design, and Inklings section in the bookstore that I found a place for the integrated, incarnational, creational worldview that I had been trying to work out. One of our early nights out as a couple might give a sense of the community we discovered: We were invited for a dinner-and-a-movie evening with other couples and single people from around the world. After an hour commute on the bus, we enjoyed sophisticated home-cooked cuisine and local wine, watched the Danish film Babette’s Feast, and then had a discussion about theologies of grace and the luxurious goodness of God.
And it was in that atmosphere that for the first time in my life found there was something like an intellectual life, and that I was fit to be formed in this life.
Regent College was a great space for connecting with writers, a time when I wrote poetry, chatted about our work with others, and saw that quiet desperation to be an author that I felt inside of my chest in the chests of others. At Regent I gathered the skills and energies needed to begin a career of writing, and set my first, overwrought novel on The Drive.
But one of the most important formation spaces for me was our Biblical Studies Guild, or the appropriately named BS Guild for short. The Guild had loose borders and meetings sometimes included other classmates and partners and friends. But at the centre was a group of five guys, born in four different countries on three continents, each of us quite different in the way we approached problems and talked about ideas. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but the catalyst for our guild was, believe it or not, the Settlers of Catan. If you don’t know the game, you won’t understand. For those that know Settlers and games like it, when the game is understood t starts to work in you like a feast. There is the game on the table, and we make choices and win and lose, but like the evening-long picking at food in a Canadian kitchen, it is really the conversation that counts.
And it was the BS Guild conversation that mattered to me. How refreshing it was for me to be able to talk about ideas with people who were better than me in many ways and yet still counted me an equal. Each guy had his own kind of intelligent: one was more philosophical, one more pastoral, one more missional, and one more artistic. I think the only thing I was the best at was learning these ancient languages that we all suffered through (which I still love teaching), but I probably contributed most in simple love of argument. The resulting conversation was to me “red beef and strong beer,” as C.S. Lewis said of his first real ideas conversation partner. The BS Guild gave me a place to play and test ideas and imagine possibilities, but one that was rooted in life and mission.
It was a relatively brief time of greatness. With graduations and further opportunities, the Guild disbanded, leaving no local legacy except our friendship, which is not nearly the thing I wish it was. Very soon after Regent College, I got into a pretty deep space of trouble, an all-consuming period of pain and loss that made the 4,000 miles from my apartment to Vancouver a space of interstellar distance. It was a painful time that meant a loss of 6 or 7 years of my vocational life.
Still, I had that space that formed me. The BS Guild is now in five countries on three continents. The guys have gone on to do important things, and I believe I am the only one who is still in limbo, trying to initiate the dreams I dreamt and the ideas that emerged at monthly Guild meetings.
I have had the gift of friendships since and relish deeply in my church and friendship groups. I enjoy some distance-digital friends that are essential to my formation now, and have made some pretty random connections of intellectual kindred spirits that are life-giving to me. But in many ways my paradigmatic space is back in Vancouver. I am fondly proud of the work of the BS Guild and grateful for the person they shaped in me. It isn’t back there any more, in Vancouver, but only in my imagination. Yet it is one of the forces in my life and one that I think resonates with other groups like it.
I wrote earlier this month about all the literary groups that formed some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and how L.M. Montgomery was alone. After attending an L.M. Montgomery international conference this past weekend, I feel Montgomery’s loss even more clearly. If she had had a group like mine, I think her intellect would have been grown as iron sharpens iron. I don’t know about how this would have affected her fiction, but I think it would have strengthened her essay writing, her poetry, and her mental health.
One of those powerful literary groups was the Inklings. This group that met in Oxford rooms and pubs for two decades made C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien into the writers that they were. Last week I shared a bit more of an insider’s look at the Inklings, introducing George Sayer’s history of the Inklings. Without the daring possibilities in Tolkien’s work, Lewis may never have turned to popular fiction. Without Lewis’ persistent support and criticism, Tolkien may never have completed that grand project of turning his mythology into the story, lyric, and epic that we have come to love so deeply.
It was at Regent College where I first discovered the name “the Inklings”–and thought it clever–but it took me years to learn the power those Oxford meetings really held. The BS Guild did for me what the Inklings did for each other. Sometimes things take time. C.S. Lewis each had projects they began during the late 30s in their Inklings context that they didn’t publish until the mid-50s. I hope it isn’t that long for me, but it will be 14 years from when the Guild disbanded and I will complete my PhD, which I first sketched out while playing Settlers of Catan.
There are myriad conversations about why the Inklings broke up. The introduction of Charles Williams to the group created distance between Tolkien and Lewis. That distance was increased with Lewis’ love affair with Joy Davidman: though Tolkien knew that Joy’s presence had changed Lewis, Lewis didn’t even tell Tolkien when he was married. Lewis had expected that the Inklings would operate as a bachelor’s club, but when Joy appeared he wanted to include her and change the dynamics. Beyond those factors, Lewis was very weary in 1948-1951, until the death of Mrs. Moore and a year-long sabbatical. At times Tolkien was thoroughly overwhelmed by his twin chores of academic work and editing his mythology. Hugo Dyson’s antipathy to Tolkien’s legendarium–“Oh no! Not another f***ing elf!” he cried as Tolkien was reading once–was a factor in Tolkien’s quiet withdrawal. But I think Tolkien’s hasty and inappropriate rejection of Narnia may have hurt Lewis. Tolkien also struggled with Lewis’ apologetic project, and Owen Barfield could never participate in the way he wanted. There were many factors that contributed to the slow death of the Inklings.
But, frankly, 15 years of twice-weekly meetings, followed by 15 years of near-weekly pub sessions is a startling long period. In the end, based on my experience of a theological version of the Inklings, sometimes things change and friendships drift without any shocking or controversial reason. The Inklings lived its life, and then it faded. I think the value of the group is clear in the history that remains–not just the books and poems they wrote, but in their private papers. Warren Lewis’ diary is salt-and-peppered with Inklings encouragement. Tolkien’s letters talk of his fondness for C.S. Lewis, and the loss that Tolkien felt upon Lewis’ death.
And Lewis never stopped resonating for Tolkien. One of the gifts of Alister McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is his inclusion of an unpublished letter Lewis wrote to the Nobel Committee, nominating J.R.R. Tolkien for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature (see pg. 351). This note, written after the golden days of the Inklings, is a little indication of the power of a literary guild, a momentary and decades-long meeting of minds and hearts.