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Stealing Past the Dragon of Reason
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Tom Quad at Christ Church College, Oxford

Stepping through the Tom Gate at Christ Church College in Oxford is a bit like stepping into Hogwarts, the magical school for wizards from the Harry Potter movies. That’s no coincidence given that some of the scenes for those movies were filmed among the Medieval and Renaissance-era Gothic buildings of Oxford. The Hall at Christ Church, for example, was used as the model for the Hogwarts Great Hall in the movies, and the Bodleian Library provided the backdrop for some of the other scenes that have become part of the visual legacy of J.K. Rowling’s imaginative writing.

The Hall at Christ Church College, Oxford.

This was the inspiration for the Hogwarts Great Hall.







Walking to Christ Church College from the train station involves dodging packs of young tourists, many of them wearing faux academic robes and Gryffindor scarves while wielding their “official” $40 wands. The number of Harry Potter walking tours in Oxford is roughly akin to the number of ghost tours at Gettysburg—that is to say, more than enough.


I made the trek to Oxford on the last leg of my renewal leave journey to the UK, arriving there for the two week Oxford Summer School of Theology hosted by Christ Church College. I had been looking forward to this ever since the idea of renewal leave was in its infancy more than a year ago. In fact, I had been looking forward to being at Oxford as one of my bucket list items for most of my ministry life because it would be a chance to live and study were John and Charles Wesley did their undergraduate work in the early 18th century. If the kids jamming the streets were wild about Harry, I was even more stoked about walking in the footsteps of my theological heroes.


For two weeks I got to take my meals in the same Hall where John and Charles did, and while there were no magical pictures dancing on the walls there is a portrait of John Wesley amidst the others that hang there—paintings of distinguished graduates including Prime Ministers like William Pitt, famous scientists and philosophers like John Locke, and a huge one of King Henry VIII who founded Christ Church College in the mid-16th century. Christ Church Cathedral has a plaque on the floor indicating that this was where both John and Charles were ordained as priests in the Church of England. Up the street is Lincoln College, where John Wesley became a Fellow after graduation. It was in these halls that John and Charles, along with a few other friends, formed the first “Holy Club” that would spark the Methodist movement.


I’ll say more about the Wesleys at Oxford during my September sermon series, but I was also intrigued by the number of other famous folk who are connected to Oxford and who used it as a springboard for their own imagination. Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Christ Church, who was inspired by College’s trees and gardens to write Alice in Wonderland and Jabberwocky as tales for children (though they are little wacked out in my humble opinion!). J.R.R. Tolkien was a student at nearby Exeter College and would go on to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ringstrilogy among many other works (in fact there was a great exhibit at the Bodleian Library featuring some of his original manuscripts and drawings). And then there was C.S. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien, who taught at Magdalen College and who would pen works that have inspired generations of people to faith in Christ.


One of the most interesting events during my time at Oxford was a lecture by Professor Alistair McGrath who is a Christian apologist that, like Lewis, came to faith after being an atheist. He was written the seminal biography of Lewis as well as other great works defending the Christian faith through the lens of science and story. Unlike John Wesley, who used sermons, logic, and arguments to communicate the Christian faith, McGrath says that Lewis and Tolkien tapped into imagination, creating whole new universes like Narnia and Middle Earth to draw people into a different path to the Christian message. As Lewis famously put it, “Stories steal past the dragon of reason.” To put it another way, stories invite us to suspend the reasons we don’t believe something and instead consider what might be possible and transcendent.


That’s why all these kids wander around Oxford in their robes swishing and flicking their wands. They are searching for a story that speaks to them. And like Lewis and Tolkien, J.K. Rowling gave them a different universe where they could imagine new possibilities (and like Lewis and Tolkien, a universe that contains themes that are at least associated with Christianity—a battle between good and evil, laying down one’s life for one’s friends, and a savior who is chosen to rescue their world).


Of course, you could also argue that the Wesley brothers were also inviting the poor of England to consider a different sort of world and themselves as a different sort of people—people who have received God’s grace and can live differently as a result. Then again, nobody is walking around Oxford dressed like John Wesley and there are no movies based on his sermons! Still, it was all a reminder that preachers like me are in the business of inviting people to use their theological imaginations and there is a place for both argument and narrative in our apologetic for the Christian faith.


I was most inspired by the story of a long walk that Lewis and Tolkien took together along with their friend Hugo Dyson on September 20, 1931. They began walking the mile-long circuit of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College after dinner that evening and their talk lasted well into the early hours of the next day. It was during that walk that Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis see the connection between the medieval myths he had been studying and the “true myth” of Christianity. It was a walk that would lead Lewis himself to give his life to Christ. As Lewis put it:


Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.


In other words, like I said in my last post, the best stories are often those that are true!


Magdalen College, Oxford

taken from Addison’s Walk

The preacher in my perked up at this. In a world where people are constantly arguing their points and talking past one another, we preachers need to become better at telling stories that “steal past the dragon of reason.” As Alistair McGrath put it, we humans construct stories because we are meant to—it’s part of our vocation as people created in the image of God. We reflect something of the story of God in the stories that we tell. Every generation must be willing to translate theology into the vernacular. In a world where radical atheists like Richard Dawkins dumb things down to slogans and sound bites, Christian apologists and preachers need to rise above the temptation to argue and, instead, be willing to tell better stories.


Oxford is full of history and stories. The classes I took at the Summer School of Theology were…ok. But I found myself really wanting to lean more into the theological magic of stories; to pick up some Tolkien (which I haven’t read since I was a kid), or Lewis’ Narnia series (which I’ve never read), or even just pick up a novel once in a while instead of yet another non-fiction book. I think it’s the pathway to even better preaching, particularly in an argumentative age.


Those stories have a power that no $40 wand will ever match!

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