There are many examples of friends serving one another in life. Some are extreme and extravagant, but most are ordinary. I’ve heard many stories that have inspired me to look for good friends with whom I can engage and be engaged. I am a writer and teacher, so one of the friendship stories I’ve gravitated to the most is that of the Inklings of Oxford University.

The Inklings were an informal literary circle in Oxford that began meeting in the early 1930s and continued until the late 1940s. The core of the group consisted of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The group took particular pleasure in listening to one another read their works, which were in progress, aloud. Lewis and Tolkien invited other well-known and not-so-well-known authors to join them for informal, convivial meetings in Oxford pubs, later adding evening gatherings to read their works aloud, after which they would receive both praise and honest criticism. Gradually, the schedule of the Inklings’ meetings became regularized, so they generally met on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child pub (which they called the “Bird and Baby” or just the “Bird”) and at Lewis’s study rooms at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford on Thursday evenings. At the pub, they smoked their pipes, drank, and enjoyed good food (almost like hobbits). While they sat in the bar, they talked about language and literature.

As I’ve heard it described by those in the know, the Inklings were not afraid to mix it up a bit. These men were not all alike. Lewis was brash and boisterous. Tolkien seems to have been more reserved and introspective. (Not unlike Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, as you will read in a later chapter.) They did not agree on many things. Tolkien is said to have believed that Lewis’s use of allegory in his Space Trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia lacked the subtlety fitting an Oxford don. Even more personally, they often disagreed on moral and social issues.

Conversations between real friends are dangerous in that while friends walk alongside one another, their time is sometimes spent in a heated debate about the object of their discussion.

Despite their differences, they still met. They took the time to assemble because friendship, creativity, and debate are essential. They acknowledged that friendship, especially male friendship, does not work when focused on the other friend. Friends, as Lewis says in The Four Loves, walk alongside each other and cast their gaze together at something else, something outside themselves. In our current cultural milieu, this is a dangerous idea. When we cast our gaze on something else, some other topic, some other work, or some different concept, we open ourselves to the possibility of disagreement. Conversations between real friends are dangerous in that while friends walk alongside one another, their time is sometimes spent in a heated debate about the object of their discussion.

We need to regain some of these dangerous friendships. We need friendships like what Lewis and Tolkien shared—a friendship of this kind, defined by two people (at least two people) taking the initiative and making the time to share, care, and listen to the ideas of the other. This listening will then turn into an examination and critique of the ideas proposed. Review and analysis will in due time result in a debate over the ideas. The debate is where the danger arises, but it is also where we experience iron sharpening iron. And as “Iron sharpens iron,” the Proverb says, “one man sharpens another.”

To accomplish this, we need friends who are not like us, at least not wholly like us. To be a midwife to an idea or a work for another, the concept and work cannot be what we would have produced ourselves. Recent data suggests that our brains grow when paired in a creative enterprise with another person. When we converse and create together, we become better.

The Inklings were useful as a group because of their intellectual and personality differences. As Lewis explains in An Experiment in Criticism, there is not one person among us who holds all of the great ideas. So the creative process demands that we develop friendships with people who are not like and do not think exactly like us, and that we hunger for rational opposition.

Lewis scholar Diana Glyer began a paper I heard recently by saying, “If you want to be like Lewis, you need a little more Tolkien in your life.”[1] Though the two men were friends, they did have a falling out of sorts in the late 1940s. To my way of thinking, this only shows that they were both sinners, not that they were not friends. The proof of their enduring mutual friendship and respect comes late. In 1961, long after the Inklings disbanded, Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his benchmark work, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien did not win the prize, but Lewis’s nomination of his friend shows that he never lost respect for him or his sense of intellectual hospitality.

I want to be more like Lewis. Therefore, I need a little more Tolkien in my life. That is why I have, for as long as I can remember now, attempted to invite men into my life who are different than me. I need a Tolkien to my Lewis (if only). Danger is good. And when two or three gather, they have the freedom to challenge and serve one another at the same time.

A Necessary Topic for Today

I have spent a few pages explaining some reasons why I think we all, but especially men, need at least a few good friends.[2] If I am correct, then why do more than 10 million American men say they have no close friends? Why has male loneliness been named as a public health crisis? Maybe because we have devalued the idea of friendship. We have certainly devalued the need for men to gather together in true friendship.

When surveyed, just over half (61 percent) of men say they have two or fewer friends. In the United States, that approximates to around 75 million men! Furthermore, one in eight men overall said they have no friends. The data from these surveys suggest that men tend to have fewer close friends as they get older. Only 7 percent of those under twenty-four say they have no friends with whom they would discuss a serious topic, but 19 percent of those over fifty-five say the same.[3] Surprisingly (perhaps), married men are one-third more likely than their single counterparts to say they have no one to turn to outside of the home. What this means is that millions of men are experiencing a sense of profound loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages, and families.

Men report that they feel as though society has unrealistic expectations of them. They also report that they are expected to be all things to those in their lives yet do so without making real connections with other men outside of the home. They are supposed to be happy being isolated to the house and the responsibilities that lie therein. They are expected to act like they don’t need other men. Men are supposed to spend time with their wives. That’s normal, natural, and very healthy, but it often comes with the cost of declining friendships. Their marriage is rated as essential; their friendships are estimated as luxuries. This attitude needs to change.

Millions of men are experiencing a sense of profound loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages, and families.

As a result, more than 6 million American men report that they are depressed.[4] Grown men have a suicide rate three times that of women.[5] Men don’t share and say they are less comfortable striking up new friendships, increasing this sense of isolation and loneliness. Men tend to engage in a constant risk versus reward analysis. Risk: my wife will be pissed off, or I’ll miss another one of my kid’s soccer games if I spend needed time with my friends. Reward: I’ll have time with my friends. Wife and children usually win out (as they should) over time with a friend or friends.

This mentality has not always been the case. Once men would gather together in lodges, fraternal organizations, or social groups. These are now disappearing or have completely disappeared. Dad used to golf on the weekend and got to the lodge on Wednesday night. Not now! Now he plays a taxi driver. As the earlier data illustrated, maybe some of this time would be better spent among friends. Men need friends!

I have collected the essays in this book to explore the now-countercultural idea of friendship, specifically male friendship, and why we all need at least a few good friends. We will explore male friendship as a gift from God and why friendship is a means by which we do good by being little Christs to each other, especially as we encourage and forgive one another in the name of Christ. As a side benefit to the presence of Christ among them, when two or three gather, loneliness and the resulting depression mentioned above are often reduced considerably.

An excerpt from “Where Two or Three are Gathered” written by Scott Keith (1517 Publishing, 2019), pgs 3-6, used by permission.