The Medieval and Brilliant Mind of C. S. Lewis

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind by Jason M. Baxter is published by Intervarsity Press.

Had C. S. Lewis been the ONLY Christian writer that God had given us during the 20th Century, we would still be able to count that time as a great outpouring of blessings. I cannot begin to name all of the great theologians, novelists, poets, philosophers, and other writers that God lavished and flooded upon us during one of the otherwise most violent centuries of all time.

Of the writing and making of books about C. S. Lewis, there is no end. That too is another blessing. Once you think you have learned quite enough about his life, mind, and writings, along comes another study that examines it all from another angle and reveals and enhances the depth and riches of his life’s work.

I knew that I would like The Medieval Mind of Lewis from the start: The title had his name in it, the term Great Books, and the word Medieval. But the book has a lot more depth than I first suspected. Although I don’t recall any teacher in any class that I had in college or graduate school courses ever mentioning Lewis, he was a top-notch scholar and a prime candidate for studies in the academic world. Much to the consternation of some disgruntled old profs and his now deceased colleagues, he was also an immensely popular writer.

I somewhat expected that this book would begin with a list of Lewis’ favorite books from that vast period of Medieval history and would then give delightful summaries and exhortations regarding such books. It does give some of his top reads, but it takes ideas from the books and develops what thoughts Lewis had on the subjects and how these ideas impacted his own writings.

For those of us who love lists, here are Lewis’ top ten books that he says shaped his life and vocation:

  1. Phantastes by George MacDonald
  2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton
  3. The Aeneid by Virgil
  4. The Temple by George Herbert
  5. Prelude by William Wordsworth
  6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
  7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  8. Life of Johnson by Samuel Boswell
  9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams
  10. Theism and Humanism by James Arthur Balfour

(Just for the record, I only have 5 of these [2, 3, 4, 7, 8] and have only completely read 3 of the 5 [2, 3, 7]. I may have numbers 5 and 1.)

For a man who so highly treasured the Medieval period, this list might look confusing. Only Boethius is a Medieval author, but Williams’ book is about Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Lewis himself wrote two books about Medieval literature:

On the one hand, he was not merely stuck in the Medieval portion of the university library, poring over Medieval texts. It was more that the Medieval era, worldview, mindset impacted his way of thinking. He could embrace a book or idea, no matter how modern, that reflected some of the Theo-centric and Christian worldview of the Medieval era. And if it didn’t, he often found little to like about the book that hoisted its flags firmly on modernity.

His own books generally reflected or directly attributed the idea that he loved most from Medieval studies.

The Great Divorce by Lewis is one such example. In a sense, one could describe the book as a modern, highly condensed version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Baxter titled one chapter “Why Lewis Loved Dante.” That chapter reminded me all too painfully how much I have missed in receiving The Divine Comedy and The Great Divorce way too late in life.

Another book that gets much attention in Baxter’s study is The Consolation of Philosophy. What is so attractive, engaging, and sometimes frustrating about Boetheius is that he weaves theological and Biblical truths together. There are seams between the two, but they are not easily discerned. The stodgy Calvinist in me wants Boetheius to write The Consolation of Theology, but he didn’t. His Christian thinking was interwoven with “secular ideas.” Lewis helps us–not to clearly separate–but to enjoy both strands in Boethius.

No doubt the student doing research paper could find a useful quote or idea about one of the many Medieval texts discussed. But this book is primarily about how Lewis thought. He was as complicated and deep a thinker as he was expressive as a writer.

This book is fun, really fun. But it is not a fluffy retelling of Lewis’s life or writing career. I highly recommend it.

Knowing Sin by Mark Jones

Knowing Sin: Seeing a Neglected Doctrine Through the Eyes of the Puritans by Mark Jones is published by Moody Publishers.

Both in the academic world and the Christian community, Puritan studies have been on a rising trajectory for quite a few years now. Gone are the days when the history class stereotypes branded the Puritans as a fun-hating, dreary, morose, judgmental group of religious fanatics. Gone, hopefully, are the days when Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter was read as an historical document revealing the hypocrisy and meanness of the Puritans. Gone are the days when Puritan ways were celebrated for being eclipsed by the Enlightenment thought of their scientific and open-minded descendents.

I don’t want to suggest that all have climbed aboard the bandwagon. I am strongly suggesting that access to the riches of the Puritans is engulfing us.

The tidal wave of Puritan works has its own liabilities. I have gleefully placed quite a few sets of Puritan works on my heavy-laden bookshelves. Puritans were typically exhaustive (and exhausting) when dealing with spiritual topics. They wrote pages on what some modern might try to say in a sentence. They wrote whole books over what today’s preacher might reduce to three simple/simplistic points.

Wordy, yes. Endless, maybe. But it was not just flowery talk and verbal padding. They really studied, dug at, expanded, examined, meditated on, and applied passages and doctrines to the Christian life. They treated the Scripture as though its teachings really mattered. Hence the value of the Puritans.

“What Puritan books do you recommend?” “What should I read first?”, and similar questions often come up. I would mention that the serious reader rush over to see what Banner of Truth has reprinted and what Reformation Heritage Books is currently pushing. Just pick one or ten and start reading. I might be inclined to recommend Thomas Watson first or that so often read book The Pilgrim’s Progress. And if one wants to tackle Jonathan Edwards, there is plenty to choose from in very readable editions (unlike my two weighty small print Banner editions).

But the best way to meet the Puritans is through a mutual friend, or a mediator, if you wish, between us and those grand theologians. In the past years, two men who were legends in the Christian community were key modern Christian writers with Puritan connections. They were Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer. They were both digging up and gleaning from Puritans back when the books were not easily found.

Along with them, and still living, is Iain Murray. Murray has helped promote Puritan writings and reprints for year at the Banner of Truth Trush. I am sure that there are quite a few others who have labored to put Puritan theology back on the shelves of pastors and serious Christian readers today.

Mark Jones is currently, perhaps, the best Puritans quoter, promoter, and expert. Theologically and academically, he has the tools to write those scholarly journal articles that most of us would never know existed. He has a PhD. from Leiden University, after all. But he writes for…me. (Maybe he has a picture of me at his desk to use when writing.) He knows I love books, love Puritans, love theology, and love to read, but that I am also untrained, a novice, and a man who would readily attain a 12 volume set of the works of Thomas Goodwin, but keep hesitating to take the plastic shrink wrap off of the books.

Knowing Sin is not just a handy collection of great Puritan quotes. The Puritans are called in a supporting witnesses to a number of areas that Jones focuses on in regard to the doctrine of sin.

Yet, we all know sin, right? Or we can answer as Calvin Coolidge did when he referred to his pastor’s sermon on sin: He was against it. And we routinely pray for God to forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses as we…this is the hard part…forgive others. And we can often name our sins: I got mad today; I spoke rudely to my wife; my mind wandered off when I was praying; or maybe it wandered off instead of me praying.

Key problem is that we deal with sin (and hence salvation) superficially. I can actually give some pretty good explanations and excuses for my sins. They really aren’t so bad, if only you knew my challenges. I confess I am a sinner, but I also profess to be living a relatively good life.

Puritans are surgeons. They don’t traffic much in Band-Aids and simple surface remedies. They hurt you. And Mark Jones doesn’t enter the operating room without a support staff of scalpel wielding Puritans.

There are 18 chapters to this book. Many of the chapter titles are witty plays on song titles and familiar sayings. Jones is pastoral and humble. He does not seek to set us straight, but rather he takes us along with him as he explores this really serious disease we have been forgive for and that still lingers.

Good and fast readers could probably knock this book out in a day or two. I strongly advise against that. One chapter a day is sufficient. Add thought. And prayer. And application.

Side note: Mark and I are not personal friends, but I have, many times, been uplifted by his delightful family posts on Facebook. He has strong views, as we Calvinists are prone to, but a gentle spirit. He has a beautiful family and a great ministry through writing and preaching. We are living in a great era and are also enjoying the past eras that had their own accomplishments.

Disclosure Statement: I received a copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for a review.

Readings in American History

Reading, learning, and teaching American history is not an easy, one-time-through-the-book, course of action. Whoever thinks that history is an easy subject with just some dates and dead people’s names to memorize doesn’t understand serious historical studies.

Or maybe, I am just slow. Nearly 50 years after entering college to be a history major, I am still adjusting and re-adjusting my sites so as to understand what happened and why.

Here are three fine history studies that I recently read that have proven to be enjoyable accounts, but also site adjustments. Time is ticking too fast for me to assume that I will ever get a perfectly clear vision in this life of the subject I have devoted so many years to.

We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie is published by Intervarsity Press.

Books on the Founders–either as a group or as individuals–have been pouring off of the presses like a flood in recent years. With a popular musical highlighting the life of Alexander Hamilton, one can find all manner of praise, blame, friendships, discord, shenanigans, and noble actions among those men.

We the Fallen People adds a new perspective on this issue. One of the most important aspects of this book is its discussion of how the Founders embraced a Biblical view of human nature. At the same time, either their embrace of Original Sin, human depravity, or man’s propensity to evil was sometimes grounded in direct Christian influences, but at other times accepted from more secular traditions.

Those who want to recast the Founders as a school of divinity are, in spite of their intentions, misrepresenting the Founders. Nor are those who, as we often were taught in the past, indicate that the Founders were purely Enlightenment-based secularists.

The Founders and the documents they produced were geared toward a recognition of the sinful human nature to use the powers of civil government for ill.

And then the narrative changed! The prosecution calls to the witness chair General/President Andrew Jackson. The Era of Jacksonian Democracy turned the tables on many of the traditions, foundations, and ideas of the still-young Republic. In the Jacksonian narrative, the voice of the people was good. Jackson’s tendency was to villainize any who stood in his way. (Actually, he often preferred to shoot them.)

I have read several books over the past few years that have been very favorable to Andrew Jackson. A few others, like this one, are quite unfavorable. Call it a weakness in me, but I am often blown both here and there on Jackson based on the book I am reading. Much to the disappointment of many, I can never quite shake off an admiration for the man. Much to the disappointment of others, I can never fully embrace Jackson the man or the policies. (And he was a dedicated Christian with Presbyterian roots and convictions, which works in my favorable category.)

Dr. McKenzie is a history professor at Wheaton College. I think I met him when we took our son Nick to Wheaton some years ago. We the Fallen People is a useful study. I can see it sparking debates and affirmations in a good college-level discussion. It can also add lots of perspectives for the mere history teacher who is trying to race through the early chapters of the textbook. And it is books like this that caused me to never succeed in my attempts to race through such classes.

The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny is by Tony Williams.

Tony is a Facebook friend who has, over the past several years, become a real friend in many senses. I always enjoy his updates on his readings, the adventures of his family, the basketball exploits of his son Paul, and his helpful advice on books to acquire. If he and I ever join forces in a good used bookstore, we will certainly do some damage to the inventory.

I think I own copies of all of his books. In this case, I had a copy, but found this even better and signed copy in a thrift store. I don’t know what convinced Gloria to depart with her signed copy, but her loss is my really cheap, but valuable gain.

It is a shame that this book is not currently in print. It is a book for the times we are living in. It is a useful light on many of the issues we have been facing as a nation with an epidemic. If I had read this book years ago, I would have thought it good, but having read it in the light of the past two years’ experiences, I found it even better than expected.

History doesn’t, in spite of the popular saying, repeat itself. This book doesn’t reveal, like some Nostradamus-like prophecy, what we are going through. “History teaches us that…” is a usually vapid phrase. Usually, it is said to mean, “What I believe about things can be backed up by this historical anecdote.”

What history does is provide perspectives. Ours was not the first, nor the last, epidemic. The plethora of blame, false narratives, myths, and confusion of our epidemic are not unlike similar reactions in the past. Nor are controversies over the vaccines or innoculations.

The smallpox epidemic that hit Boston created a flurry of controversies between men of religion and men of science. You have all known this: Men of religion looked to faith and the Bible, while men of science looked to science and Enlightenment thought. The matter is settled. We religious folk need to humbly confess that we are a bit on the narrow minded side.

But wait! The story of this epidemic found that the premier religious leader, Cotton Mather, was no novice when it came to science (or theology). He was the key theologian who promoted the use of the controversial inoculations. Mather is given short shrift in all too many historical accounts. Even those who will tip the hat to Jonathan Edwards will still social distance themselves from both Cotton and Increase (his father) Mather.

Mather was a towering intellect. I confess to my shame to having read far too little of the massive Magnalia Christi Americana. I will take a cheap shot and blame my college history professors for not grounding us in the older historians.

Along with Mather, there was one doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, who advocated for and practiced giving inoculations. A more educated and prominent doctor, one William Douglas, who railed against inoculations.

The fur did fly in these fights. And these were not mere academic differences. Everyone in Boston was under threat. If you were immune (from an earlier bout with smallpox), you still witnessed family, friends, and neighbors suffering. And business suffered. Just as we experienced supply chain issues, Boston had such. Firewood, a vital necessity, became scarce. Wood-cutters were not interested in getting near town or getting the infection. Nor were ship captains anxious to land their loads of cargo at the port of Boston.

Mather, himself, witnessed deaths in his family and congregation. Not all were from smallpox, since diseases come in all shapes and sizes. He had to glean messages from Scripture that gave comfort to grieving parents, spouses, and friends. He had to preach when his own heart was broken from deaths of a daughter and grandchild.

Two other key characters in this narrative are the Franklin brothers. James Franklin, the older and less known of the two, used his newspaper to attack Mather, Boylston, and the concept of inoculation. Young Benjamin began writing a series of jibes under a pseudonym that poked at the clergy and others.

Time and more open views of science enabled Boston to recover from the epidemic. Mather lived out his rich life, weary however from his toils. Doctors and those who “followed the science” came to see how inoculations saved lives. The younger Franklin brother moved to Philadelphia and continued on his road to success as a man of both science and politics.

This is a rousingly good story, and it is history. And let me add, this book gives an honest, favorable, and affirmative view of Puritans and the society they established. All too often, I have read fine historians who seem utterly blind and ignorant when they venture into explaining theology or people of faith. Certainly, I would tweak a few sentences here and there, but overall, Tony Williams explains the Puritans and Cotton Mather in what I judge to be accurate terms.

Irreconcilable Founders: Spencer Roane, John Marshall, and the Nature of America’s Constitutional Republic by David Johnson is published by Louisiana State University Press.

I imagine that I have come across the name Spencer Roane during my years of reading. However, I had no conscious memory of the name or the man. And the name of John Marshall is large and bold in the outlines and teachings of American history and government.

Sometimes, it is the less known person, the second fiddle, who really plays a critical role in events. Sometimes, it is the case of the minor figure who saw events more clearly than the well-known names. I have discovered many such men and women in history who don’t get the shout-outs, the references, the honors due to them.

With just a few minor changes here and there, Spencer Roane could have been well remembered. He could have and probably should have been on the Supreme Court. He was occasionally mentioned as a Vice Presidential candidate, although that is no pathway to certain fame. There were those who also thought he was of Presidential timber. But the “What If’s” of history cannot be substituted for the actual events.

Roane’s political life was found in the Virginia Supreme Court. His major writings were opinions that were usually objections to the national Supreme Court’s ruling under John Marshall. Roane’s causes were the “Lost Causes” of Jeffersonian rule, States Rights, limited government, and judicial restraint. He opposed the ratification of the Constitution for the same reasons that many wise men of his day did. The “Anti-Federalists” have to take the side of the British in the War for Independence, Mexico in the Mexican-American War, the Confederacy in the Late Unpleasantness, and others who lost the battles or issues of their day.

It is easy enough to generalize American history as a progress where things got better and better. There is lots of progress in history. It is easy enough to see a destiny, manifest or unfolding, where America does prove to be a light on a hill for all the world to see. Both liberals and conservatives today point to particular events as evidences of right overcoming wrong, And people will gleefully sing of “God’s truth marching on” in the context of America’s actions.

But such rosiness is not usually good history. Nor is it good or accurate commentary on the present situation. Spencer Roane railed, wrote, and argued for a restraint of our judiciary that speaks to issues still being battled over today.

Just yesterday, a new justice to the Supreme Court was confirmed. It takes no insight to know that she will embrace John Marshall’s vision far more than that of Spencer Roane. And I might suggest that she could no more explain Roane than she could explain what a woman is.

This is yet another book, like the two reviewed above, that is more relevant than today’s headlines. Thankfully, a biography of Roane (a short 120 pages, with an additional 70 pages of his writings) will broaden knowledge of the man. I can hope that from this academic study, Roane’s presence in our country’s history and ideas will start seeping into more minds and causing his name to get a host of mentions. I hope future history teachers will learn of him earlier than I did.

Many thanks to my friend, Gordon “Koty” Arnold, one of the brightest young scholars I know, for calling my attention to this book.

The Reformation of the Church

The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, edited by Iain Murray is published by Banner of Truth.

Let’s face it, some books call for a long, hard slog. I love page turners, meaning those books that are hard to put down. I find myself wanting to race to the end and yet dreading that time when the book is finished. Some books gain momentum as the reader progresses. I told my students who were assigned to read The Brothers Karamazov that the book would pick up the pace after the first 300 or 400 pages. (That is actually more true of other lengthy novels.)

But some books are hard reads. Some books demand commitment. Some books are a page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter task to read.

Yet, the slogging through a book is often needed. No, not everyone needs to slog. No, not every slog is worth the effort. And NO, NO, NO, a slog is not what is needed at the bedside for relaxation.

The Reformation of the Church is a slow, weighty, challenging read that is worth the slog. There are plenty of books out there that diagnose church problems, that recommend church strategies, that counsel and advise pastors and elders, that give quick easy encouragement to church leaders, and that are easy, teachable, sharable nuggets of help to all of us living in the world of church life. I have profited from many such books.

But our churches today are the products of long, hard, difficult battles over theology, liturgy, polity, and outside forces. The Reformation was not just about Martin Luther rediscovering the experience of personal salvation. His was the first (or arguably the 500th) domino to fall in a series that led to church and world-changing consequences for several centuries, including our own.

The essays in this book deal with some testy issues of days past that are not seemingly relevant to our times. The ministerial attire of English pastors was a battleground issue. Seems strange to me because I see good and godly pastors whose clothing styles range from overly casual to well-dressed to robes. But surplices and cassocks riled men of Puritan temperament.

That issue is not one where we see the lines clearly drawn today. Some of my Anglican pastor friends preach solid sermons, as do my more causally dressing pastor friends. But there was a need in the purifying battles of the post-Reformation period for reforms to be root and branch. We can all agree on the root reforms more easily than the branch reforms.

The chapter I am currently reading is on the topic of bishops and episcopacy. For clarification, I am a Presbyterian with low views of presbytery connections who is a part of a Southern Baptist church that seems to have no views of denominational connections. (Long story there that I will forego telling.)

“Bishops” is a biblical word that seems to be wrongly used by some and ignored by others. I am constantly astounded by churches that proclaim adherence to the Bible as the truth, but they ignore Biblical teachings and examples regarding ministry. Churches today often have a pastor and a staff of others that includes music ministers, assistant pastors, associate pastors, youth pastors, senior pastors, etc.

But what about elders? The eldership is not a vaguely mentioned, scarcely noticed concept in the Bible. The Reformers, the Puritans, the Covenanters, and their American heirs would never have skipped past such issues and raced on to make plans for a summer softball league. And the churches are groaning because we don’t have proper, Biblical leadership. And head pastors are flailing and failing because we have elevated their office to a multitasking monstrousity.

The Reformation of the Church is not going to be a chapter-by-chapter resource for quickly solving church problems. Most of what I as a former pastor and you as a pastor or layman are facing will not show up in black and white print in this book.

So why read it? Part of our problem today is simply that—it is a problem today. We have no historical depth, no rooted convictions, no history to guide us (other than last year’s business meeting minutes). We are thinking like Moderns. That also means that we are not thinking at all.

The Reformation of the Church should be either assigned as a whole or in part for students seriously studying church history. (Okay, that sold a few copies.) But men training for the pastorate should also read it. (Sales bumped up a bit.) The huge numbers of wide-eyed Christians who are part of “worship teams” should also read it in order to find the Reformation and Puritan roots of “worship teams.” (I don’t expect any rush to purchase from that statement.) The Christian in the pew might be okay with focusing on issues other than those in this book, but that is true only if he or she is in a church where the leadership understands this book.

One other reason for reading this book: Iain Murray is the editor of this work. He is the best popular church historian and biographer of our time. His many books have laid out the names and stories of many great leaders in church history particularly in the British Isles. His biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards are classics. His labors with Banner of Truth are sterling.

So, prepare to slog through the book. Read slowly and wonder how the seemingly arcane discussions of the past reveal weaknesses today that you and I have not taken seriously. This won’t necessarily be an easy read, but it will be profitable.