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.

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