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Alan Mordue reviews 'The Medieval Mind of C S Lewis'

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Alan Mordue reviews 'The Medieval Mind of C S Lewis'
Alan Mordue reviews The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis by Jason Baxter 

It’s hard to put into words how pleased I am to see this book looking at this area of CS Lewis’s thinking, an area that is often misunderstood and underappreciated. This book is a very necessary and unique addition to Lewis studies.

The book answers so many questions people have about what seems like strange theology in the work of CS Lewis. The reason why a lot of people misunderstand or get confused by some of his theological pronouncements is that they are unfamiliar. Apart from his obvious love of the Bible, the greatest influences on Lewis were both the ancient fathers of the church and the medieval scholastic tradition. Baxter points out that in many ways Lewis has a Dante-esque theology of grace, and for many people brought up in the legacy of Calvin and Luther that can be perplexing. His slants can be surprising, the most obvious being his theology of the atonement where he uses medieval ontological devices in a surprisingly popular way. I often think to myself that Lewis is orthodox with a small ‘o’ rather than evangelical in his ideological outlook. Basically, he was a medievalist at heart, and it had a profound influence on every part of his outlook.

Baxter discusses at length one of my personal favourites by Lewis, his book on medieval romance, The Allegory of Love. Both that and Rudolf Otto’s great book The Idea of the Holy, which greatly influenced him, are prominently analysed by Baxter. He asks what it means to be holy and what it means to use allegory in the medieval sense, a theme that runs throughout all of Lewis’ works. The medieval world had a sense of what is culturally useful in non-Christian material and the fact God can easily work through it. The case of the Roman poet Statius as used in Dante was a great example for Baxter to bring up. I didn’t know about this at all. He points out there is absolutely no evidence Statius was a Christian, so Dante invents a backstory of his Christian conversion. This is what Lewis does all the time with ideas in his Christian books in a much more subtle way, whether in his apologetics or Narnia stories. The use of genuine allegory is huge in Narnia, and his refusal to be pigeonholed is very pre-enlightenment as well. I met the great Patristics scholar Fr Kelly many years ago, and he made me sit up when he said Dante is the greatest Christian book after the Bible; I think Lewis would have agreed.

One of the current trends in scholarship across the theological divide and even among thinking atheists is the extent to which both the reformation and the enlightenment put reason above feeling, reflection, and allegory. This book is particularly good in that regard as it makes you re-think the mental assumptions of the modern mind. Lewis was obsessed by the notion of myths and anti-myths and could see them as straightjackets. There are facts, but truth is hard to come by in the sense that it’s difficult to decide, it’s ‘through a glass darkly’ as Paul said in my favourite translation of Corinthians in the King James Bible version. The medieval influence makes Lewis very wary of this thinking, he famously said the Bible is God’s word precisely because it is open to interpretation. One of the important things to point out about this book is that although it is highly learned and intellectual it isn’t clever for the sake of it. He always brings things down to earth with brilliant flair; at one point he shows the self-confident use of Dante’s Paradiso in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader where he says both are dramatic, eerie and joyful all at one time.

One final observation that this book points to is that there is a prejudice in many Christian traditions which seem to think there was a kind of hiatus in Christianity starting with the death of St Augustine in 430 AD and ending with the nailing of the theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral by Luther in 1517. This is a very dangerous and reductive view of the history of the church and theology which thankfully CS Lewis did not share. Rather, the embrace of medieval Christianity enlivened and enriched his faith. His indebtedness to the medieval Christian literature is the spice in his theological sauce, so to speak.

I think it’s obvious I admire this work; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Everyone who loves CS Lewis should read this book. The medieval study books of Lewis are too neglected, and this book has brought them back to prominence in spectacular fashion. 

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