AT ONE level, this is an accessible study of the academic obsessions of the famous Christian apologist and author of the Narnia stories. But, at another level, it is something far more radical. Baxter examines how Lewis’s thought and imagination are profoundly shaped by writers from Plato and Boethius to Dante. But, in so doing, he gradually reveals Lewis to be a bold re-interpreter of Christianity, in ways that might even help to remake the Christian vision.
Lewis felt at home in the medieval world, and his scholarship on its literature shows how the world-view between then and now has changed, from the experiencing of the cosmos as a divine theophany to the examination of the cosmos via mechanical abstractions, rendering it ripe for domination. Baxter offers a rich account of the nuance with which Lewis describes this latter-day fall.
But he also reveals some of the far-reaching consequences of Lewis’s analysis. Consider the relationship between reason and myth. Lewis realised that the two weren’t opposites, but merged as reason reached its limits.
Take the vast distances in time and space back to the Big Bang. They are quantitively so immense that scientists naturally turn to the poetic when discussing them. News about the James Webb Space Telescope reveals as much, being replete with words such as “wonder”, “spectacular”, “mind-boggling”, and “gorgeous”. Lewis knew that this feeling was akin to a medieval revelation, with the implication that we are hearing the sublime music of the cosmos once more, not in spite of science, but because of it.
Alternatively, take his discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. Lewis insists that, contrary to modern arguments, the resurrection is not important because of its proof value. Rather, it signals a different way of being in the world, and he speculates that this would include phenomena such as psychokinesis, as the unity of the so-called spiritual and material is understood afresh.
My sense is that Lewis resisted the full implications of his vision. He tended to pause at what he called “joy”, which expresses glimpses of and longings for a world transformed. A more developed sense of what might be emerging can be found in the writings of his friend Owen Barfield. But Baxter might jolt readers of Lewis. His book is unexpectedly exciting to read.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. He is the author of A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the evolution of consciousness (Christian Alternative Books, 2019) and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: A guide for the spiritual journey (Angelico Press, 2021).
The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How great books shaped a great mind
Jason M. Baxter
IVP Academic £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09