It turns out C. S. Lewis and Iain McGilchrist are peas in a third pod. This one tells us why some of us often feel suffocated.
Two weeks ago I suggested C. S. Lewis and Iain McGilchrist are peas in a pod. Last week, a second pod. This week, a third pod, best told in how Lewis came to Christ. He grew up an atheist, influenced by W. T. Kirkpatrick during the time Lewis studied under him. But this was also when Lewis first read George MacDonald’s fictional work Phantastes. It “baptized his imagination.” Nine years later Lewis was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. Here he met Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both were active Christians.
In September 1931 Lewis was at a dinner party with Dyson and Tolkien. He was expressing his difficulty with mythological tales, which Lewis said are beautiful and moving, but “lies and therefore worthless.” “No,” said Tolkien, “They are not lies.” Just then (Lewis recalled afterward) there was a “rush of the wind which came too suddenly on the still, warm evening. We held our breath.” Tolkien resumed.
“You look at trees, he said, and call them ‘trees,’ and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a ‘star,’ and think nothing more about it. But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw these stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to eternal music.”
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis records what happened the following day: “When we [Warnie and Jack] set out [by motorcycle to the Whipsnade Zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
What the young Lewis kept secret until a much later date (1955) was how he had for some time been “quietly resenting the world he believed in”—the world of mere fact and matter. He was haunted by the mythological, which is why Tolkien’s words brought Lewis to a moment of crisis which he described this way: “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”
Now consider Iain McGilchrist. He notes how we pay attention to the world via the right and left hemisphere but we bias one or the other. Most folks in the Western world bias their left hemisphere, the one that sees reality as mere fact and matter. This is the sphere of rationalism that Lewis began to quietly resent. The right hemisphere is the sphere of the imaginary—fantasy literature, poetry, music. In the medieval world, it’s Dante, Malory, Chaucer, and many others. Lewis had read these writers. They haunted him.
They don’t haunt enough Christians today. Especially men. I have a friend who reads substantive books. He laments how few men (Christians) read the kinds of books Lewis read. He, like I, feel what Lewis felt when he spoke with what he called an unliterary friend. “He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated.” I’m no Lewis, but I’ve felt this.
Neuroscience tells us why. When we read fiction we do not use the same faculty we employ while doing mathematics or reasoning through an issue. Reading fiction is more embodied than reading merely academic works. In other words, actually reading a work of fantasy literature is more embodied than reading a book about fantasy literature. I find many Christians read books about fantasy literature. Or they read books about mysticism rather than reading the mystics (which they often complain is too difficult). I, like Lewis as well as my reading friend, find their world suffocating.
I close with a confession and a recommendation. First, my confession.
In the past when I felt suffocated, I often acted like Francis Schaeffer. He was a great apologist who also experienced a spiritual crisis at one point in his life. Like Lewis, it was connected to the decline of the Western world due to the Enlightenment. For Schaeffer, this yielded a dry faith. And like Lewis, he sought to revive the faith by urging colleagues to immerse themselves in great medieval art and literature. Few did. So on occasion Schaeffer would feel fed up, slamming his fists on the kitchen table: Dammit—why don’t they get it? I’ve been there, done that. Schaeffer came to see this was unhelpful. I’m getting there. Friends are unlikely to “get” what they haven’t read firsthand.
My recommendation? Read fantasy literature, something Bono does. His new book Surrender is quite good. He’s less Schaeffer (although he has his angry moments) and more Lewis, gracious (something I’m slowly learning). So I include Bono in Lewis and McGilchrist’s pod of fantasy literature that ought to be “home” to every Christian.
 Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind (InterVarsity Academic, 2022), 143.
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1955), 170.
 C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press; Reissue edition (2012), 140.
 See Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” New York Times, March 17, 2012.