Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Review - Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1958. 151 Pg. $15.00.
ISBN 0-15-676248-X. Reviewed by Christopher L. Sanchez, Seminary Student.

I begin my review of C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms by admitting unashamedly that I have been a fan of Mr. Lewis’ work for much of my life. The mere thought of critically reviewing the work of such a great man seemed daunting only a few short months ago as I began my seminary studies. Since that time, I have (more or less) become accustomed to both the critical review of Biblical texts and what others write about those texts. I say that with the utmost respect for the much more learned authors and scholars I have the privilege of learning from. As has been said, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

In the first sentence of his book, Lewis plainly states, “this is not a work of scholarship.” Though one could certainly make an argument against such a statement, I take Mr. Lewis at his word when he says he writes for “the unlearned about things in which” he is unlearned himself. Lewis continues his eight page introductory chapter by providing vivid examples of how the unlearned may learn from each other. This is a familiar approach that Lewis uses throughout the book. Lewis moves from one aspect of the Psalms to another, in no particular order, smoothly throughout the book while clearly explaining his view on each topic discussed. It is certainly possible to disagree with Mr. Lewis’ views of the Psalms; one can do so with the benefit of knowing exactly where he stands and why on each topic. Though his use of Anglican terms may be, at times, a bit burdensome for unchurched readers, Lewis skillfully accomplishes what he set out to do in this book.

Lewis first addresses judgment in the Psalms and his surprise about how the psalmists talk about the judgments of God. He goes on to describe how the ancient Jews, much like Christians today, see God’s judgment in terms of an earthly court. The difference in the view of the ancient Jews and Christians of today is that Christians view this as a criminal case with himself as the defendant while the ancient Jew saw God’s judgment as a civil case with the Jew as the plaintiff. As one would expect from Lewis, he prefers the Christian view of judgment and goes into great detail defending this position.

Lewis follows his treatment of God’s judgment with his views on the cursing passages found in the Psalms. As any student of the Scriptures knows all too well the Psalms are full of pleas to God to curse someone who the Psalter deems deserving. Lewis points out that this is true even in some of the most beloved of the Psalms such as Psalm 143. It is in Lewis’ reflections on how these verses came to be that he finds fault in man. That is to say that what the men did to harm the Psalter is far worse for creating a new temptation or, worse still, a new sin in the life of another. Lewis also points out that the reaction of the Psalmists to injury is equally wrong although it is a natural reaction.

Following God’s judgment and the cursings found in the Psalms, Lewis next addresses death in chapter four. He expresses his belief that the much of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life. Lewis explains that this is, perhaps, part of God’s plan in revealing Himself to man and to have done so sooner may have hampered man’s ability to learn to adore God and seek Him. Lewis’ knowledge of the history of ancient religions and cultures shines through as he ably makes comparisons to other belief systems at the time the Psalms were written.

After first dealing with more unpleasant topics (something for which he admits a preference), Lewis moves on to the beauty of the Lord. Lewis describes in his characteristic detail how experiences with the Lord in many instances referred to an event in the Temple. He also goes on to point out the difference between truly worshipping God and merely enjoying what Christians today might refer to as a good service. The ancient Jews likely would make no such distinction though, as Lewis points out, it is necessary and inevitable much like when a child realizes that the candy they receive at Easter has little to do with the significance of our Risen Lord.

It is difficult for the modern Christian to imagine the Law being sweeter than honey but Lewis’s next chapter brings to the reader’s attention that this is exactly the view ancient Jews held. A friend of Lewis’ once told him that he thought it implied the satisfaction that the ancient Jew felt knowing he had obeyed the Law. Another view of what the ancient Jews thought of the Law could be compared to someone today expressing their love of history. This could be innocent enough but could also lead to other problems. Lewis’ time is well spent unpacking his thoughts on this topic.

Chapter seven finds Lewis dealing with the subject of connivance (a topic many pastors today should consider for an upcoming Sunday morning sermon). First Lewis addresses the lack of penalties for bad behavior in society (oh how Mr. Lewis would be appalled to see how much further things have fallen since his death). Second, Lewis discusses how the problem of connivance is present in the lives of Christians. Lewis concludes this chapter by expressing his surprise in the fact that the Psalter mentions sins of the tongue far more often than any other even though the modern reader assumes, like Lewis himself did at one time, that ancient society was far more violent than the civility we enjoy in our modern times.

Next, the reader finds Lewis addressing the seemingly simply topic of nature. Of course, when discussing Scripture (Old or New Testament) there is little that is truly simple. Lewis reminds his readers that the ancient Jews lived in an agriculturally focused society. When the Psalmist talks about the country in his poetry he is most likely referring to the world at large. God and nature are clearly distinct with God having created nature. Lewis uses this as segue into a larger discussion about creation. He brings to the reader’s attention the fact that other religions at that time did not have the type of creation story found in the Old Testament. Lewis goes on to make mention of God’s forgiveness in the times of ignorance (Acts 17:30), even suggesting that God may have accepted a gesture of homage to the moon in those times. Lewis again demonstrates his knowledge of history including the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton’s Monotheism in his discussion.

Expressing his hope that the chapter will be unnecessary, Lewis continues with a short discussion on the topic of praising. He reminds his readers what praise is and why it is necessary. Of course our Lord commands us to praise Him but this command is not out of a sense of narcissism. Rather, in recognition of the fact that we delight to praise what we enjoy, our praise not only expresses that joy but completes the enjoyment. Lewis further reminds us that this is true even when that praise is inadequate.

Moving on to a more difficult topic, Lewis discusses second meanings and how they are applied to Old Testament Scriptures by the modern Christian. As an author well versed in the use of allegory in his works of fiction, Lewis’ approach to the second meanings of Old Testament Scripture is interesting. Lewis makes the case that though the Psalter and other writers of the Old Testament did not intentionally have a dual meaning in mind at the time of their writing but perhaps God did. Lewis goes a step further and suggests that were that second meaning put to those writers today they may even admit their words meant more than they realized at the time.

As the end of Lewis’ short work draws near, he discusses Scripture, what it is, where it came from, and plainly accepts the possibility that some of the Biblical stories, such as Genesis, may have been derived from earlier, pagan sources. Lewis makes it clear that if this occurred, it did so with aid from “the Father of Lights”. To help clarify, Lewis carefully defines what “derived from” means. A description of other pagan views of how things came to be is included. Lewis then reminds his readers of a simpler reason for accepting the Old Testament Scriptures as true: we are “committed to it in principle by Our Lord Himself”.

Lewis closes by returning to second meanings focusing on those meanings as they pertain to the Psalms themselves. Here Lewis discusses at length the various Scriptures modern Christians claim clearly point to Christ long before the Incarnation. Here, too, Lewis also tells us that there need not necessarily be a second meaning but rather simply a few additional words added to Old Testament Scripture in the New Testament that complete an incomplete thought as in Psalm 84:10. Lewis concludes with his hope that we will one day be freed from the bonds of time.

A number of strengths can be mentioned with little effort on the part of any reviewer. First, Lewis’ writing style is gentle and easy for even someone with little more than a passing interest in the material to understand fully. Second, Lewis does an excellent job of articulating each of his points and providing plenty of examples in support of his positions/beliefs. Third, Lewis also demonstrates a very broad knowledge of history that seems lacking in other works I have had the pleasure of reading during my seminary studies. Fourth, Lewis is accepting of other notions about the origins of the Bible but always turns back to God as its author in one way or another almost before his reader realizes he has done so. I could go on but to do so would be nothing more of a reminder of the fact I stated at the beginning of this review: I am a fan of C. S. Lewis.

More difficult, at least for me, is to discuss weaknesses in Reflections on the Psalms. The task is made somewhat easier given the fact that the book was written more than 50 years ago. Lewis begins by stating that his book is not a work of scholarship. From the view of a seminary student reading the work 50 years after its publication, I disagree. As Lewis mentions in his discussion about second meanings, perhaps it was not intended to be a scholarly work but it could certainly be used as a primer to a host of topics, both Christian and secular alike. Also, even in his time, Lewis’ choice of language is questionable. For example, rather than using the term prig, thief would have suited his first readers and the generations that have followed much better. I will concede that it is possible that such words were commonly spoken in 1950’s England but stand by the assertion that Lewis’ readers may have benefited from using more common language. Perhaps it is difficult for an Oxford professor to “dumb down” his language after having taught at that distinguished institution for so many years prior to authoring this book.

Given the stated strengths and weaknesses of Mr. Lewis’ work, it is easy for me to conclude that Reflections of the Psalms accomplished exactly what the author intended. Though I do not buy into Lewis’ stated belief that he is unlearned writing for the unlearned. Lewis was widely recognized as a lay theologian in his day. Lewis’ readability and gentle writing style is not unduly hampered by his use of uncommon words though. Throughout the book, Lewis always steers the reader back to Our Lord. Employing diverse sources such as pagan religious rites and ancient literature and multiple translations of the Biblical text, Lewis accomplishes his goal by skillfully guiding his readers through his personal views on the Psalms. There is obviously more that has been written of the Psalms and Lewis could likely have written much more himself. The seminary student, faithful church-goers, the curious and those casually interested in Christianity would all do well to take the time to read this book.