Book Review: “Reflections on the Psalms” by C.S. Lewis (1958)

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis has developed a textbook for students supposedly from the perspective of a student—though today we view Lewis more as a master than a student.  This paper offers a brief summary and review of the book itself, then discusses both its strengths and weaknesses.

As suggested in his “Introductory,” Lewis’ intent in writing this book was to deal with problems he found in the Psalms. He avoids subjects about which the majority of Christians already know—Jewish history (Lewis, 6), the life of David, etc. Instead, he uses this platform to address the struggles he personally has had with the text—judgment, vengeance, self-righteousness, etc—and how he has resolved those issues in his own mind. He has haphazardly organized his views into eleven headings which, in short, are: Judgment, curses, death, adoring the Lord, loving the Word, connivance, nature, praise, Scripture, and second meanings both in general and in the Psalms.

Lewis offers a disclaimer to his audience—both unbelievers and believers, Fundamentalist, Anglican and Catholic—that this work is neither argumentative nor persuasive (7). He has simply written out his views, his meditations and his internal reasoning about the book he loves but sometimes cannot understand. In writing this way, his book resembles the works of Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk and prolific writer. While Merton addresses his Praying the Psalms to a predominantly Catholic audience, his method of pure meditation on this poetical Book matches Lewis’ own.

The majority of this paper will focus on the strengths and lessons of Lewis’ book, with only a brief discussion of its weaknesses, for one can enjoy a meal much more when eating as a patron than as a critic. The primary strength of Lewis’ study, and one that remains foundational throughout his book, is his return to the original context in which the individual psalms were written—Old Testament and Jewish. While most Christians could name some authors of the Psalms and most know it is an Old Testament book that predates Christ and that Jews have been singing its words for millennia, most Christians forget in the meantime that it is not a so-called “Christian” book. Its authors knew nothing of Jesus, of the cross, of the burial and resurrection, or even, as Lewis points out, of heaven itself. This return to traditional thinking, then, brings our minds back to the spiritual truths the writers meant to put into their work, and not merely what Christians have read into them for two thousand years. The most poignant of these returns to context is the Jewish understanding of Justice as compared to the Christian. Whereas Christians might shrink at the prospect of the Lord’s judgment, the Old Testament Jew begged for it and rejoiced when it arrived (9-10). The reason for the disparity comes from the perspective taken: the Christian views this judgment as a criminal case in which he is the defendant, while the Jew views it as a civil case in which he is the plaintiff (10). In these cases, the Christian cries to God for mercy instead of justice, while the Jew cries for  justice instead of injustice (12). But Lewis faithful to point out that both the Divine Judge of the Psalms and the Just Judge of the New Testament have the same characteristics—that being a Rescuer and a Defender (15-16). And such is our God. Another of the returns to context shows itself in the Old Testament view of the afterlife—a dark and fearful prospect (38)—about which most mentions (Sheol, hell, the pit) are generally irreligious (36). This certainly counters the Christian view of the afterlife and, thus, also brings to the fore another great difference—the Old Testament worldview over the Christian. While a Christian might take the cares of this life less seriously due to the importance of what comes after, a Jew, rather, concerned himself with the things of this life due to the irrelevancy of what came after (42). But what could we learn from a worldview so intrinsically different than ours? We could learn to crave the presence of God in this life as the Jews did in their Temple (50). We could learn to know the beauty of the Lord through worship (48). Or we could learn to love the Lord Jesus as our own Priest and King (124).

A second strength recognized in Lewis’ book is how he properly handles the “vulgarity” of the Psalms. The most troubling example addressed is one he finds in Psalm 137:9, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy [Bablyon] little ones against the stones” (21). Certainly, this does not seem to be a commit-to-memory verse, but as “devilish” as it may read at first, Lewis opens his heart to what truths or second meanings it might have, and he does not go away empty-handed. In creating his own moral allegory, he views “the infantile beginnings of small indulgences” that whimper their way into his life as these Babylonian babies whose brains he just needs to knock out (136). And if he manages to do such a thing to his baby temptations, then “happy shall he be.” Lewis also addresses the Jewish vengeance and hatred, answering the temptation that says, “because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious” (22).  Not so, though Lewis does manage to turn our view of this sin into something more respectable. Because every psalm must be read as a poem (2), we must dissect the language used, recognizing the words not as a spur-of-the-moment outburst, but a well-planned and honest prayer to God. For example, in the entirety of Psalm 109, David prays curses on the man who spoke evil of him. Poems like these are reactionary to cruelty and injustice (25) and to something “manifestly wrong, hateful to God as well as to the victim” (30). Lewis neither excuses nor encourages this behavior, but he does imply the necessity of a similar reaction to and rejection of sin, both in the lives of others and in our own.

Another strength of Lewis’ book is his emphasis on worship throughout. It would be hard to write about Psalms without commenting on worship, and as mentioned above, Lewis’ purpose in writing is to deal with the problems of the Psalms, not necessarily the blessings everyone already knows. He manages, however, to fit the topic of worship and praise in amongst these problems, and he also manages to find problems with our own worship today as compared to that of the Psalmists of old. He defines “praise” as “inner health made audible” (94) and prefers calling the need to worship an “appetite for God” rather than a “love of God,” namely because the latter has such a spiritual and therefore disconnected connotation (51). He points out, first, the Psalmists’ emphasis on seeing God, and contrasts their joyfully experiencing godly events inside the Temple on a feast day with our ritualistic church-only spirituality (46-47). Like an Easter egg and the Resurrection or a sacrifice and the worship of God, the event and God ought never be separated, lest Easter become a day of boring candy or sacrifices become guiltless rituals appeasing a greedy God (48-49). Lewis also refers to the wonder of the Psalmists’ calling others to join them in worship, simply because they themselves are worshipping. Love naturally turns to purposefully contagious praise (“Isn’t she beautiful?”), and praise itself is the completion of enjoyment (95).

Lewis’ book contains many more strengths, such as the views he gleaned on the human condition (28, 29, 32, 72, 135) or his entire emphasis on second meanings (chapters X and XII), but for the sake of time, we will move on now to the few weaknesses of his work. The predominant weakness I find is with C.S. Lewis himself. As an author of numerous essays and works such as this, mostly on other biblical or otherwise Christian themes, C.S. Lewis has certainly made his mark on the world of Christian literature. Despite his popularity among Christian scholars and laypeople, however, it would be wise for the reader to take into account that Lewis’ doctrine is middle-of-the-road between Catholic and Protestant, and he caters to both. While he does offer the disclaimer mentioned above and promises not to offend anyone with his own Anglican views, he has mixed into his writing a fair amount of questionable doctrine. In the case of evolution, he seems in favor of (129, 131, 138) and has no doctrinal problems with (115) its teachings. He supports the heretical and extra-biblical idea of Purgatory (8), even going so far as to say that man will not know how to truly anticipate heaven until “later, when after centuries of spiritual training, [they] have learned to desire and adore God” (39-40). But the most troubling of Lewis’ views is that of apparent universal salvation. He believes that men who died knowing nothing of Jehovah God or His Son are now in heaven enjoying Him. He speaks of the Egyptian King Anhenaten who he believes is probably in heaven because he was a monotheist (89), or that Plato, Virgil (104) or other pagan authors (105-106) who predicted in their stories a Christ-like figure could “now know and have long since welcomed the truth” (108). He even goes so far as to say that Christ transcends, abrogates and thus also fulfills Paganism (129).  This “all roads lead to God” understanding is most troubling, especially in relation to Jesus’ words in John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The only other possible weakness that might stick its nose out of Lewis’ Reflections would be his almost silly modesty with regards to allegory. Lewis writes that “almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough” (99). This information suits his topic well, for it comes out of a discussion where Christian readers have read into the Psalms a purely Christian worldview which the writers never intended. But he says that, as a writer of fantastic fiction, he has been victimized by the allegorical interpretations of his readers, saying, “some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish I had thought of them myself” (99). C.S. Lewis, quite possibly, is one of the most allegorical authors of modern literature, which is certainly not a shameful quality, for while it helps us to immensely enjoy and learn from his fiction, it also helps us to find such second meanings in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible that we would never have been able to discover otherwise. But for him to suggest that he does not intend or even that he dislikes such allegory would almost be like a President admitting his own aversion to politics. This may be a weakness of nit-picky proportions, but his view of allegory so stated detracts  from his otherwise fantastic writing.

C.S. Lewis has done well in presenting his meditations on the Psalms. Reflections on the Psalms is in no wise an exhaustive commentary on this Book of poetry, but it would serve well as an accessory in any pastor or layperson’s library.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

© 2010 E.T.

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