C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, best known for his slew of fantasy novels, Chronicles of Narnia, is undoubtedly one of the most popular and controversial Christian writers.  His unabashed use of Christian mythology and concepts in his literary works reflected the impact of his conversion late in life, though his background and interest in folklore and the occultist manage to shine through his texts time and again.

In any case, it would be improper and an insult to consider Lewis a run of the mill Christian writer, whose literary products are expected to subscribe to the doctrines of the religion.  Though devoted and a staunch believer, Lewis’ intellectual take on the religion and its implications run against the grain of common Christian literature.  It is, therefore, imperative to view Lewis using this frame of mind, particularly in understanding his post-conversion writings.

One must also take into consideration that Lewis’ unorthodox view of Christian teachings – though decidedly supportive and faithful – often elicits much controversy from various parties.  Being an Anglican Christian, his writings are often condemned for their perceived attack on Catholicism and Judaism.  It is with this viewpoint that most literary analysts and critiques pillory Lewis’ most controversial non-fiction Christian tome, Reflections on the Psalms.

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This study posits that C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms is a misunderstood body of work that may not be a perfect discussion of the Book of Psalms but does represent the occasionally valid theological theories of the author himself.   Though it will be necessary to compare Lewis’ theological musings to the writings of his peers, one must take into consideration the fact that the book is essentially an encapsulation of Lewis’ own musings and comprehension of the Book of Psalms without proselytizing or seeking any religious influence over any reader.

To prove this thesis, the study shall begin with a brief discussion of the contents of the book, primarily with regards to Lewis’ interests and understanding of the Book of Psalms.  Second, the study shall discuss the similarities and differences of Reflections on the Psalms as compared to other books or articles of similar vein.  Third, the study shall seek to understand the value of Lewis’ tome through its intended audience and the message he wished to deliver to his readers.

Lastly, the study shall present an in-depth review of the strengths and weaknesses of the book, primarily through specific quotations from the text.  Only then can a valid judgment of the book be achieved.  It would, of course, also be a reliable standard through which the merit and validity of continued patronage for Lewis’ little known tome on the Psalms may be measured.

First of all, what exactly is Reflections on the Psalms about?  In a nutshell, Lewis reads the Book of Psalms and finds both joy and fear in his readings.  He is alternately ecstatic and appalled by the combination of praise and vitriolic anger found in this Old Testament book, citing some areas as aberrations when taken against the standards of the Christian world.

In the process of reviewing the Book of Psalms, however, Lewis unleashes some seriously controversial lines, such as the condemnation of Jews as worst than pagans in their vindictiveness and anger[1].  Despite his negative pronouncements about the Jews and their violent indignation, Lewis’ book also looks into the essence of praise and what it means to man.

The Book of Psalms is essentially a collection of prayer songs.  These songs are filled with praise for God in the same way that man would sing praises of anything or anyone he cares about.  This concept is not lost on Lewis, who promptly dedicates a moving chapter to the power of praise.  Lewis presents a different point of view in the sense that he urges readers not to fall for the theological jargon and technicalities that essentially make the reading of the Bible tedious and academic.

Rather, his main point in writing Reflections on the Psalms is to emphasize the love that drives man to sing praises to a higher power and a greater being.  It is this essence of the Book of Psalms that Lewis focuses upon, emphasizing the unique rapturous sensation that fuels the Psalmists’ songs of praise for God, even in all their imperfect glory.

Lewis’ book on the Psalms, of course, is not the first or last one in the literary world.  Arthur Weiser’s The Psalms: a Commentary, for example, is a straightforward commentary on the writings in the Book of Psalms.  Without essentially dissecting the concepts within the book, Weiser presents a modern discussion of the Psalms in a manner similar to a literary addendum; his book is explanatory of the book in the context of history rather than straight theology.

The result is more of an academic verse by verse explanation of the Book of Psalms.  For example, the book attempts to find a correlation between the promised power of the Israelite king and the known history of Israel.  In doing so, Weiser likens the kings of Israel to the ruler of Egypt, explaining the psalmist’s faith as a product of the historical submission to an unseen God prominent in the area during that period.[2]

On the other hand, J.M. Smith’s The Religion of the Psalms is more focused on the significance of the Book of Psalms with regards to its effects on morality in the Jewish sphere.[3]  How did the Book of Psalms influence the moral and ethical standards of the Jewish community?

In essence, it is less a theological discussion (as in Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms) or a historical study (as in Weiser’s The Psalms: a Commentary) and more of a study on the ethical dimensions and impact of the Psalms.  What is most important to discuss, apart from the approach to the Book of Psalms, however, is the literary style employed by Lewis.  Both Weiser and Smith present a near clinical explanation of the Book of Psalms, rendering it completely academic in nature.

With Lewis, however, the style of writing is entirely different.  Though the content may be controversial, Lewis’ writing style undoubtedly produces beautiful, free flowing prose.  Even in his damning critique of what he calls “Jewish prison of self-righteousness”, his words never fail to contain a certain degree of mastery that renders the reader speechless and enthralled.

His use of imagery and metaphors – a feature not found in other studies and commentaries on the Book of Psalms – alternately brings to life the peaceful, rapturous bliss of praise and the scathing fire-and-brimstone speeches of anger and vindictiveness.  Lewis’ style leaves no room for doubt: he indicts, judges and rhapsodizes about every nook and cranny of the Book of Psalms, thereby presenting a delightful and visually stimulating analysis of the Old Testament’s ode to prayer.[4]

It may be said that the style of writing itself speaks volumes about Lewis’ very message.  His use of vivid prose and occasionally harsh, unforgiving words essentially show that the book is far from a theological dissertation that begs readership from scholars of the same field alone.  Rather than an academic approach, Lewis has utilized a less formal yet no less insightful means to discuss his views of the Book of Psalms.

As such, it may be surmised that the intended audience of the book are the masses – lay people who cannot be presumed to know enough of the Bible’s scholarly and theological debates.  Instead, the book is designed to appeal to and at the same time educate the ordinary people who wish to learn more of faith rather than spend their hours reciting prescribed prayers.

It is a discussion made entirely accessible to ordinary people – an exercise in proletariat “education”.  It is not exactly an attempt to aid conversions or strengthen the proselytizing armies.  More importantly, Lewis does not write directly for the Christian readers, either, despite his subject matter.  Lewis’ intention is to move people towards action, towards moral indignation against illicit and immoral activities.[5]

In essence, the target audience is anyone who cares about moral uprightness, and the Book of Psalms becomes a means for Lewis to deliver across his point.  Rather than a platform for theological proselytizing, the end of Lewis’ book emphasizes moral action rather than any actual alignment with any church.[6]

As mentioned earlier, Reflections on the Psalms is a book both loved and hated.  First of all, its subject matter and brash approach render it quite prickly for many critics.  One significant weakness of the book is its blatant criticism against Jews that can easily be misunderstood as an attack on the Semitic community.

For example, in explaining the vitriolic anger that populates parts of the Book of Psalms, Lewis indicted the Psalmists (Jews, inevitably) for their hatred and the devilish and vulgar images graphically present in the psalms.[7]  Indeed, if Psalm 9, which speaks of blessings for people who violently bash the brains of Babylonian babies, is anything to go by, Lewis is not at all far-fetched or exaggerating.

Despite the reality of Lewis’ accusations of violence and sensationalism in the Book of Psalms, this becomes a weakness of his book, particularly since it is viewed as a biased indictment of one race rather than an accurate response to a literary piece.  Moreover, since Lewis is incapable of reading the original Hebrew version of the Book of Psalms, this is easily a weakening of his rhetoric.

Though essentially accurate in his reaction to the contents of the Book of Psalms, his admission that he is no reader of Hebrew becomes more of a problem rather than a powerful disclosure.  While it does not entirely negate the validity of Lewis’ contentions (as reading from an English translation is also perfectly valid), it does become a thorn on the author’s side when issues of validity and objectivity arise.

Perhaps in sharp contrast to this failed disclosure is Lewis’ admission that he is no theologian.  Rather than become a weakness of the study, this becomes a very powerful tool in Lewis’ defense of his writings.  As Lewis wrote, “One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian.  One might so easily confuse it with being a good Christian”.[8]  In essence, this provides Lewis with a very good defense with regards to the allegations that he is bias on purpose, with an obviously anti-Semitic bend.

Lewis does not claim any moral superiority in discussing the Psalms.  The essence of Reflection on the Psalms, therefore, is a very personal book written from Lewis’ own point of view and should not be taken as a tool for ethnic indictment or proselytizing.

This concept is also highly related to the final and most significant strength of the book.  Despite claims that the book is biased and subjective, the greatest power of Reflections on the Psalms is its raw, honest discussion of the power of praise.  He wrote, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance”[9].

It is precisely this bliss that Lewis captures perfectly in his book, rendering it a bittersweet portrayal of human flaws and the love of God that continues to inspire even the most imperfect of humans to dance for joy and sing in bliss.  Though he does present a rather negative depiction of the Jews in the early part of his book, he acknowledges their flaws as human and present in everyone.  It is their ability to connect, love and be moved by the presence of God that makes them worth and even admirable in the eyes of Lewis.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Lewis on the Psalms”, TIME Magazine, 22 September 1958; accessed on 5 May 2008

available from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,863917,00.html

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

Meilaender, Gilbert.  Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological.  Wilmington, DE:

ISI Books, 2000

Smith, J.M.  The Religion of the Psalms.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922

 

Weiser, Arthur. The Psalms: A Commentary.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962

 

Wood, Ralph.  “Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Matters in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.

Tolkie

[1] “Lewis on the Psalms”, TIME Magazine, 22 September 1958; accessed on 5 May 2008 available from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,863917,00.html
[2] Arthur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary,  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962) 111
[3] J.M. Smith, The Religion of the Psalms, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922), v
[4] “Lewis on the Psalms”, 1958
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958)
[8] Ibid., p.57
[9] Ibid., p.45

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