Publisher: Harcourt and Brace
Publication Date: 1958
Reviewed by Josh Olds
QUICK HIT – With due respect to Lewis as the luminary he deserves to be, Reflections on the Psalms is quite like Lewis envisioned the Psalms: often profound, but sometimes profoundly wrong. While this reader would recommend Lewis’s work for critical reflection, he must humbly submit that as he reads it, he finds not enough of the Psalms and too much of Lewis’s silly face.
This book stands as unique within Lewis’s writing as one of his very few attempts to engage in biblical criticism. Lewis’s other theological works generally focused on a singular theme within the whole of the Bible but Reflections on the Psalms focuses on a series of themes within one book of the Bible. This book combines Lewis the literary critic with Lewis the apologist with the intention of producing a work that would discuss difficult themes in the Psalms as written by a layman to a layman. Lewis wished to make it very clear that he was no Old Testament scholar, merely another Christian wrestling with the often difficult themes within the Psalms. In many ways, Lewis meets this objective by writing in his typical conversational tone that is interspersed with practical anecdotes. The term “reflections” is appropriate, because Lewis is not offering the result of scholarship but rather the result of his own personal thinking on the matter. Herein is both the highlight and danger of Lewis’s book. Lewis’s popularity inherently makes his words more accessible to and more readily accepted by the average layperson even though his authority in the field is lacking. Further, as a nonacademic book, Lewis backs his writing on little or no scholarly research. The Christian would do well, therefore, to take Lewis’s assertions on the Psalms with a critical eye and a good understanding of the cultural and theological context of his writing and thinking.
Lewis begins his reflections with a brief survey of the poetic nature of the Psalms. His discussion of parallelism is simplistic and not entirely accurate, not accounting for antithetical or synthetic parallelism. It is one thing to give a basic answer and another entirely to misrepresent a definition through simplicity. The second chapter deals with imprecations in the Psalms, where Lewis’s opinion is both brutally honest and dangerous. These psalms of cursing have long been an exegetical difficulty, but Lewis says frankly what some Christians might only think. He speaks of them as being “comic in [their] naivety” and “diabolical” (20–21), concluding that the hatred in these psalms are “festering, gloating, undisguised” (22). Lewis rightly points out that these psalms were not unprovoked and were a product of their culture, but errs in his assumption that the Psalmist’s reactions were wrong. Such a simplistic treatment of a complicated subject does a disservice to the pathos and spiritual meaning that underlie these psalms.
Next is Lewis’s treatment of death in the Psalms, where he alleges that there is only a vague understanding of an afterlife. Again, Lewis is on the right track with his theology, but fails to appreciate any middle ground that might be offered. It is true that the Psalms, and the Old Testament in general, hold only a vague picture of the afterlife, yet it does not appear to be as vague as Lewis implies. Lewis’s discussion in the next few chapters is less contentious, as he moves into the areas of praise and the law. Perhaps shockingly, he says that Judaism was closer to pagan religions than modern Christianity in their emotions toward the deity, but this draws readers in to be reminded that believers are to worship God with their whole being. Lewis adequately captures the euphoria of praise in the Psalms, reminding readers that they are to live a God-centered and oriented life.
Lewis then turns to a discussion of the Psalms’ love of the law while cautioning that this love must not lead to legalism. Further in the book, he suggests that the Psalms teach that believers should be careful with whom they interact and befriend. Lewis’s point about Christians being careful of their relationship to the culture not because the Christian is “too good” for secular society but “not good enough” to withstand its temptations is quite profound (71-72).
Nature also plays a vital role in the Psalms, a fact Lewis readily acknowledges. His thoughts here are brief and noncontroversial and he primarily highlights these Psalms as portraying God’s role of creator and sustainer. He then returns to the topic of praise, briefly discussing it is a stumbling block for a nonbeliever who thinks it petty that God requests such praise. The last few chapters of Reflections on the Psalms deal with what Lewis calls second meanings or allegorical interpretations. Allegory was Lewis’s academic specialty—one of his first academic writings concerned allegories for love in medieval literature (The Allegory of Love)—and he spends a chapter discussing it before moving on to its use in Scripture. Here, Lewis’s neo-orthodoxy shows through as he speaks of the Bible as carrying the Word of God (112) and replete with “naivety, error, contradiction, even . . . wickedness” (111).
Lewis appears to be of the opinion that much Old Testament narrative is allegorical but based on true and profound principles. Thus, the creation narrative is not necessarily a historical retelling but a human allegory that conceptualizes Creation in a way humanity can comprehend. The last chapter applies the discussion of allegory specifically to the Psalms. Here Lewis reins himself back in with a discussion of individual examples of Melchizedek’s typifying of Christ along with other Messianic psalms. He concludes by summarizing his essays and reminding readers through a profound illustration that humans were not ultimately meant for this world, a sentiment expressed through the Psalms.
With due respect to Lewis as the luminary he deserves to be, Reflections on the Psalms is quite like Lewis envisioned the Psalms: often profound, but sometimes profoundly wrong. Lewis is at his best—as he is always—when he focuses on applied theology and at his weakest when he delves into exegetical theology. It is important to realize that Lewis was neither an evangelical nor a theologian, something that is glaringly obvious in Reflections on the Psalms. His typical prose and poignant thoughts lose some of their flavor amidst his non-scholarly look at the Psalms. Lewis cautioned readers to be careful in applying allegorical meanings to Scripture, saying that “What we see when we are looking into the depths of Scripture may sometimes be only the reflection of our own silly faces” (121). While this reader would recommend Lewis’s work for critical reflection, he must humbly submit that as he reads it, he finds not enough of the Psalms and too much of Lewis’s silly face.
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