Critique of Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis

Reflections on the Psalms

This week I finished up a review and critique of a book I have been wanting to read for quite some time, Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis. I find it very difficult to actually provide an adequate “critique” of someone, like Lewis, who was obviously so much farther advanced in his own understanding of scripture, but this was the task at hand.

Part of reviewing books like this is now, fifty years since Lewis wrote Reflections on the Psalms, it almost has to be looked at in a synoptic fashion, taking all of Lewis’ works into account.  Lewis at the time hadn’t written a serious “religious work” in almost ten years.  He had received a scathing review of Miracles, published in 1947, and some say this was the reason he hadn’t written another “religious work”.

Nevertheless Reflections was, overall, a great book, and one that every Christian should try to read at some point.  If there was one aspect of Reflections that made me take notice, it was Lewis’ somewhat Anglican-esque view of scripture where he refers to some of the Psalms as “evil”, and slightly questions it’s proper place in the cannon.  I have always known Lewis’ theology to be slightly less than a “Reformed Theology“, but in Reflections it was made more apparent than in his other books I have read so far.

Below you will find part of the academic critique I gave on the book.  You can read the essay in full located at Book Critique of Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis.

Critique and Review of “Reflections on the Psalms”

Lewis’ Reflections has been widely criticized and praised, by both scholars and lay people, since it was first published in 1958.  With fifty years hence, an emotional review of Reflections’ strengths and weaknesses can be somewhat more objective than it could be in the late 50’s.  Lewis certainly provides a unique perspective on the Psalms, one that can still be seen as a unique study fifty years later.  His writing style, much like his other works, is easy to read, yet deep in thought.  Reflections transitions well from one subject to another, but the author has a tendency to move back and forth between sections of negativity to those sections, which contain a more positive evaluation.

Early on, Lewis tries to remove his own history of apologetics and religious knowledge from the rigors of scholarly criticism by stating the book is written for lay people, basically by a layperson, but this is hard to take at face value.  For an author of apologetic works likes Mere Christianity, and a professor at the prestigious University of Oxford in England, this request may have at the time, fallen on deaf ears.  If the reader is to take Reflections as a serious literary work on the Psalter, a conclusion hard to argue against, one must also evaluate the arguments and suppositions of Reflections as such.

Lewis’ use of modern day “common” language, or perhaps crude in some cases, which is used throughout the book, like “priggish”, goes towards his approach to appeal to the more modern lay reader, but his scriptural references and ideas have a much deeper meaning.  Lewis claims in the introduction to only be “comparing notes” and not to “instruct”, but Reflections helps the reader to understand ancient poetry and literature, and takes an more Anglican approach to the Psalms that is almost foreign to a modern day evangelical Protestant.  In this respect, Reflections largely instructs from beginning to end.   Lewis does not gloss over the most difficult issues presented, though he does leave the reader wondering what he has left out “as his own interests” led him to do.[1]

Where Lewis leaves himself open to criticism is in his view, and somewhat veiled ideas, of scripture.  As previously quoted, early on Lewis states that “all Holy Scripture is in some sense – though not all parts of it in the same sense – the word of God” leaving open to the reader which parts of the “Holy Scriptures” Lewis finds to be the true “word of God” and which parts he does not.[2] Only a few pages later Lewis explains.

At the outset I felt sure, and I feel sure still, that we must not either try to explain [the Psalms] away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious… and we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.

So should the reader understand the Psalms “as the word of God in a different sense than Romans”, and if so, in what sense are they different?[3] This phrase, “in some sense”, is not isolated to Reflections.  In one of Lewis’ letters, written to Clyde Kilby on May 7, 1959, just after Reflections was published, Lewis again stated “if every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights, then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must in some sense by inspired.”[4] This interpretation of the Psalms may not adequately take into account the enormous context of the Psalms being a large collection of poems, written by many different authors, dating back to at least King David.  While the task of trying to summarize such context into a small book would be difficult on any account, Lewis’ view of the evil portrayed from within the scripture could need further examination, especially in light of current Hebraic poetry research, which has come about since Reflections.

Overall, Reflections shows itself to be a worthy and valuable text when taken in it’s own context of mid-twentieth century Anglican scholasticism.  Although Lewis may not have wanted to see Reflections viewed as a scholarly work, it is hard to put aside a masterful author such as Lewis, and he more than accomplishes his goals from beginning to end.  Reflections in the 21st century may be best viewed as one part of a whole in the complete works of C. S. Lewis, but it still instructs and teaches a better understanding of the Psalms.  In a short but thoughtful work, Lewis “helps to remind us [that] we worship the one true and eternal God.”[5]

[1]Lewis, 6.
[2] Ibid, 19.
[3] John W. Robbins, “Did C. S. Lewis Go to Heaven?,” The Trinity Review (Trininty Foundation), no. 226 (November, December 2003), 2.
[4] W. H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C. H. Lewis, Revised Edition, ed. W. H. Lewis (New York, NY: C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1988), 480.
[5] Lewis, 44.

One response to “Critique of Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis”

  1. Third paragraph: “…questions it’s proper place in the cannon” should read, its, not it’s. “Its” is a possessive. “It’s” is an abbreviation of “it is.”


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