I have to be honest: the book of Psalms has never been a favorite of mine. It’s been praised so often by others that I’m quite willing to accept that the fault is in me. There are a few individual chapters that I love. In general, though, where others find the Psalms give voice to deeply-felt feelings and prayers, I am much more affected by some of the rousing stories of the Old Testament, the prayers in the Epistles, and the parables of Jesus.
I’m not sure why this is. But reading C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms laid a gentle hand on some things in the these poems that have bothered me, even though I’ve never really addressed them myself: the cursings, the self-righteousness, the rapturous love for the law, the way the writers think of death as simply the end. In this book Lewis works out his own thoughts about these and other matters over which he stumbled initially. I can’t say that Lewis has illuminated my hitherto unknown reasons for having only a polite interest in the Psalms, but he does soften the guilt I feel over it. If someone so erudite has struggled too, then it must be neither unpardonable nor insoluble.
My reading of these essays was uneven; I wasn’t equally interested in all of them. (I’m sure this will be a useful reference that I’ll return to in future seasons, though.) My favorite essay by far is #11, “On Scripture.” It bothers me sometimes to hear what sounds like Bible-olatry in Christians. The implication is that it’s the only revelation we have, all questions are answered there, and that’s that.
I like Lewis’s way of seeing the Bible. He acknowledges that it includes many literary forms, writers with different levels of awareness of inspiration, interference in its canonization and editing, an evolving (and flawed) human consciousness filtering it all. He acknowledges that the human personality through which the Bible comes to us is “an untidy and leaky vehicle,” rather than one that can give us “ultimate truth in systematic form — something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.” Instead of what we might have thought would be best, we have what God apparently thinks is best:
The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
He goes on to make the point that it’s the very departures from our desired “perfect” vehicle that give the Bible a unique power. Because it’s not easy prey for our “systematising intellect,” it demands a response from the whole person.
I’d like to quote more, but that gives a taste. The rest of the essays are well worth reading. For those who criticize Lewis for approaching universalism, there’s ample ammunition here to accuse him again. At various points he expresses the hope that some of the ancients who anticipated Christ (Akhenaten, Plato) may be saved despite being outside Jewish or Christian tradition. I don’t read this as universalism, or in any way undermining the primacy of Christ claimed in the gospels. God is gracious, and I expect we will find surprises in Heaven like the vineyard workers in Jesus’s parable found. Overall in these essays there is a generosity, a sanity, and a willingness to face the uncertainties with both faith and reason that I found very nourishing.