This was the first draw from my new book box (as I mentioned before, an idea borrowed from Alex in Leeds). I was excited to start this reading plan, with its element of chance, but I have to admit, when I saw the title I sat staring blankly at it for a minute. A book on the Bible would not have been my first choice just then; I wanted a story, a novel. But it was too soon to start cheating on the new plan, so I hunted Reflections on the Psalms down on the shelves.
This was a give-away from work (one of the perks of working in a church office). I chose it because I have enjoyed C.S. Lewis's apologetic writings, and because I love the Psalms. In a largely self-directed reading life, I've never read much poetry beyond the obligatory high school studies (I can still recite the Shakespeare sonnet we each had to memorize, as well as "To be, or not to be"). The Psalms have been a constant and familiar poetry: they are the basis for many of my favorite hymns and the prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, part of the daily readings at Mass. It's one of the books of the Bible that I turn to first, reading on my own (all too rarely these days). But I've never read anything about the Psalms, other than the brief paragraphs of introduction in my New American Bible; nor can I remember any homilies on the Psalms. So when I came across this book by C.S. Lewis, I thought his Reflections on the Psalms would be interesting and probably enlightening.
Lewis starts off with a straight-forward declaration:
This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself . . . The thoughts it contains are those to which I found myself driven in reading the Psalms, sometimes by my enjoyment of them, sometimes by meeting with what at first I could not enjoy.That approach sounded pretty good to me, an amateur in biblical scholarship and an unlearned one at that.
After a brief introduction, which includes a discussion of the Psalms as poetic literature, Lewis goes on to present several themes running constantly through them. He starts off with what he considers the problematic elements, such as the question of judgement, and particularly the violence of the cursing Psalms (which are rarely included in readings or liturgy). He then moves on to "better things," like the delight in God expressed in the Psalms, the sweetness found in the Law, the glory found in His created world. With each theme, he looks at how the ancient Hebrews understood it, sometimes contrasting their view with that of the Gentiles who surrounded them. He also looks at how a 20th-century Christian might understand and apply the insights of the Psalmists - even the curses. Finally, Lewis turns to "second meanings," exploring the ways that many Christians have traditionally read the Psalms, with the other books of the Hebrew scriptures, backwards as it were, through the lens of the New Testament, finding in them prophecies and potentialities fulfilled in Jesus.
I can't speak to C.S. Lewis's scholarship here, but I found the book very interesting and thought-provoking. I had to read it with the Bible open, in part because Lewis refers to many Psalms in passing only by their numbers, which I never remember. He also quotes most frequently from the Coverdale translation that he knew from the Book of Common Prayer. Since that is not one I know, I wanted to compare his texts with the familiar language of my New American Bible. From there I found myself going on to read many of the Psalms he cites in their entirety, recognizing how they are condensed and edited for use in worship.
I will probably be saying this all too often, but I am glad for the nudge to read this book, finally. And I'm curious to see what the book box will bring me next.