Sunday, August 25, 2013

Reading the Psalms

Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis

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.


  1. The book box is a great idea isn't it. I have done it in the past but don't have a book box for books lately. I do have one for visiting places out of a book about the city I live in - Hobart. I am overdue for a draw. Will look forward to seeing what you draw out next.

  2. I was intrigued with this idea after reading about it on Alex's blog and am so glad it's been a positive experience for you, too. There is something about the element of chance... kind of like the Classics Club spin!

  3. Pam, that's right, I remember your Hobart jar! I've really enjoyed learning about different things in the city.

    JoAnn, I was thinking of the Classics Club spin too! I agree, it's something about the element of chance - what the book fates will bring me next (and like most of the spinners whose lists I read, there are some books I'm hoping not to see :)

  4. I love the idea of the book box, though I'm not sure it would work for me as I think I would be too tempted to cheat! I'm glad you found this book interesting even though it wouldn't have been your first choice.

  5. Like you, I love the Psalms - they are so relevant to the way people feel today, aren't they? I often find them useful as prayers in themselves - and I love Lewis, so I shall keep an eye out for this.

  6. Helen, I think I'm going to alternate book draws with books I choose, so it won't always be books that I feel I have to read.

    Simon, it amazes me how the Psalms can speak to - or for - us thousands of years later. I love to think of all the generations of faith praying them through the ages. I often find myself saying just a verse or two.

  7. Do you think you ever would have read this if not for the book box? It sounds wonderful, but I will always go for a novel first.
    I want to do the book jar/box idea, too, but I need to read all of the ARCs I'm committed to over the next few months. I love reading new fiction, but sometimes I wish I had more time to read the books on my own shelves.

  8. I really like Lewis's description of his approach to talking about the Psalms, mainly because that's my approach to talking about books in my blog. I think it's mostly valid, but there are times when I want the historical, archaeological, scholarly explanation.

    My mother recently gave me back a book of Psalms that I had given her ~20 years ago. She is nearing the end of her life and is finding homes for beloved books. It's on my shelf to thumb through, but maybe I will really read it.

  9. Anbolyn, I'd like to think that I would have read it eventually, but it had already been four years on the TBR stacks, and it could have sat there much longer.

    Jane, what a lovely gift to receive back! Lewis being Lewis, he did bring his own scholarship to bear of course - it's just that Biblical study wasn't his fiend.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!