Friday, April 29, 2011
C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock," God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 244.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
My third discovery is of a difficulty which I suspect to be more acute in England than elsewhere. I mean the difficulty occasioned by language. In all societies, no doubt, the speech of the vulgar differs from that of the learned. The English language with its double vocabulary (Latin and native), English manners (with their boundless indulgence to slang, even in polite circles) and English culture which allows nothing like the French Academy, make the gap unusually wide. There are almost two languages in this country. The man who wishes to speak to the uneducated in English must learn their language….
Apart from this linguistic difficulty, the greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin. This has struck me more forcibly when I spoke to the R.A.F. than when I spoke to students: whether (as I believe) the Proletariat is more self-righteous than other classes, or whether educated people are cleverer at concealing their pride, this creates for us a new situation. The early Christian preachers could assume in their hearers whether Jews, Metuentes or Pagans, a sense of guilt. (That this was common among Pagans is shown by the fact that both Epicureanism and the Mystery Religions both claimed, though in different ways, to assuage it.) Thus the Christian message was in those days unmistakably the Evangelium, the Good News. It promised healing to those who knew they were sick. We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.
It is generally useless to try to combat this attitude, as older preachers did, by dwelling on sins like drunkenness and unchastity. The modern Proletariat is not drunken. As for fornication, contraceptives have made a profound difference. As long as this sin might socially ruin a girl by making her the mother of a bastard, most men recognized the sin against charity which it involved, and their consciences were often troubled by it. Now that it need have no such consequences, it is not, I think, generally felt to be a sin at all. My own experience suggests that if we can awake the conscience of our hearers at all, we must do so in quite different directions. We must talk of conceit, spite, jealousy, cowardice, meanness, etc. But I am very far from believing that I have found the solution of this problem.
C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock" (1948) included in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 242-244.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
The next thing I learned from the R.A.F. was that the English Proletariat is sceptical about History to a degree which academically educated persons can hardly imagine. This, indeed, seems to me to be far the widest cleavage between the learned and the unlearned. The educated man habitually, almost without noticing it, sees the present as something that grows out of a long perspective of centuries. In the minds of my R.A.F. hearers this perspective simply did not exist. It seemed to me that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic Man. But this was often curiously combined with a conviction that we knew a great deal about Pre-Historic Man: doubtless because Pre-Historic Man is labelled “Science” (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labelled as “History” (which is not). Thus a pseudo-scientific picture of the “Caveman” and a picture of “the Present” filled almost the whole of their imaginations; between these, there lay only a shadowy and unimportant region in which the phantasmal shapes of Roman soldiers, stage-coaches, pirates, knights in armour, highwaymen, etc., moved in a mist. I had supposed that if my hearers disbelieved the Gospels, they would do so because the Gospels recorded miracles. But my impression is that they disbelieved them simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago: that they would be almost as incredulous of the Battle of Actium as of the Resurrection—and for the same reason. Sometimes this scepticism was defended by the argument that all books before the invention of printing must have been copied and re-copied till the text was changed beyond recognition. And here came another surprise. When their historical scepticism took that rational form, it was sometimes easily allayed by the mere statement that there existed a “science called textual criticism” which gave us a reasonable assurance that some ancient texts were accurate. This ready acceptance of the authority of specialists is significant, not only for its ingenuousness but also because it underlines a fact of which my experiences have on the whole convinced me; i.e., that very little of the opposition we meet is inspired by malice or suspicion. It is based on genuine doubt, and often on doubt that is reasonable in the state of the doubter’s knowledge.
C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock" (1948) included in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 241-242.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The first thing I learned from addressing the [Royal Air Force] R.A.F. was that I had been mistaken in thinking materialism to be our only considerable adversary. Among the English “Intelligentsia of the Proletariat”, materialism is only one among many non-Christian creeds—Theosophy, Spiritualism, British Israelitism, etc. England has, of course, always been the home of “cranks”; I see no sign that they are diminishing. Consistent Marxism I very seldom met. Whether this is because it is very rare, or because men speaking in the presence of their officers concealed it, or because Marxists did not attend the meetings at which I spoke, I have no means of knowing. Even where Christianity was professed, it was often much tainted with Pantheistic elements. Strict and well-informed Christian statements, when they occurred at all, usually came from Roman Catholics or from members of extreme Protestant sects (e.g., Baptists). My student audiences shared, in a less degree, the theological vagueness I found in the R.A.F., but among them strict and well-informed statements came from Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics; seldom, if ever from Dissenters. The various non-Christian religions mentioned above hardly appeared.
C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock" (1948) included in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 240-241.
Monday, April 25, 2011
There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen’. This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life. Either at some period in Judaism, or else in the experience of some Jews, a roughly parallel situation occurred. The unity falls apart; the sacrificial rites become distinguishable from the meeting with God. This does not unfortunately mean that they will cease or become less important. They may, in various evil modes, become even more important than before. They may be valued as a sort of commercial transaction with a greedy God who somehow really wants or needs large quantities of carcasses and whose favours cannot be secured on any other terms. Worse still, they may be regarded as the only thing He wants, so that their punctual performance will satisfy Him without obedience to His demands for mercy, ‘judgement’, and truth. To the priests themselves the whole system will seem important simply because it is both their art and their livelihood; all their pedantry, all their pride, all their economic position, is bound up with it. They will elaborate their art more and more. And of course the corrective to these views of sacrifice can be found within Judaism itself. The prophets continually fulminate against it. Even the Psalter, though largely a Temple collection, can do so; as in Psalm 50 where God tells His people that all this Temple worship, considered in itself, is not the real point at all, and particularly ridicules the genuinely Pagan notion that He really needs to be fed with roast meat. ‘If I were hungry, do you think I would apply to you?’ (v. 12). I have sometimes fancied He might similarly ask a certain type of modern clergyman, ‘If I wanted music — if I were conducting research into the more recondite details of the history of the Western Rite — do you really think you are the source I would rely on?’
C.S. Lewis, “’The Fair Beauty of the Lord,’” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 335-336.
P.S. I also produce another blog called Samaritan XP which is all about the intersection of faith and culture.
At that blog, I’m in the midst of a series of posts about the little known bitter truth about chocolate and why Christians need to do something about it. I’d love to have you check it out:
"Giving up chocolate for Lent, maybe for life" by Ken Symes
Sunday, April 24, 2011
“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story.
C.S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” (originally published 1950; this edition from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 331.
Friday, April 22, 2011
This is really Part 4 of the series of quotes taken from What are we to make of Jesus Christ?, but I think you’ll see how it speaks to the truth behind Easter. –Ken Symes
Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They Ire not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they Ire clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seen it.
Then we come to the strangest story of all, the story of the Resurrection. It is very necessary to get the story clear. I heard a man say, “The importance of the Resurrection is that it gives evidence of survival, evidence that the human personality survives death.” On that view what happened to Christ would be what had always happened to all men, the difference being that in Christ’s case we were privileged to see it happening. This is certainly not what the earliest Christian writers thought. Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean that they disbelieved in ghost- survival. On the contrary, they believed in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that He was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection narratives are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe. Something new had appeared in the universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse”. A new mode of being has arisen. That is the story. What are we going to make of it?
C.S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” (originally published 1950; this edition from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 331-332.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
What are we to do about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena? One attempt consists in saying that the Man did not really say these things, but that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God—that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.
C.S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” (originally published 1950; this edition from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 331.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
On the one side clear, definite moral teaching. On the other, claims which, if not true, are those of a megalomaniac, compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men. There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him: “Are you the son of Brahma?” he would have said, “My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.” If you had gone to Socrates and asked, “Are you Zeus?” he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, “Are you Allah?” he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, “Are you Heaven?” I think he would have probably replied, “Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.” The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are not looking for a piece of toast to suit you you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects—Hatred—Terror—Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.
What are we to do about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena?
C.S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” (originally published 1950; this edition from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 331.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
“What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” This is a question which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us? The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it. But perhaps the questioner meant what are we to make of Him in the sense of “How are we to solve the historical problem set us by the recorded sayings and acts of this Man?” This problem is to reconcile two things. On the one hand you have got the almost generally admitted depth and sanity of His moral teaching, which is not very seriously questioned, even by those who are opposed to Christianity. In fact, I find when I am arguing with very anti-God people that they rather make a point of saying, “I am entirely in favour of the moral teaching of Christianity”—and there seems to be a general agreement that in the teaching of this Man and of His immediate followers, moral truth is exhibited at its purest and best. It is not sloppy idealism, it is full of wisdom and shrewdness. The whole thing is realistic, fresh to the highest degree, the product of a sane mind. That is one phenomenon.
The other phenomenon is the quite appalling nature of this Man’s theological remarks. You all know what I mean, and I want rather to stress the point that the appalling claim which this Man seems to be making is not merely made at one moment of His career. There is, of course, the one moment which led to His execution. The moment at which the High Priest said to Him, “Who are you?” “I am the Anointed, the Son of the uncreated God, and you shall see Me appearing at the end of all history as the judge of the Universe.” But that claim, in fact, does not rest on this one dramatic moment. When you look into His conversation you will find this sort of claim running through the whole thing. For instance, He went about saying to people, “I forgive your sins”. Now it is quite natural for a man to forgive something you do to him. Thus if somebody cheats me out of five pounds it is quite possible and reasonable for me to say, “Well, I forgive him, we will say no more about it.” What on earth would you say if somebody had done you out of five pounds and I said, “That is all right, I forgive him”? Then there is a curious thing which seems to slip out almost by accident, On one occasion this Man is sitting looking down on Jerusalem from the hill above it and suddenly in comes an extraordinary remark—“I keep on sending you prophets and wise men.” Nobody comments on it. And yet, quite suddenly, almost incidentally, He is claiming to be the power that all through the centuries is sending wise men and leaders into the world. Here is another curious remark:
in almost every religion there are unpleasant observances like fasting. This Man suddenly remarks one day, “No one need fast while I am here.” Who is this Man who remarks that His mere presence suspends all normal rules? Who is the person who can suddenly tell the School they can have a half-holiday?
C.S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” (originally published 1950; this edition from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 330.
Monday, April 18, 2011
[The] Jews, like nearly all the ancients, were agricultural and approached Nature with a gardener’s and a farmer’s interest, concerned with rain, with grass ‘for the service of man’, wine to cheer man up and olive-oil to make his face shine — to make it look, as Homer says somewhere, like a peeled onion (104:14,15). But we find them led on beyond this. Their gusto, or even gratitude, embraces things that are no use to man. In the great Psalm especially devoted to Nature, from which I have just quoted (104), ’we have not only the useful cattle, the cheering vine, and the nourishing corn. We have springs where the wild asses quench their thirst (v. 11), fir trees for the storks (v. 17), hill country for the wild goats and ‘conies’ (perhaps marmots, v. 18), finally even the lions (v. 21); and even with a glance far out to sea, where no Jew willingly went, the great whales playing, enjoying themselves (v. 26).
… In Norse stories a pestilent creature such as a dragon tends to be conceived as the enemy not only of men but of gods. In classical stories, more disquietingly, it tends to be sent by a god for the destruction of men whom he has a grudge against. The Psalmist’s clear objective view — noting the lions and whales side by side with men and men’s cattle — is unusual. And I think it is certainly reached through the idea of God as Creator and sustainer of all. In 104:21, the point about the lions is that they, like us, ‘do seek their meat from God’. All these creatures, like us, ‘wait upon’ God at feeding-time (v. 27). It is the same in 147:9; though the raven was an unclean bird to Jews, God ‘feedeth the young ravens that call upon him’. The thought which gives these creatures a place in the Psalmist’s gusto for Nature is surely obvious. They are our fellow-dependents; we all — lions, storks, ravens, whales —. live, as our fathers said, ‘at God’s charges’, and mention of all equally redounds to His praise.
C.S. Lewis, “Nature,” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 354.
Friday, April 15, 2011
The Psalmists were not quite wrong when they described the good man as avoiding ‘the seat of the scornful’ and fearing to consort with the ungodly lest he should ‘cat of’ (shall we say, laugh at, admire, approve, justify?) ‘such things as please them’. As usual in their attitude, with all its dangers, there is a core of very good sense. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ often means, among other things, ‘Deny me those gratifying invitations, those highly interesting contacts, that participation in the brilliant movements of our age, which I so often, at such risk, desire.’
Closely connected with these warnings against what I have called ‘connivance’ are the protests of the Psalter against other sins of the tongue. I think that when I began to read it these surprised me a little; I had half expected that in a simpler and more violent age when more evil was done with the knife, the big stick, and the firebrand, less would be done by talk. But in reality the Psalmists mention hardly any kind of evil more often than this one, which the most civilised societies share. ‘Their throat is an open sepulchre, they flatter’ (:io), ‘under his tongue is ungodliness and vanity’, or ‘perjury’ as Dr Moffatt translates it (10:7), ‘deceitful lips’ (12:3), ‘lying lips’ ( 1:20), ‘words full of deceit’ (36:3), the ‘whispering’ of evil men (41:7), cruel lies that ‘cut like a razor’ ( 2:3), talk that sounds ‘smooth as oil’ and will wound like a sword (55:22), pitiless jeering (102:8). It is all over the Psalter. One almost hears the incessant whispering, tattling, lying, scolding, flattery, and circulation of rumours. No historical readjustments are here required, we are in the world we know. We even detect in that muttering and wheedling chorus voices which are familiar. One of them may be too familiar for recognition.
C.S. Lewis, “Connivance,” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 348-349.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Many people have a very strong desire to meet celebrated or ‘important’ people, including those of whom they disapprove, from curiosity or vanity. It gives them something to talk or even (anyone may produce a book of reminiscences) to write about. It is felt to confer distinction if the great, though odious, man recognises you in the street. And where such motives are in play it is better still to know him quite well, to be intimate with him. It would be delightful if he shouted out ‘Hallo Bill’ while you were walking down the Strand with an impressionable country cousin. I don’t know that the desire is itself a very serious defect. But I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel, dishonest, spiteful and so forth.
Not because we are ‘too good’ for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces. The temptation is to condone, to connive at; by our words, looks and laughter, to ‘consent’. The temptation was never greater than now when we are all (and very rightly) so afraid of priggery or ‘smugness’. And of course, even if we do not seek them out, we shall constantly be in such company whether we wish it or not. This is the real and unavoidable difficulty.
We shall hear vile stories told as funny; not merely licentious stories but (to me far more serious and less noticed) stories which the teller could not be telling unless he was betraying someone’s confidence. We shall hear infamous detraction of the absent, often disguised as pity or humour. Things we hold sacred will be mocked. Cruelty will be slyly advocated by the assumption that its only opposite is ‘sentimentality’. The very presuppositions of any possible good life — all disinterested motives, all heroism, all genuine forgiveness — will be, not explicitly denied (for then the matter could be discussed), but assumed to be phantasmal, idiotic, believed in only by children.
What is one to do? For on the one hand, quite certainly, there is a degree of unprotesting participation in such talk which is very had. We are strengthening the hands of the enemy. We are encouraging him to believe that ‘those Christians’, once you get them off their guard and round a dinner table, really think and feel exactly as he does. By implication we arc denying our Master; behaving as if we ‘knew not the Man’. On the other hand is one to show that, like Queen Victoria, one is ‘not amused’? Is one to be contentious, interrupting the flow of conversation at every moment with ‘I don’t agree, I don’t agree’? Or rise and go away? But by these courses we may also confirm some of their worst suspicions of ‘those Christians’. We are just the sort of ill-mannered prigs they always said.
Silence is a good refuge. People will not notice it nearly so easily as we tend to suppose. And (better still) few of us enjoy it as we might be in danger of enjoying more forcible methods. Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority. A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later to have been influenced by what you said.
C.S. Lewis, “Connivance,” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 346-348.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Every attentive reader of the Psalms will have noticed that they speak to us severely not merely about doing evil ourselves but about something else. In Psalm 26:4, the good man is not only free from ‘vanity’ (falsehood) but has not even ‘dwelled with’, been on intimate terms with, those who are ‘vain’. He has ‘hated’ them (v. 5). So in 31:7, he has ‘hated’ idolaters. In 50:18, God blames a man not for being a thief but for ‘consenting to’ a thief (in Dr Moffatt, ‘you are a friend to any thief you see’). In 141:4—6, where our translation appears to be rather wrong, the general sense nevertheless comes through and expresses the same attitude. Almost comically the Psalmist of 139 asks, ‘Don’t I hate those who hate thee, Lord? ... Why, I hate them as if they were my enemies!’ (vv. 21, 22).
Now obviously all this — taking upon oneself to hate those whom one thinks God’s enemies, avoiding the society of those one thinks wicked, judging our neighbours, thinking oneself ‘too good’ for some of them (not in the snobbish way, which is a trivial sin in comparison, but in the deepest meaning of the words ‘too good’) — is an extremely dangerous, almost a fatal, game. It leads straight to ‘Pharisaism’ in the sense which Our Lord’s own teaching has given to that word. It leads not only to the wickedness but to the absurdity of those who in later times came to be called the ‘unco guid’. This I assume from the outset, and I think that even in the Psalms this evil is already at work. But we must not be Pharisaical even to the Pharisees. It is foolish to read such passages without realising that a quite genuine problem is involved. And I am not at all confident about the solution.
We hear it said again and again that the editor of some newspaper is a rascal, that some politician is a liar, that some official person is a tyrannical Jack-in-office and even dishonest… that some celebrity (film-star, author, or what not) leads a most vile and mischievous life. And the general rule in modern society is that no one refuses to meet any of these people and to behave towards them in the friendliest and most cordial manner. People will even go out of their way to meet them. They will not even stop buying the rascally newspaper, thus paying the owner for the lies, the detestable intrusions upon private life and private tragedy, the blasphemies and the pornography, which they profess to condemn….
I am concerned here only with the problem that appears in our individual and private lives. How ought we to behave in the presence of very bad people? I will limit this by changing ‘very bad people’ to ‘very bad people who are powerful, prosperous and impenitent’.
C.S. Lewis, “Connivance,” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 344-345.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
I want to stress what I think that we (or at least I) need more; the joy and delight in God which meet us in the Psalms, however loosely or closely, in this or that instance, they may be connected with the Temple. This is the living centre of Judaism. These poets knew far less reason than we for loving God. They did not know that He offered them eternal joy; still less that He would die to win it for them. Yet they express a longing for Him, for His mere presence, which comes only to the best Christians or to Christians in their best moments. They long to live all their days in the Temple so that they may constantly see ‘the fair beauty of the Lord’ (27:4). Their longing to go up to Jerusalem and ‘appear before the presence of God’ is like a physical thirst (42). From Jerusalem His presence flashes out ‘in perfect beauty’ (50:2). Lacking that encounter with Him, their souls are parched like a waterless countryside (63:2). They crave to be ‘satisfied with the pleasures’ of His house (65:4). Only there can they be at ease, like a bird in the nest (84:3). One day of those ‘pleasures’ is better than a lifetime spent elsewhere (v. 10).
I have rather — though the expression may seem harsh to some — called this the ‘appetite for God’ than ‘the love of God’. The ‘love of God’ too easily suggests the word ‘spiritual’ in all those negative or restrictive senses which it has unhappily acquired. These old poets do not seem to think that they are meritorious or pious for having such feelings; nor, on the other hand, that they are privileged in being given the grace to have them. They are at once less priggish about it than the worst of us and less humble — one might almost say, less surprised — than the best of us. It has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical, desire. It is gay and jocund. They are glad and rejoice (9:2). Their fingers itch for the harp (43:4), for the lute and the harp — wake up, lute and harp! — (57:9); let’s have a song, bring the tambourine, bring the ‘merry harp with the lute’, we’re going to sing merrily and make a cheerful noise (81:1, 2). Noise, you may well say. Mere music is not enough. Let everyone, even the benighted Gentiles, clap their hands (47:1). Let us have clashing cymbals, not only well tuned, but loud, and dances too (150:5). Let even the remote islands (all islands were remote, for the Jews were no sailors) share the exultation (97:1).
I am not saying that this gusto — if you like, this rowdiness — can or should be revived. Some of it cannot be revived because it is not dead but with us still. It would be idle to pretend that we Anglicans are a striking example. The Romans, the Orthodox, and the Salvation Army all, I think, have retained more of it than we. We have a terrible concern about good taste. Yet even we can still exult.
C.S. Lewis, “‘The Fair Beauty of the Lord,’” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 336-337.
Monday, April 11, 2011
The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance. I am not saying that this is so pure or so profound a thing as the love of God reached by the greatest Christian saints and mystics. But I am not comparing it with that, I am comparing it with the merely dutiful ‘churchgoing’ and laborious ‘saying our prayers’ to which most of us are, thank God not always, but often, reduced. Against that it stands out as something astonishingly robust, virile, and spontaneous; something we may regard with an innocent envy and may hope to be infected by as we read.
C.S. Lewis, “‘The Fair Beauty of the Lord,’” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 334.
Friday, April 8, 2011
For we can still see, in the worst of their maledictions, how these old poets were, in a sense, near to God. Though hideously distorted by the human instrument, something of the Divine voice can be heard in these passages. Not, we trust, that God looks upon their enemies as they do: He ‘desireth not the death of a sinner’. But doubtless He has for the sin of those enemies just the implacable hostility which the poets express. Implacable? Yes, not to the sinner but to sin. It will not be tolerated nor condoned, no treaty will be made with it. That tooth must come out, that right hand must be amputated, if the man is to be saved. In that way the relentlessness of the Psalmists is far nearer to one side of the truth than many modern attitudes which can be mistaken, by those who hold them, for Christian charity... It is nearer than the pseudoscientific tolerance which reduces all wickedness to neurosis (though of course some apparent wickedness is). It even contains a streak of sanity absent from the old woman presiding at a juvenile court who — I heard it myself — told some young hooligans, convicted of a well-planned robbery for gain (they had already sold the swag and some had previous convictions against them) that they must, they really must, give up such ‘stupid pranks’. Against all this the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it (if not its perpetrators) is hateful to God. In that way, however dangerous the human distortion may be, His word sounds through these passages too.
But can we, besides learning from these terrible Psalms, also use them in our devotional life? I believe we can; but that topic must be reserved for a later chapter.
C.S. Lewis, ‘The Cursings,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 325-326.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
It is monstrously simple-minded to read the cursings in the Psalms with no feeling except one of horror at the uncharity of the poets. They are indeed devilish. But we must also think of those who made them so. Their hatreds are the reaction to something. Such hatreds are the kind of thing that cruelty and injustice, by a sort of natural law, produce. This, among other things, is what wrong-doing means. Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr Pilgrim; they may live and hate.
Then another thought occurred which led me in an unexpected, and at first unwelcome, direction. The reaction of the Psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong. One may try to excuse it on the ground that they were not Christians and knew no better. But there are two reasons why this defence, though it will go some way, will not go very far.
The first is that within Judaism itself the corrective to this natural reaction already existed. ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart ... thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ says Leviticus (19:17, 18). In Exodus we read, ‘If thou seest the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden thou shalt surely help with him,’ and ‘if thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him’ (23:4, 5). ‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth’ (Proverbs 24:17). And I shall never forget my surprise when I first discovered that St Paul’s ‘If thine enemy hunger, give him bread’, etc., is a direct quotation from the same book (Proverbs 25:21). But this is one of the rewards of reading the Old Testament regularly. You keep on discovering more and more what a tissue of quotations from it the New Testament is; how constantly Our Lord repeated, reinforced, continued, refined, and sublimated, the Judaic ethics, how very seldom He introduced a novelty. This indeed was perfectly well known — was almost axiomatic — to millions of unlearned Christians as long as Bible-reading was habitual. Nowadays it seems to be so forgotten that people think they have somehow discredited Our Lord if they can show that some pre-Christian document (or what they take to be pre-Christian) such as the Dead Sea Scrolls has ‘anticipated’ Him. As if we supposed Him to be a cheapjack, like Nietzsche, inventing a new ethic! Every good teacher, within Judaism as without, has anticipated Him. The whole religious history of the pre-Christian world, on its better side, anticipates Him. It could not be otherwise. The Light which has lightened every man from the beginning may shine more clearly but cannot change. The Origin cannot suddenly start being, in the popular sense of the word, ‘original’.
The second reason is more disquieting. If we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the ground that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in Pagan authors. Perhaps if I knew more Pagan literature I should be able to do this. But in what I do know (a little Greek, a little Latin, and of Old Norse very little indeed) I am not at all sure that I can…. [You’ll have to get the book to read the rest of this one! –Ken Symes]
C.S. Lewis, ‘The Cursings,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 322-323.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone. But unfortunately the bad parts will not ‘come away clean’; they may, as we have noticed, be intertwined with the most exquisite things. And if we still believe that all Holy Scripture is ‘written for our learning’ or that the age-old use of the Psalms in Christian worship was not entirely contrary to the will of God, and if we remember that Our Lord’s mind and language were clearly steeped in the Psalter, we shall prefer, if possible, to make some use of them. What use can be made?…. I can only describe, on the chance that it may help others, the use which I have, undesignedly and gradually, come to make of them myself.
At the outset I felt sure, and I feel sure still, that we must not either try to explain them 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. We must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there — festering, gloating, undisguised — and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves. Only after these two admissions have been made can we safely proceed.
The first thing that helped me — this is a common experience — came from an angle that did not seem to be religious at all. I found that these maledictions were in one way extremely interesting. For here one saw a feeling we all know only too well. Resentment, expressing itself with perfect freedom, without disguise, without self-consciousness, without shame — as few but children would express it today. I did not of course think that this was because the ancient Hebrews had no conventions or restraints. Ancient and oriental cultures are in many ways more conventional, more ceremonious, and more courteous than our own. But their restraints came in different places. Hatred did not need to be disguised for the sake of social decorum or for fear anyone would accuse you of a neurosis. We therefore see it its ‘wild’ or natural condition.
One might have expected that this would immediately, and usefully, have turned my attention to the same thing in my own heart. And that, no doubt, is one very good use we can make of the maledictory Psalms. To be sure, the hates which we fight against in ourselves do not dream of quite such appalling revenges. We live — at least, in some countries we still live — in a milder age. These poets lived in a world of savage punishments, of massacre and violence, of blood sacrifice in all countries and human sacrifice in many. And of course, too, we are far more subtle than they in disguising our ill will from others and from ourselves. ‘Well,’ we say, ‘he’ll live to be sorry for it,’ as if we were merely, even regretfully, predicting; not noticing, certainly not admitting, that what we predict gives us a certain satisfaction. Still more in the Psalmists’ tendency to chew over and over the cud of some injury, to dwell in a kind of self-torture on every circumstance that aggravates it, most of us can recognise something we have met in ourselves.
C.S. Lewis, ‘The Cursings,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 320-321.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïvety.
Examples of the first can be found all over the Psalter, but perhaps the worst is in Psalm 109. The poet prays that an ungodly man may rule over his enemy and that ‘Satan’ may stand at his right hand (v. ). This probably does not mean what a Christian reader naturally supposes. The ‘Satan’ is an accuser, perhaps an informer. When the enemy is tried, let him be convicted and sentenced, ‘and let his prayer be turned into sin’ (v. 6). This again means, I think, not his prayers to God, but his supplications to a human judge, which are to make things all the hotter for him (double the sentence because he begged for it to be halved). May his days be few, may his job be given to someone else (v. 7). When he is dead may his orphans be beggars (v. 9). May he look in vain for anyone in the world to pity him (v. II). Let God always remember against him the sins of his parents (v. 13). Even more devilish in one verse is the otherwise beautiful Psalm 137 where a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement (v. 9). And we get the refinement of malice in 69:23, ‘Let their table be made a snare to take themselves withal; and let the things that should have been for their wealth be unto them an occasion of falling.’
The examples which (in me at any rate) can hardly fail to produce a smile may occur most disquietingly in Psalms we love: 143, after proceeding for ii verses in a strain that brings tears to the eyes, adds in the 12th, almost like an afterthought, ‘and of thy goodness slay mine enemies’. Even more naively, almost childishly, Psalm 139, in the middle of its hymn of praise throws in (v. 19), ‘Wilt thou not slay the wicked, 0 God?’ — as if it were surprising that such a simple remedy for human ills had not occurred to the Almighty. Worst of all in ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ (Psalm 23), after the green pasture, the waters of comfort, the sure confidence in the valley of the shadow, we suddenly run across (v. 5) ‘Thou shalt prepare a table for me against them that trouble me’ — or, as Dr Moffatt translates it, ‘Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me while my enemies have to look on.’ The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid enemies (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it. This may not be so diabolical as the passages I have quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure.
One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone. But unfortunately the bad parts will not ‘come away clean’; they may, as we have noticed, be intertwined with the most exquisite things. And if we still believe that all Holy Scripture is ‘written for our learning’ or that the age-old use of the Psalms in Christian worship was not entirely contrary to the will of God, and if we remember that Our Lord’s mind and language were clearly steeped in the Psalter, we shall prefer, if possible, to make some use of them. What use can be made?
C.S. Lewis, ‘The Cursings,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 319-320.
Monday, April 4, 2011
If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles it is the thought of God’s ‘judgement’. The ‘Day’ of Judgement is ‘that day of wrath, that dreadful day’. We pray for God to deliver us ‘in the hour of death and at the day of judgement’. Christian art and literature for centuries have depicted its terrors. This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our Lord Himself; especially to the terrible parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the ‘Goats’ are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on those he never did — perhaps never dreamed of doing.
It was therefore with great surprise that I first noticed how the Psalmists talk about the judgements of God. They talk like this: ‘0 let the nations rejoice and be glad, for thou shalt judge the folk righteously’ (67:4), ‘Let the field be joyful ... all the trees of the wood shall rejoice before the Lord, for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth’ (96:12, I 3). Judgement is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it: ‘Judge me, 0 Lord my God, according to thy righteousness’ (35:24).
The reason for this soon becomes very plain. The ancient Jews, like ourselves, think of God’s judgement in terms of an earthly court of justice. The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the .dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages. Hence he prays ‘judge my quarrel’, or ‘avenge my cause’ (35:23). And though, as I said a minute ago, Our Lord in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats painted the characteristically Christian picture, in another place He is very characteristically Jewish. Notice what He means by ‘an unjust judge’. By those words most of us would mean someone like Judge Jeffreys or the creatures who sat on the benches of German tribunals during the Nazi régime: someone who bullies witnesses and jurymen in order to convict, and then savagely to punish, innocent men. Once again, we are thinking of a criminal trial. We hope we shall never appear in the dock before such a judge. But the Unjust Judge in the parable is quite a different character. There is no danger of appearing in his court against your will: the difficulty is the opposite — to get into it. It is clearly a civil action. The poor woman (Luke 18:1—5) has had her little strip of land — room for a pigsty or a hen-run — taken away from her by a richer and more powerful neighbour (nowadays it would be Town-Planners or some other ‘Body’). And she knows she has a perfectly watertight case. If once she could get it into court and have it tried by the laws of the land, she would be bound to get that strip back. But no one will listen to her, she can’t get it tried. No wonder she is anxious for ‘judgement’.
Behind this lies an age-old and almost world-wide experience which we have been spared. In most places and times it has been very difficult for the ‘small man’ to get his case heard. The judge (and, doubtless, one or two of his underlings) has to be bribed. If you can’t afford to ‘oil his palm’ your case will never reach court. Our judges do not receive bribes. (We probably take this blessing too much for granted; it will not remain with us automatically.) We need not therefore be surprised if the Psalms, and the Prophets, are full of the longing for judgement, and regard the announcement that ‘judgement’ is coming as good news. Hundreds and thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgement. They know their case is unanswerable — if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, at last it will.
Dozens of passages make the point clear. In Psalm 9 we are told that God will ‘minister true judgement’ (v. 8), and that is because He ‘forgetteth not the complaint of the poor’ (v. 12). He ‘defendeth the cause’ (that is, the ‘case’) ‘of the widows’ (68:). The good king in Psalm 72:2 will ‘judge’ the people rightly; that is, he will ‘defend the poor’. When God ‘arises to judgement’ he will ‘help all the meek upon earth’ (76:9), all the timid, helpless people whose wrongs have never been righted yet. When God accuses earthly judges of ‘wrong judgement’, He follows it up by telling them to see that the poor ‘have right’ (82:2, 3).
The ‘just’ judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case.
C.S. Lewis, “‘Judgement’ in the Psalms,” Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 313-314.
Friday, April 1, 2011
What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible ‘as literature’ sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense. But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.
C.S. Lewis, ‘Sweeter Than Honey,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 310.