Sunday 7 August 2011

The Psalms and C.S. Lewis - Lewis nods?


When I became a Christian I was soon very confused indeed about the central place of the c. 150 Psalms in worship.

Why on earth should these apparently pre-Christian, ancient Jewish, poems or songs take-up such a very large amount of Christian worship?


Why, indeed, did Psalms apparently constitute almost the whole of Christian worship in ancient times?

(Especially before there were any Christian scriptures, but even much later. Some of the most devout and spiritually advanced Saints seemed barely to read the New Testament: knowing the basic Gospel story plus praying the Psalms seemed to be almost their whole devotional life.).


Why did some ancient monks sing them eight times a day, some modern monks four times a day, and even ordinary Anglicans twice a day?

Why are priests supposed to read the Psalms once a month, why are monks supposed to chant all of the Psalter every week for their whole lives?

Why did so many people in the past learn the Psalms by heart?


The first thing I did was to read C.S Lewis's Reflections on the Psalms.

Lewis, in this book, is at his most Protestant and least Catholic - and he firmly regards the Psalms as a record of ancient Jewish hymns by diverse hands, to be interpreted in their historical context; and at most providing reminders and correctives of specifically Christian ideals. 

He did indeed alert me to many good things about the psalms - but the answers he gave did not even begin to explain why, much less to justify, the psalms should have taken up so much time and effort from Christians for at least three-quarters of the span of Christianity.

Even if everything positive which Lewis has to say about the Psalms was absolutely correct and that to the fullest degree - then the implication is that surely (if that is all there is to them) Christians could find something better to focus upon - something actually Christian?


The answer, I later discovered, is that traditionally Christians have regarded the Psalms as (in essence) a part of the New Testament, being uttered by and about Christ.

This is, of course, the original Orthodox and Catholic way of reading the Psalms, and the way which persisted over many, many centuries.

In a nutshell, the Psalms were always regarded as prophetic utterances; divinely inspired among the ancient Jews but revealing their true meaning only after the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. 


Lewis swiftly disposes of this in a chapter on Second Meanings, and seems to conclude that this effect is only apparent; mostly merely a reminder of what happened some hundreds of years after the Psalms were composed.

Thus I have come to regard Lewis's book on the Psalms - for all its good nuggets - as perhaps his only fundamentally mistaken book - the only one in which he reasons like a modern Biblical scholar instead of forming a bridge to pre-modern wisdom.

Yet Lewis's actual practice was wiser than his understanding - he prayed the Psalms, frequently; he knew them by heart.

In sum, Lewis actually did, 'despite' all the reasons he gives which imply that it is not worth doing this, learn, read and speak the Psalms through - many, many times - for his whole adult life. 

And there is a lesson in that.



Wurmbrand said...

This seems to me another good posting.

I think that Lewis somewhat lacked a vigorous sense of liturgy and sacrament. During this August break, perhaps some readers of this blog would like to take a look at Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery and/or Jean Danielou's The Bible and the Liturgy. There are things of value in those books that you might glimpse, but only that, in Lewis's writings -- though I and many others owe CSL much indeed.

Related to this may be a degree of weakness in Lewis's thought as regards the Church Fathers. He introduced a translation of St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation and he refers to St. Augustine from time to time. But he doesn't seem to have steeped himself in patristic literature.

One should scan his letters around the time of his conversion and afterwards. He did read Anglican authorities such as Hooker. But he gravitated towards the mystics -- Thomas a Kempis, the Theologia Germanica, Walter Hilton, Lady Julian, Jacob Boehme ("Behmen"), William Law, George MacDonald. Some of these were Churchly thinkers, but the background of corporate worship, Churchly meditation on the Bible, etc. may have been something they just assumed that their readers were daily involved with. Others, such as MacDonald, may have been somewhat disaffected as regards Churchly life. But these were the people Lewis tended to read and cite.

I write as a Lutheran in the Confession tradition, and I am not trying to criticize Lewis on behalf of an undisclosed personal agenda in favor of the Roman communion or Eastern Orthodoxy.

But yes: I think C. S. Lewis missed something of the richness of the Church's meditation on the Bible. Had he lived longer perhaps he would have become better acquainted with it.

Kristor said...

“… traditionally Christians have regarded the Psalms as (in essence) a part of the New Testament, being uttered by and about Christ.” Yes. But then, this was equally true of the rest of the Old Testament, and for that matter all of the Israelite cultic traditions: the traditions of the prophetic mystical schools (e.g., Qumran), of the legal disputations of the Deuteronomists, of ecclesial worship in the synagogue, and of course particularly the rites of the Temple, which developed seamlessly into the rites of the Church. The early Christians (I count myself among them) read *everything* in the light of the Gospel. They saw foreshadowings and intimations of the religious Truth everywhere they looked: in Plato, Aristotle and Philo; in the Mysteries; in Persian, Babylonian and Egyptian religion. And lo, the hints and indications, indeed the explicit statements of Christian Truth, are indeed to be found in all these places.

The Psalms were important in the worship of the early Church because the Church was the new Temple, and the worship of the Church continued – and developed, ramified and intensified – the liturgies of the Temple. The Psalms were the choirbook of the Temple; so they became the choirbook of the Church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - indeed. But why did the Psalms *remain* the choirbook of the Church for another thousand-plus years when so much else changed?

Why such an emphasis - almost to the point of monopoly - on the Psalter far above the other sources you list?

It somewhat looks to me that there may be a positive correlation between the emphasis on the Psalms in worship and the degree of holiness being aimed-at (and perhaps attained) - as the emphasis on the Psalter declined, perhaps so did the degree of spirituality...

Kristor said...

There are lots of other aspects of the liturgy still in use today that go back to very ancient layers of Temple ritual. Some of the canticles of the Mass come from the Temple liturgy: i.e., the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The Lord's Prayer is a minimalist version of the prayer every good Jew was supposed to pray at least once daily.

The Gloria, Te Deum, and Phos Hilaron are all psalmi idiotici - "private psalms" - composed in the first few hundred years AD in plain imitation of the Psalms.

Why are the Psalms so important in worship and devotion? The only thing I can say in answer is that when spoken, and *especially* when chanted or sung, the Psalms pack an emotional punch unequalled elsewhere in Scripture - except in those places in the Epistles and the Gospels where we find hymns of the first Christians apparently interposed (Paul often quotes early hymns that support his rhetorical objectives, presumably because they were familiar to his correspondents; and these are the passages of the Epistles that are the most beloved).

The Psalms express the religious feelings of two sorts of people with unequalled depth and clarity: the layman trapped in the difficulties and sufferings of mundane life, and the mystic trapped in the spiritual analogues thereof. E.g., the pit, ravenings and roarings, wild bulls, young lions, the rising waters, the valley of the shadow of death. They tend to start with a description of the suffering and travail of the singer, of things going to hell in a handbasket; they ask God why he has not yet intervened, and ask how long he will wait to do so; then they proceed to a statement of the Psalmist's unshakeable faithfulness to God, and of his confidence that the Lord is already setting all things to rights, notwithstanding the present difficulties. They end by rejoicing, with the Psalmist joining in the songs of the angels in the courts of Heaven, that sound already through all creation.

It's profoundly cathartic and refreshing, without in the least trivializing our suffering, or condescending, or trying to convince us that the suffering is not real, or is due to our own insufficiency. The Psalms, then, operate for the Christian at the bleeding edge of his spiritual journey. The other Scriptures and writings of the saints, theologians, doctors and philosophers explain the concepts and recount the historical events that inform the spiritual journey, while the Psalms are written from within the journey by the pilgrim himself. It is profoundly comforting to reflect that King David felt the same way I do – and indeed even worse – and that he yet remained faithful, despite his great sins.

Kristor said...

There is also the practical fact that the Psalms represent the longest, best sample of texts actually used in the Temple liturgy. Much of the rest of that liturgy died with the priests. So, the Psalms are really the only authoritative source for those who are trying to continue the worship of the Temple.

Gabe Ruth said...

Dr. Charlton, please forgive this breach of etiquette, and know that I am a fan and supporter:

Kristor, do you write regularly anywhere? You took a few words out of my mouth and demonstrate a far deeper understanding than I was going to display, and far more eloquently.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gabe Ruth - I came across Kristor commenting at several traditional blogs, especially View from the Right: if you search his name on this blog you will discover some gems.

janotec said...

Dr. Charlton, thank you for this post. Your response to Lewis is very helpful.

From the time of the Apostles, the Church has always resorted to the Psalms to form its culture of prayer. As the Psalms anticipated Christ in poetic vision before the Incarnation, after the Incarnation the Psalms reveal His nature and ministry with greater meaning.

The upshot is that the Psalms can be best read and understood only in a New Testament society -- that is, the Church in Apostolic Tradition (i.e., faithfully Catholic and Orthodox).

A Psalms that is divorced from these predicates -- as in the truncated theories of modern biblical studies -- is a "Psalms" that will yield distortion and nostalgia, mixed in with an occasional scientific or pious insight.

Bruce Charlton said...

@janotec - thanks. I have indeed decided (or, more strictly, formed the intention and begun the process) to read (i.e. 'chant' quietly, sometime inaudibly, to myself) the Psalms in the King James Bible version every month (until further notice) - about six per day; intermittently using an Orthodox commentary "Christ in the Psalms" by Patrick Henry Reardon, to help me understand them in the proper context.

A point I did not make is that the Psalms are poetry and song as well as prayer, and I believe that much of their meaning is in their poetry - so the translation *must* be poetic, whatever else it is.

For English language speakers this means either the KJV Psalms or else the Miles Coverdale version in the Book of Common Prayer.

Ideally these would be 'corrected' (or else commented - but NOT re-written) - minimally, where absolutely necessary - from a perspective that was both Orthodox (ie derived from the Septuagint) and poetic; but so far as I know this has neither been attempted nor achieved - although the potential value of this has been suggested by Fr Andrew Phillips at Orthodox England.

(Sorry, I can't find the link.)

janotec said...

Thank you Dr. Charlton, and godspeed your chant through the KJV Psalms.

As an American Orthodox priest, somewhat acquainted with Fr. Reardon, I too prefer the KJV English, as opposed to the anti-poetic renderings that populate more modern attempts.

The Septuagint itself is preferable, but we still wait for a serviceable translation that is faithful to text and form. There are accurate renderings (i.e., Brenton, and to a lesser extent, St. Athanasios Academy), and then there are "derivative" attempts like the new Oxford Septuagint.

In any of these cases, the English Septuagint simply defies vocalization. The sound militates against sense, and this should not be.

Thus, I continue to prefer the KJV for "devotional" reading -- in the Orthodox Church, we traverse the Psalms (or should, at any rate) every week.

Best to you -- Fr. Jonathan Tobias (Pittsburgh, PA)