altChristian Reflections by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1967)

This is another excellent collection of C. S. Lewis essays, none of which, I'm pretty sure, have I encountered in the other collections I've read.

I ran out of energy for quotations after the chapter on the Psalms, but it's all worth reading. Even "On Church Music," which reveals that Lewis's experience with music in church must have been as bizarre (from my point of view) as his experience with women. It is a tribute to both his humilty and his sense of justice that he manages to write intelligently and fairly about both subjects!

Table of Contents

Christianity and Literature
Christianity and Culture
Religion: Reality or Substitute?
On Ethics
De Futilitate
The Poison of Subjectivism
The Funeral of a Great Myth
On Church Music
The Psalms
The Language of Religion
Petitionary Prayer: A Problem without an Answer
Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism
The Seeing Eye

From "Christianity and Culture"

The same process of attrition which empties good language of its virtue does, after all, empty bad language of much of its vice. ... "Bad language" in the popular sense, obscenity or profanity ... has its origin in sin, but to the individual speaker it may be mere meaningless noise. (p. 33)

Sigh. I try to remember that. It is difficult.

From "Religion: Reality or Substitute?"

When I was a boy, gramophone records were not nearly so good as they are now. In the old recording of an orchestral piece you could hardly hear the separate instruments at all, but only a single undifferentiated sound. That was the sort of music I grew up on. And when, at a somewhat later age, I began to hear real orchestras, I was actually disappointed with them, just because you didn't get that single sound. What one got in a concert room seemed to me to lack the unity I had grown to expect, to be not an orchestra but merely a number of individual musicians on the same platform. In fact, I felt it "wasn't the Real Thing." ... Owing to my musical miseducation the reality appeared to be a substitute and the substitute a reality. (p. 39)

From "De Futilitate"

No explanation of the problem of unjust suffering is given [in the Book of Job]: that it not the point of the poem. The point is that the man who accepts our ordinary standard of good and by it hotly criticizes divine justice receives the divine approval; the orthodox, pious people who palter with that standard in the attempt to justify God are condemned. Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice to the absolute justice is not to throw our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them. (p. 70, emphasis mine)

Having grasped the truth that our very condemnation of reality carries in its heart an unconscious act of allegiance to that same reality as the source of our moral standards, we then of course have to ask how this ultimate morality in the universe can be reconciled with the actual course of events. It is really the same sort of problem that meets us in science. The pell-mell of phenomena, as we first observe them, seems to be full of anomalies and irregularities; but being assured that reality is logical we go on framing and trying out hypotheses to show that the apparent irregularities are not really irregular at all. The history of science is the history of that process. The corresponding process whereby, having admitted that reality in the last resort must be moral, we attempt to explain evil, is the history of theology. (pp. 70-71, emphasis mine)

From "The Poison of Subjectivism"

A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster.  If we once admit that what God means by "goodness" is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship. (p. 79, emphasis mine)

We must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square.  (Flatlanders, attempting to imagine a cube, would either imagine the six squares coinciding, and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about the Trinity are of much the same kind.) (pp. 79-80)

From "The Funeral of a Great Myth"

If the cases of degeneration [in evolution] were kept in mind it would be impossible not to see that any given change in society is at least as likely to destroy the liberties and amenities we already have as to add new ones; that the danger of slipping back is at least as great as the chance of getting on; that a prudent society must spend at least as much energy on conserving what it has as on improvement. A clear knowledge of these truisms would be fatal both to the political Left and to the political Right of modern times. (pp. 92-93)

From "On Church Music"

The first thing I noted in this essay was that music seems to be about as foreign a landscape to Lewis as mathematics. The second was that I don't agree with him on everything. :) Nonetheless, his attitude of humility enables him to speak with wisdom. Some of it is applicable to our time. Sometimes the difference between our congregations and those of Lewis's time is stark.

What I, like many other laymen, chiefly desire in church are fewer, better, and shorter hymns; especially fewer. (p.96)

Well, he got his wish, sort of. Hymns are an endangered species, and so are choirs. But I doubt he'd be any happier with the modern pop music and "worship bands" that have taken their place.

The case for abolishing all Church Music whatever ... seems to me far stronger than the case for abolishing the difficult work of the trained choir and retaining the lusty roar of the congregation. Whatever doubts I feel about the spiritual value of the first I feel at least equally about the spiritual value of the second. (p. 96)

This, however, I believe he would still say:

The first and most solid conclusion which (for me) emerges is that both musical parties, the High Brows and the Low, assume far too easily the spiritual value of the music they want. Neither the greatest excellence of a trained performance from the choir, nor the heartiest and most enthusiastic bellowing from the pews, must be taken to signify that any specifically religious activity is going on. It may be so, or it may not. Yet the main sense of Christendom, reformed and unreformed, would be against us if we tried to banish music from the Church. (p. 96)

And this also:

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. (pp. 96-97)

I do not think it can be the business of the Church greatly to cooperate with the modern State in appeasing inferiority complexes and encouraging the natural man's instinctive hatred of excellence. Democracy is all very well as a political device. It must not intrude into the spiritual, or even the aesthetic, world. (pp. 97-98)

An excellently performed piece of music, as a natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will ... always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with "the dragons and great deeps," with the "frosts and snows." What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which preceded the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men: privileged while mortals to honour God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall. But I must insist that no degree of excellence in the music, simply as music, can assure us that this paradisal state has been achieved. (p. 98)

From "Historicism"

I give the name Historicism to the belief that men can, by the use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process. ... The mark of the Historicist [as opposed to a historian] is that he tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical: conclusions metaphysical or theological or (to coin a word) atheo-logical. (p. 100)

Historicism exists on many levels. The lowest form of it is ... the doctrine that our calamities (or more often our neighbours' calamities) are "judgements"; which here means divine condemnations or punishments. This sort of Historicism sometimes endeavours to support itself by the authority of the Old Testament. Some people even talk as if it were the peculiar mark of the Hebrew prophets to interpret history in this way. To that I have two replies. Firstly, the Scriptures come before me as a book claiming divine inspirtaion. I am not prepared to argue with the prophets. But if any man thinks that because God was pleased to reveal certain calamities as "judgements" to certain chosen persons, he is therefore entitled to generalize and read all calamities in the same way, I submit that this is a non sequitur. ... Secondly, we must insist that such an interpretation of history was not the characteristic of ancient Hebrew religion, not the thing which sets it apart and makes it uniquely valuable. On the contrary, this is precisely what it shares with popular Paganism. To attribute calamity to the offended gods and therefore to seek out and punish the offender, is the most natural thing in the world and therefore the world-wide method. ... The distinctive thing, the precious peculiarity, of Scripture is the series of divine rebuffs which this naïve and spontaneous type of Historicism there receives: in the whole course of Jewish history, in the Book of Job, in Isaiah's suffering servant (liii), in Our Lord's answers about the disaster at Siloam (Luke xxiii, 4) and the man born blind (John ix, 13). If this sort of Historicism survives, it survives in spite of Christianity. ... We must guard against the emotional overtones of a phrase like "the judgement of history." It might lure us into the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune. That would sink us below the Christian, or even the best Pagan, level. The very Vikings and Stoics knew better. (pp. 101-102)

Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled. He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore. A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. (p. 107)

Finally, someone has expressed what life is like in my brain. I'm told that, contrary to what Lewis believes, this is not the case for everyone. I can't imagine it.

From "The Psalms"

We ought to read the psalms that curse the oppressor; read them with fear. Who knows what imprecations of the same sort have been uttered against ourselves? What prayers have Red men, and Black, and Brown and Yellow, sent up against us to their gods or sometimes to God Himself? All over the earth the White Man's offence "smells to heaven": massacres, broken treaties, theft, kidnappings, enslavement, deportation, floggings, lynchings, beatings-up, rape, insult, mockery, and odious hypocrisy make up that smell. But the thing comes nearer than that. Those of us who have little authority, who have few people at our mercy, may be thankful. But how if one is an officer in the army (or perhaps, worse, an N.C.O.) a hospital matron? a magistrate? a prison-warden? a school prefect? a trade-union official? a Boss of any sort? in a word, anyone who cannot be "answered back"? It is hard enough, even with the best will in the world, to be just. It is hard, under the pressure of haste, uneasiness, ill-temper, self-complacency, and conceit, even to continue intending justice. Power corrupts: the "insolence of office" will creep in. We see it so clearly in our superiors; it is unlikely that our inferiors see it in us? How many of those who have been over us did not sometimes (perhaps often) need our forgiveness? Be sure that we likewise need the forgiveness of those that are under us. (pp. 119-120)

It is from this point of view that the Magnificat is terrifying. If there are two things in the Bible which should make our blood run cold, it is one; the other is that phrase in Revelation, "The wrath of the lamb." If there is not mildness in the Virgin Mother, if even the lamb, the helpless thing that bleats and has its throat cut, is not the symbol of the harmless, where shall we turn? The resemblance between the magnificat and traditional Hebrew poetry ... is no mere literary curiosity. There is, of course, a difference. There are no cursings here, no hatred, no self-righteousness. Instead, there is mere statement. He has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, sent the rich empty away. ... Once more we have the treble voice, a girl's voice, announcing without sin that the sinful prayers of her ancestors do not remain entirely unheard; and doing this, not indeed with fierce exultation, yet—who can mistake the tone?—in a calm and terrible gladness. (pp. 120-121)

Christians are unhappily divided about the kind of honour in which the Mother of the Lord should be held, but there is one truth about which no doubt seems admissible. If we believe in the Virgin Birth and if we believe in Our Lord's human nature, psychological as well as physical ... we must also believe in a human heredity for that human nature. There is only one source for it (though in that source all the true Israel is summed up). If there is an iron element in Jesus may we not without irreverence guess whence, humanly speaking, it came? Did neighbours say, in His boyhood, "He's His Mother's Son"? (p. 121)

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 11, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Edit
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I didn't understand Lewis' view of church music until I attended church services in England. The congregation had hymnals containing only the words, so they had no clue often what they should be singing. Even someone with very little knowledge of musical notation can learn to recognize when a particular word gets two notes, so they don't jump to the next word too soon. Unfortunately, most American churches are now doing the same thing, and lots of people just listen and don't even try to sing along. I only too late learned to appreciate the music in the church I grew up in, where we were all given the full four-part harmony in our pew hymnals.

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Friday, July 17, 2020 at 2:53 pm

Absolutely. And if anything could make it worse for church music, it's this pandemic. Much of Switzerland has opened up, and they still can't sing in church. We can sing, but only with masks on. No choirs at all. Solos and small groups are okay if they are 12 feet away from anyone else. They can sing without a masks if they wear them at all other times. Instrumentalists, however, must wear masks at ALL times—I'm guessing we're not going to have oboes, trumpets, or flutes any time soon.

And the congregation is back to your experiences in England: There are no longer any hymnals nor prayer books, but everything is in the bulletin. Correction, not everything: there is no music, only text. And musician that I am, I cannot deduce notes from words.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, July 19, 2020 at 8:09 am
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