Book Review: C.S. Lewis's Letters to Malcolm

Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis

Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. Available at CBD and Amazon.

Letters to Malcolm is a collection of letters from one side of a lengthy written conversation between C.S. Lewis and an old friend. The friend is presumably a layman like Lewis, who would like to see some probably modest changes in the Book of Common Prayer. Lewis will have none of this, and expounds upon the difficulty of a congregant entering into worship at all, let alone against the backdrop of a fluctuating liturgy.

Lewis holds that worship intended to evoke communion with God, and so he believes it would be better if worshipers were not even consciously aware of what was going on in worship. Specifically, he likens worship to a great dance, in which those who do it best are not aware of their every individual move, but are instead swept up into the familiar motions with completeness and ease that allows them to truly dance well.

If we consider the aim of worship as a dance in which we are offered space to commune with God, then its practice must certainly be something like what Lewis describes. Any novelty whatsoever puts the mind on guard. This is true even of the most avant-garde worshipers, except that for them the smell of anything traditional sours the entire experience. It is amazing how conservative the human creature is in worship! Why so? Perhaps it is something innate to our being.

As analogy, the dance poses a striking counter-example to the contemporary trends in worship. It almost makes mockery of the styles of worship that would like every single worship event to be an unforgettable experience, with adrenaline running high, and a bombardment of moods and emotions. Such a worship experience is dance-like, to be sure, but it is more like a rave dance than a well-performed, tasteful action. Perhaps it also begins to evoke a God who is more like a rave DJ than a symphony conductor.

An important point in the book comes when Lewis receives notice about a tragedy in Malcolm’s family. He must have received it shortly after a sent out a previously letter in which he speculated on the workings of prayer. It is interesting to me that whatever reservations Lewis may have about laymens' liturgical thoughts, he seems to have far fewer reservations about laymens' theological thinking. He posits a Thomistic world, wherein God is unquestionably supreme, and has graciously given freedom to man. Lewis does not shy away from using the “omni’s” as a place to hang his hat for theological contemplation.

I find this interesting because Lewis describes his view of sacraments as something like magic, which I take to mean, beyond our understanding and speculation. However, he seems to believe for the moment that he could reason his way toward an understanding of our free prayers as the eternal decree of God to work his will. In fact, Lewis is quick to throw away the OT accounts of God changing his mind as though they were sheer anthropomorphisms that have little to do with the way God actually does things. However, he throws them away because they contradict the “omni’s.”

Lewis definitely has read some Barth, and dialogues with him in the background a bit. He criticizes the idea that God is “the wholly other” as possibly meaningless. He also criticizes Barth’s idea that prayer is our attempt to petition God to do what he might otherwise not, as rather untrue to God’s being. However, the tragedy in Malcolm’s family lays Lewis’ speculations to rest, as he simply bemoans and wails to God and Malcolm about the meaninglessness of words, and horrors of what may happen. I have a suspicion that this section in the book is what the whole book is about: Words…Event…Silence and Tears.