Posted by: Moses | July 14, 2008

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

Reflections on the Intimate Dialogue Between Man and God

This little book provides a fascinating look into the mind of a theologian. I often wonder what thoughts theologians play with and discard as unfit for publication because those thoughts are the very thoughts and rejections that shape their published greatness. C.S. Lewis prepared Letters to Malcolm for publication before he died, but it retains some of that edgy flavor, dealing in experience and supposition far more than many other Lewis books.

Lewis writes the book as if penning a series of letters to a friend. This style provides a unique feel to the book, allowing him to deal with touchy subjects in a much friendlier way rather than a normal presentation of thesis and argument. I found myself wanting to know the other side of the imaginary conversation and being drawn into a character, almost like a novel, rather than simply tracing an weighing an argument. Though I admire the style, I am very thankful that C.S. Lewis wrote such a book; in his hands I would describe it as winsome and edgy. Had a less admirable theologian written it, the book would be seductively replete with Siren songs of theology.

For a theologian I would most definitely recommend weighing some of Lewis’s ideas against scripture. Letters is foundationally built upon Lewis observations and thoughts about prayer. The book is not of the devotional quality of Reflections on the Psalms nor the polemical excellence of Abolition of Man. The book lies somewhere in between with a dash of literary influence and a heavy dose of his more philosophical works like The Four Loves. The book is definitely thought provoking and thus very worthy of reading, though perhaps not worthy of swallowing whole. I would recommend at the very least that anyone pick up this book and read through chapters 17-19 in a book store sometime. Therein are most of the most quoted thoughts concerning the intrinsic goodness of pleasure, necessitating an intentionality about our joy in directing all glory back to the Giver.

Because of its diversity, a summary of this book would be mostly useless. Each letter deals with a different facet of prayer, ranging from how prayer and sovereignty work together, to critiques of Lewis’s contemporaries’ thoughts on prayer. All in all the book raises more questions than it answers, but I think this is something of Lewis’s intention. In light of this, I will describe several thoughts which I found intriguing that may whet your appetite to pursue the book on your own.

I find Lewis’s transcendent view of God incredibly refreshing. In a predominantly postmodern world where God is inevitably more immanent than transcendent, profound reverence is a breath of fresh air. Lewis loves analogies, but at the outset of Letters he makes explicit that of God cannot really be like such descriptions. The creator cannot be contained or described by the creation. He is so much more excellent, so much more real than anything he created. However, often in response to this realization we tend to abstract concepts of God and end up with an equally imperfect image of sterilized academia. God is not a concept to be balanced on some sort of Aristotelian scale of virtue; He is indefinable because he is somehow more real than either our concrete or abstract conceptions. In Aslan’s poetic words, “He is deeper in.” In more didactic speech: “Let us not think that while anthropomorphic images are a concession to our weakness, the abstractions are the literal truth. Both are equally concessions; each singly misleading, and the two together mutually corrective” (21).

Furthermore, Lewis proffers some excellent thoughts about the composite nature of repentance. Many times I think of repentance as something I have to do, rather than something I have to be. Not only do I need to repent of what I do, but who I am. Lewis puts it quite poignantly: “It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A. When our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” This beautifully parallels 1 John 1 and it necessity for honest confession before God, not covering over our sin in the least but owning up to it in all its heinousness, thereby glorifying the might of His work on the cross. Our repentance must begin within our depraved soul. So often I neglect my most fundamental repentance, that I desire anything more than God. Such a treacherous heart seems almost more affronting than any action I might commit, and yet so often we do not even consider repenting over what we see as out of our control: our desires. And yet we are responsible for even those depraved desires. Our prayers must start there. “It may well be that the desire can be laid before God only as a sin to be repented…the ordinate frame of mind [one that orders our desires properly] is one of the blessings we must pray for, not a fancy-dress we must put on when we pray” (23).

Lewis’s ability to glean the good from many different sources is also a blessing to me, somewhat characteristic of his well-trained day. Unlike our time, particularly in fundamentalist circles, he did not see the need to utterly castigate his opponents but merely to surgically strike at their error and nothing more. There is a ring of chivalry and basic civility that is often lacking in many modern disagreements.

Always optimistic in his sometimes controversial ecumenicism, comments about the communion of the saints were very encouraging to me. As I have been wrestling through issues of apostolic oversight and church unity thoughts like “a bright dream of re-union engulfing us unawares, like a great wave from behind our backs, perhaps at the very moment when our official representations are still pronouncing it impossible,” were very hope-provoking to my soul (16).

As always, Lewis strikes a clear blow against any concept of secularization; the whole world is holy to those who see God in it. The whole world is profane to those who do not. But so often men substitute “religion for God–as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end….there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life… But [He] whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious.” But what a more complicated life this presents, to have our whole life be worship? To not just worship on Sunday? To be consumed with God? Such is the demand of such a God, and how short I fall. How glorious the God who can change me to desire Him.

A great quote that stands alone: “Scruples are always a bad thing–if only because they usually distract us from real duties” (33).

Possibly the most profitable thought concerning the conjunction of petition and sovereignty consists in the transcendent elevation of God and the diminishing of man: “It is only our ignorance that makes petitionary prayer possible.” We don’t know what is going to happen, and so we appeal to a knowledgeable God. Our finititude limits our understanding of the border between our relationship with God, not any lack of consistency in God Himself.

These are some of the thoughts spurred by chapters I-X; the following chapters XI through XVI explore the relationship between sovereignty and humanity in a somewhat less than satisfactory (read biblical) way. They delve into much neoplatonic thought, though they are very thought provoking. If you want a devotional, avoid this book as a whole, particularly these interior chapters. The concluding chapters are well-known enough through Piper that I find it redundant to comment upon them here. If you want some serious philosophy and theological musings to chew upon and consider, pick up Letters to Malcolm.

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