Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Bookblog: Letters to Malcolm (Chiefly on Prayer) by C. S. Lewis



As I left for vacation a few weeks ago, I wanted to take several books in case of rainy days. I read Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (see earlier post on that book) almost in its entirety on that trip and did not get around to the second book in the stack. I chose Letters to Malcolm because I could not decide if I wanted to read a C. S. Lewis book or a book on prayer. So, here I found both in one volume. This was C. S. Lewis’s last book, written about six months before he died and published some time after his death. (Incidentally, he died the same day as JFK, 11/22/63).

Letters to Malcolm presents to the reader one side of a two way dialogue between Lewis and “Malcolm.” We do not get to read Malcolm’s letters, but Lewis’s replies usually help us to know what in on Malcolm’s mind. Many people often ask, “Who is Malcolm?” Some assume it is Malcolm Muggeridge (I think I have even taught this in the past). In actuality, it seems that Malcolm is a fictional character, with just enough biographical information given to make him believable, but not too much where someone might say, “Ah, I know who Lewis has in mind here.” All we know of Malcolm is that he and Lewis have been friends since college, and have kept in touch over the years. We know he is an Anglican layman with a wife named Betty and a son named George.

It is hard to say if the “Lewis” who “writes the letters” is a characterized persona or if he is Lewis-proper. There are certainly readily recognizable streams of thought and biographical details that are consistent with the “real C. S. Lewis,” but there are a few surprises thrown in to keep us guessing. The daily deluge of letters that Lewis received and wrote undoubtedly gave him plenty of fodder for his “letter-writing” books like this one and The Screwtape Letters. It has been said that some of his most informative writing was in his letters, and we are thankful that so many of his letters have been preserved for us in print today.

It seems that about ten years earlier, Lewis set out to write a book on prayer, but it was abandoned shortly after beginning. This is hinted at in Letter XII when he says, “But however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.” So, with Letters to Malcolm, Lewis is able to write that book on prayer, which is very instructional, although it comes across as a couple of friends (“on the foothills” means that they have not yet ascended the heights of spiritual greatness) just sharing their ideas.

As the two men dialogue (bear in mind, we only get to see half of the dialogue), we get to listen in and glean from their insights. Some of the discussion is practical, some philosophical, most theological, and some is even humorous (but you have to enjoy Lewis’s sense of humor to pick up on this). On the practical level, Lewis deals with when, where, and how we ought to pray, whether or not we should use “ready-made prayers,” and the pros and cons of having a prayer list.

There is rich theological insight given throughout the book. For instance, Lewis says, “We say that we believe God to be omniscient; yet a great deal of prayer seems to consist of giving Him information” (Letter 4). His description of how God answers prayer outside of time sounded much like Middle Knowledge: “I would rather say that from before all worlds His providential and creative act (for they are all one) takes into account all the situations produced by the acts of His creatures. And if He takes our sins into account, why not our petitions?” (Letter IX). The final letter finds a scathing attack on theological liberalism (the anti-supernatural liberalism of his day) which is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. He writes, “A man who first tried to guess ‘what the public wants,’ and the preached that as Christianity because the public wants it, would be a pretty mixture of fool and knave” (Letter XXII).

Conservative evangelicals will be uncomfortable with Lewis’s discussion on several topics. He advocates a view of Purgatory, which though not the Roman Catholic view, is no less palatable to evangelicals today. He also advocates prayer for the dead, a practice that most evangelicals today would say belongs wholly in the Catholic camp. On the subject of the Lord’s Supper (remember the Letters are “Chiefly,” not exclusively, on prayer), Lewis vacillates between Catholic and Protestant positions saying he is uncomfortable choosing one to the exclusion of the others. While we bristle at his openness to such a diversity of viewpoints, one has to confess that it is refreshing to see such an appreciation for the various tributaries of our Christian heritage.

Refreshing is an appropriate word to describe Letters to Malcolm. Perhaps no part of it is more refreshing than the honest and candid confession found in Letter XXI about just how difficult prayer can be. He says near the book’s end, “… by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has. … Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” So prayer is for us a duty, a chore, an irksome task. But this is because we are in “the school-days.” Soon these days will be past, and what we now view as duty will become spontaneous delight.

In the meantime, Letters to Malcolm just might help some reader to make the most of his or her prayer time by teaching us how to do it well, and how to understand just what happens when we do it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading on prayer, or reading C. S. Lewis’s canon. Knowing that he died shortly after the ink dried makes it a sentimental read for Narnians like myself, even though I believe that he has smuggled in some strange ideas past the watchful dragons in this book.

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