A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I worked for the Bodleian, in Reader Services, for seven or eight years (part-time), and one thing I noticed was that C. S. Lewis was very popular among visiting American students, but never consulted by full-time Oxford students. That was true in both English Literature and Theology. I don’t know if he’s gone out of fashion in both areas, but my reading of him so far – Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed – has been very positive. I find him a very engaging, personable writer – so much like a wise older friend advising on life that it doesn’t quite work to call him a theologian.
I can’t remember where I picked up Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, but I did so with the wish to read more of Lewis’s writing – but also to learn more about prayer as a person of faith. Inevitably, my reading of this book will be different from somebody who isn’t a Christian – but it might well be of interest to others too. Here the first letter begins…
I am all in favour of your idea that we should go back to our old plan of having a more or less set subject – an agendum – for our letters. When we were last separated the correspondence languished for lack of it. How much better we did in our undergraduate days with our interminable letters on the Republic, and classical metres, and what was then the “new” psychology! Nothing makes an absent friend so present as a disagreement.
We only see the letters to Malcolm, and in them Lewis addresses various concerns and questions that Malcolm has around prayer. After a quick drive-by analysis of corporate prayer, each letter looks at a different topic – whether it is worth telling an omniscient God about our lives (spoilers: it is), the Lord’s Prayer, whether pre-set prayers are more or less useful than ad hoc ones, etc. There is – touching on the excellent A Grief Observed – a little about praying for loved ones in moments where they may die. It’s certainly a mixed assortment.
I was going to write that I don’t know how much this book would appeal to those who aren’t people of faith – but I have an inkling (pun intended) that I do a little. In a letter towards the end, Lewis advocates praying for the dead and the existence of Purgatory – both of which are outside my theology – and I still found reading his arguments interesting, if less practicable for my everyday life.
It was only after about forty pages that I started to ask myself: who was this Malcolm, and did he mind the letters being published? And I began to get the uneasy feeling that he didn’t exist. The jacket note opens with ‘Malcolm is a friend of C. S. Lewis’s’ – but, sure enough, on some investigation, I found out that he was fabricated for this book. Which I suppose is fine as a trope – who, indeed, thinks that the Screwtape letters were real letters – but also feels a bit bizarre. Partly because Lewis invents a specific back story for Malcolm – wife, child, and all – and partly because it means that Lewis invents all the obstacles that Malcolm has. Even if we never actually read the firsthand.
Does this make his book a collection of retorts to straw men? To invisible straw men, moreover. Well, in a way, yes… Lewis can pick and choose which arguments he addresses, and we have to imagine what Malcolm has said. Which is fine, if the other additional bits about Malcolm’s family didn’t throw us into thinking they were real. And as for his discussions – I certainly found them enjoyable and interesting while I was reading them, but it is indicative of anything that I don’t remember much about them now?
I suspect the strength of this book is Lewis’s charm and personality, and his way with rhetoric. It’s probably less in theology or sustained argument. But it was still very enjoyable to spend time with him, and I’ll treat this experience as an entertaining time spent thinking about prayer – and hopefully laying some deeper seeds in my mind about prayer, or just bringing prayer to the forefront of my mind more often than usual – rather than an encounter with life-changing doctrine. And that’s absolutely fine.