We have made it through the first month of this year-long adventure with C.S. Lewis and we have raced across space and explored the planet, Malacandra, with Dr. Ransom. We have read the musings of Lewis on the great hymnbook of the Bible, the Psalms. For this post we will first explore Out of the Silent Planet followed by Reflections on the Psalms. I have attempted to avoid spoilers for Out of the Silent Planet, but it is rather difficult when the main themes of the book are expressed toward the end. I have proceeded with great caution, but I don’t wish to sacrifice substance of analysis for plot preservation. I highly recommend purchasing or borrowing Dr. Ransom’s space adventure before reading the article. Next, we study the Psalms alongside Lewis. We would do well to remember in the introduction that Lewis writes his musings as a literary critic not as a theologian. He reads with the eye and honesty of a layman. It is impossible to go over everything worthy of discussion in just one of these books, let alone both of the featured books. Please excuse any exclusion of parts you may have deemed more crucial. I have tried to capture the main themes of each book for you to enjoy in one sitting.
“A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space… now that the very name ‘space’ seems a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He couldn’t call it ‘dead;’ he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes — and here, with how many more! No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens — the heavens which declared the glory…” (p.34) Out of the Silent Planet
Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is the first novel of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy series. Dr. Ransom, a philologist, is on vacation and is kidnapped by two men, Weston (a celebrated physicist) and Devine (a former classmate), and is taken to the Malacandra for rather sinister schemes. We experience the classics of science fiction: space travel, exploration of another planet, meeting of new species, and so forth.
Yet, Lewis uses this wonderful adventure to speak on different matters. Please forgive me as we bypass the hrossa and adventures to get to what I believe are the two main points of the book. First, Lewis and his views on modern science (or scientists) is evident throughout the story and has been criticized (see Of Other Worlds for Lewis’ response to Professor Haldane). Lewis explains in response to Haldane, his attack is on ‘scientism’ more than scientists.
This attack begins subtly at the beginning as we read about the argument over the hostage that Devine and Weston released in favor of taking Ransom. “[the boy] Incapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over for experimental purposes” (p.21 OOSP, Out of the Silent Planet) is quite nefarious, but accurate for this time period. If you remember your history correctly, eugenics was a popular held opinion in society until the actions of the Nazi’s Final Solution were brought to light. Lewis and Weston have several disagreements over popular scientific methods like vivisection (p.28-p.30 OOSP).
The most pointed attack from Lewis is articulated best by Weston in his speech at the end of the book (p.134-138 OOSP), ” — with our science, our medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce…Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.” Mankind’s history is covered in conquest, so why would we expect anything different? Lewis speaks with the rough language of his time in Religion and Rocketry, “What that [space exploration] will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell (this essay can be found in the collection, The World’s Last Night, p.94)”
Lewis doesn’t stop with just scientists, he continues in the essay with religion. “But can even missionaries be trusted? ‘Gun and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past. The missionary’s holy desire to save souls has not always been kept quite distinct from the arrogant desire, the busybody’s itch, to (as he calls it) ‘civilise’ the (as he calls them) ‘natives’.” Our conversation on ‘scientism’ as Lewis calls it, is long from over.
We have not seen the last of Weston, or Devine both will reappear in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength respectively. We will move for time’s sake to the second point, the spiritual side of Out of the Silent Planet.
Theology is all over Out of the Silent Planet. This is our second point of Lewis’, for Ransom’s space voyage is also a spiritual voyage that continues into Perelandra and somewhat in That Hideous Strength. Ransom begins his journey as a substitute, perhaps a play on his name (we will see that again), for the boy that Weston and Devine were kidnapping to take back to the locals of Malacandra. Ransom (who seems to mirror Lewis in several ways and his friend Tolkien in others) deals with the weight of fear throughout the novel (this battle will continue in Perelandra) first being kidnapped and flying through space. Ransom documents his fear at meeting the locals of Malacandra and at a several points of his journey on the planet. At the end of the novel while conversing with the Oyarsa of Malacandra, the Oyarsa says that Ransom is not guilty of evil, but of just a little fearfulness (paraphrase of p.142 OOST). Ransom’s truly Valley of the Shadow of Death has yet to come, but he will remember Who to look towards when he begins to fear (Psalm 23:4).
And speaking of Oyarsa, Lewis’ universe is full of biblical imagery. Ransom begins to learn about God and His creation. The Oyarsas, the archangels (per se), are in charge of each planet. On Ransom’s journey in the high places of Malacandra among the scorns (another local inhabitant), Ransom learns of the other planets and their Oyarsas. Yet, there is one planet (Thulcandra) that none have heard from in a long time, the Silent Planet. The Oyarsa of this Silent Planet has become bent according to the scorns. The lesser angels (eldilas) and archangels (Oyarsas) are always in communication with each other, but are barred from Thulcandra. The scorns allow Ransom to view the Silent Planet through their telescope-type apparatus and to Ransom’s sorrow, it is a familiar world, Earth.
Ransom’s conversations with the scorns are quite insightful into the doctrine of sin and the fall (Gen. 3). Ransom tells them the events of human history to which the scorns sum up quite perfectly, “It is because they have no Oyarsa,”said one of the pupils. “It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,” said Augray (p. 102 OOST)
Ransom experiences a similar conversation with the Oyarsa of Malacandra. While telling the Oyarsa about Earth, the Oyarsa replies with certain echoes of 1 Peter 1:12, that he has desires to look upon such things that Maleldil (Christ) has been doing on Thulcandra (p.120-123 OOST).
Finally, Lewis writes a beautiful description of the Heavens and how the older thinkers were correct (see above for quote) in calling them the ‘Heavens’ and not ‘Space’. There near the end of the quote is the familiar verse Psalm 19:1 that Lewis places so perfectly.
Out of the Silent Planet is by no means perfect. It has plenty of flaws and rough edges, but we get to see Lewis cutting his teeth on fiction and bringing his world-class reading background into shaping new stories for his readers to connect with. I hope you give the wonderful (if somewhat neglected) Space Trilogy a try.
““I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” (p.95-97) –Reflections on the Psalms
We now begin our second book for the month, Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis’ musings (key word!) about the Psalms. Lewis had a complex relationship with Scripture and the Psalms in particular. They were able to move and convict him and appall him all in the same couple of lines of lyrics.
Lewis writes in the first 3 chapters on controversial themes: judgement, the cursings, and death. We all have troubles with certain scriptures, and Lewis wrestles with many here. Many readers have been offended by Lewis in this work, the description of God’s poets as “devilish” (p.25) comes to mind. Yet, we would be lying to ourselves if we read Psalm 137 and did not stumble at the end of the Psalm reading, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones [Babylon] and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9 ESV). Lewis writes in (p.20-23) that just because we find something in the Bible doesn’t make it something worth repeating. We wouldn’t copy David’s blunders that lead to Psalm 51, but now we have a guide to repentance when we rebel against our Lord. Now Lewis isn’t writing off the Psalms, he goes on to say a few pages later (p.45), “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.”
Lewis leaves these themes for the time being, to reflect on the beauty and poetry found in the Psalms. As we read about the beauty of God in many of the Psalms, we come to wonderful chapters on Nature, my personal favorite, and an insightful chapter on praise (the quote above used to introduce the book comes from this chapter). Lewis’ logic and reasoning shine through here as the best and most complete sections of this work (p.95-97).
Those who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture (belief that the Bible is without error) cry for Lewis’ head in chapter 11 (usually before this chapter though). The particular quote in question is: “The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.”
Immediately two thoughts come to my mind. The first, we will miss Lewis’ wisdom if we stop there for he continues, “receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.” In the heart of the Bible belt, the Scriptures are treated as that very thing, an encyclopedia, where one can find the answers to life’s question and completely bypass the heart of the Scriptures, the Gospel. Paul David Tripp expertly puts it this way: “If you try to use your Bible as God’s encyclopedia, you will either conclude that it has little to say about some crucial issues of modern life or you will bend and twist, and stretch passages to suit your purposes. Either way, you are not getting from the Word what God intended. This misunderstanding underlies the frustration many people feel with Scripture. We secretly wish that God had made it simpler and just arranged it topically!” (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands p.26).
Secondly, the belief in the doctrine of inerrancy isn’t a precursor for salvation. As I understand it when reading John 14:6 or Romans 10:9-10 that professing the Bible to be inerrant isn’t a part of salvation. Church history is full of believers with access to little or no parts of Scripture and yet we know how richly God worked in their communities and churches. As we break down Lewis and his theology, we can disagree on this issue and move on, and those who can’t would do well to heed the Pharisaical example (John 5:39).
Finally, how do we comprehend the shuttering of violence found in Psalm 137 or callousness of Psalm 110. It all changes in and through Christ. He is the great Priest-King who is the One to bring new Light to these passages. The messianic Psalm 110, is about the Christ, who must defend His throne. “Anything less than victory would be abdication” as Derek Kidner says in his commentary on the Psalms. Lewis contends in Psalm 137 that small infantile beginnings (baby in form) of wickedness or selfishness in our hearts should be destroyed and in light of the New Testament this is confirmed, and Lewis encourages the reader to kill those sinful thoughts and feelings inside of us.
I hope you have enjoyed the first post in this year long trek with C.S. Lewis. Next, month is Perelandra and Preface to Paradise Lost. So study up on Genesis 1-3, and go borrow or purchase a copy of John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost. Cheers.