Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by CS Lewis

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99
Takeaway: The gift of friends that allow us to explore and try out and explore ideas in safety and love is truly a gift that we all need.

As I am continuing to try out KindleUnlimited I decided to pick up the kindle edition of Letters ot Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by CS Lewis.  I had purchased the audiobook and read and reviewed it several years ago.  But I have been wanting to read it again, and I like changing formats when I re-read a book.  So I mostly read this short book on kindle with a few audio chapters.  (As I keep saying, the ability to seamlessly move back and forth between audio and kindle with whispersync is a great feature.)

As I was reading it, I confirmed that Letters to Malcolm is probably my favorite of Lewis’ books.  I am not sure many others think so, several reviews on Goodreads think it is one of his weaker popular books.  But like Paul’s II Timothy, there are hints of real humanness here that give me great joy.

Letters to Malcolm is a fictionalized set of letters that Lewis writes as if to a close friend.  It was Lewis’ last book to be published while he was alive, about 6 months before his death.  And while it is fiction, it feels like real letters.  There are side notes and personal details.  You can feel his age and some loss of freedom because of his health.

At the same time this is not a book that is completely easy to read.  There is only one side of the letters.  Malcolm’s letters are not included so we only know the response through Lewis’ side. Some of the letters are light and simple, some are pretty dense and dealing with heavy problems.

It is always surprising how relevant and distant Lewis can be at the same time. The early section about potential changes to the Anglican Liturgy and hymns could with a few word changes be written today. The section on spontaneous and written and wordless prayers is very helpful to think about. It is not only insightful, but wise. Lewis wants to make sure that choices that one makes, are not binding (or restrictive) for others. And Lewis wants to make sure Malcolm understands that not only are different people going to have different mixes of prayers, but throughout our life, it is likely that we will desire and need different types of prayer.

Lewis also has an exemplary section on intercessory prayer.  They discuss it through a couple letters and then Lewis’ fictional friend’s son George becomes sick and is undergoing tests for some serious health concern. George’s sickness refocuses the discussion on intercessory prayer to the very practical and away from the theoretical (as any real discussion of intercessory prayer needs to do.)

The discussion of George leads to a poignant section on comfort of friends. Lewis talks about his loss of his wife Joy and how difficult it is to give and receive comfort.

This is a book that I am pretty sure I am going to come back and read a third time.  There is too much wisdom to absorb all at once.


Earlier this week I saw in my twitter feed a link to yet another article that was ‘farewelling’ someone out of Evangelicalism. I have less and less interest in being around or reading people that seem to be quick to condemn people for beliefs that they believe is heresy. (I am interested to read eventually I have read Justin Holcomb’s Know the Heretics, which is trying to rescue the term Heretic and make sure it is only used for truly heretical beliefs, instead of beliefs that don’t happen to agree with yours, but have wide agreement within Christianity.)*

I bring this up because Lewis is one of those that I think had he been born 75 or 80 years later, he would not be nearly as popular.  He is often charged with flirting with Universalism because of the 7th book of the Narnia series.  And in Letters to Malcolm advocates praying for the dead and purgatory.  In both cases he says that he knows he might be wrong and so he would not want to to push his beliefs on others.  But in the case of praying for the dead, he thinks that if we really believe that God is not bound by time, then praying for the dead is about praying for those that we love as if they were still alive because God is outside of our human time.

In the case of purgatory, he understands it as purifying not salvific, which I think is what many Protestants misunderstand (and why he thinks Protestants were right to condemn it in the 16th century because the Catholic teaching had moved from teaching a purifying purgatory to a retributive purgatory that was mostly concerned with torture.)

I wonder what we lose when we too quickly reject those that believe differently from us. I know there are a small group of Evangelicals that reject Lewis, but the vast majority seem to be willing to learn from Lewis in spite of a few beliefs that are outside the Evangelical mainstream.

I just wish that more within conservative Evangelicalism understood that when they cut themselves off from other streams of Christianity they cut off some of the life of the church (or to use another metaphor, they are cutting of their limb of the body from contact with the rest of the body.)

At the same time, orthodox beliefs are important. I read an article at Books and Culture last week about the changing popularity of Jazz.  At one point Jazz was pop music.  But as Jazz continued to evolve and the length of records extended, long improvised solos became not only part of the live show, but part of the recordings too. The point that I knew, but was emphasized again, was that if you don’t know the standards, then the improvised solos and variations don’t make sense.  Jazz has become a specialized music in part because culture stopped knowing the standards by which they could understand the improvisation.

So one response the an increase in variation on orthodox beliefs is to reject that variations (improvisation). But I think the better response is to allow and encourage the improvisation, but make knowledge of the standards a greater part of Christianity. There is a movement in Evangelicalism toward greater embrace of the Creeds that I fully support. Two of the parts of the Anglican worship that I would like to see embraced more in the Evangelical worship is the confession, where we jointly say we are all sinners, and the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, where we all affirm what the historic church has believed.  When we start from there, we know that we are part of a church that in spite of changes in culture and variation of belief, has affirmed the same basic orthodoxy from its inception.

The other necessary part of fixing this (I am not sure crisis is the right word) is to increase understanding of church history and where Evangelicals fit into the broader church.  In the particular case I am referencing, two things were responsible for the ‘farewelling’.  Both of which have long been part of orthodox Christianity, in fact if anything, the rejection of those two ideas is the more likely to be the variety of orthodoxy. But because of a lack of understanding of Christian history that is unknown and the stream of conservative Evangelicalism believes that their beliefs are the ones that have always been held by the church.  (They are wrong, but it is about historical ignorance more than theology I believe.)

By the way, if you really want to know the details of what has ticked me off so much, email me (link above) and I will tell you.  The article that started this all takes their quotes wildly out of context and I think really is doing journalistic malpractice.  So I am not linking here or commenting directly.

*Coincidentally, Justin Holcomb’s Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds both went on sale for $3.99. The links are to Bookwi.se Reviews, which have links to the sale books.

Letters to Malcolm Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook – This is a KindleUnlimited Book — Audiobook is discounted to $3.99 with purchase of Kindle Book (or if you have Kindle Unlimited)

One Comment

Relevant and distant…that’s Lewis in a nutshell! Thanks for a great review on both the book and the current evangelical implosion. Timely and informative!

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