Surprised By Joy – C.S. Lewis

Ah, Clive Staples. Why must you be so well-read, eloquent and infuriatingly reasonable?

Seriously, this dude is a reading machine. I adore him, but how can any regular human being keep up?!? In his teenage years he’s reading Homer and Virgil, William Morris, Keats, and plenty of others I’ve never heard of. For ‘light reading’ during mealtimes, he browses through such ‘gossipy, formless’ texts as Boswell, Herodotus, A History of English Literature and The Anatomy of Melancholy. Good grief. No Women’s Weekly or Twitter for this fellow (if either had existed back in his day). Clive, have you purposely littered your book with dozens of obscure literary references just to make us mortals feel inferior?

I have wanted to read Surprised by Joy for many years. I have picked it up at least twice in bookstores, read through the first chapter and then put it down. A few months ago I bought it online; it was sitting idly on my shelf until I had a conversation with a friend during a three-hour drive about how our religious beliefs have changed over the years. And I said, “I really should read that C.S. Lewis book I bought.” And so I went home and I did.

Surprised by Joy is an autobiographical book about how Lewis went from being an all-out Atheist to one of the most famous Christian thinkers of the 20th century. I suppose I tackled this book with the goal of finding out what powerful reasoning this mighty mind of apologetics might bestow upon those struggling between evidence and faith. What transformational process had he undergone?

The first half of the book is typically autobiographical. Lewis talks in detail about his childhood and schooling. I really enjoyed those bits, especially the glimpses into different Irish and Scottish schools and his experience’s of boys’ school hierarchy. It made him seem so real and present, and I enjoyed his honest voice.

His childhood home was like something out of Narnia: ‘…long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not…In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.’

How perfect does that sound!? I want my future home to be a maze-like hovel knee deep in crumbly tones. (I’m half kidding.)

Lewis also describes how he loved inventing imaginary lands as a boy, and you see the beginnings of the author of Narnia in his maps and carefully plotted histories of Animal-Land.

Woven into the story of his life is Lewis’s constant pursuit of an elusive, abstract concept that he calls Joy. It is a distilled sensation of northern gods and light-filled skies, of divinity and something grand. He describes his misguided attempts to capture Joy. This long quest for Joy ties in closely with the major changes in his character. He loses his childhood faith, becomes transiently interested in the occult, and then falls into cynicism, keen to trample on the opinions of his more open-minded friends.

The second half of the book becomes quite deeply philosophical and, in some places, difficult to follow (for poor me). Ultimately, Lewis describes his conversion back to Christianity in extremely abstract terms. He talks about how his cynicism was broken down, step by step, through logical realisations, until he came back to God ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’ Lewis’s story, of how he was reasoned back into his faith, is insightful, but I found it difficult to identify with.

All in all, the book was an interesting read but turned out to be different from what I was expecting. Don’t pick it up if you’re wanting a simple read about how a guy became a Christian. You forgot to factor in Lewis’s powers of Logic and Thinking! *Cue superhero action bubbles: BAM! POW!*

My favourite part of the book was when Lewis identified a phenomenon he calls chronological snobbery: the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age  and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

I thought that was absolute brilliance. We’re all perpetrators of a bit of chronological snobbery at times. But we must pass to ‘the realisation that our own age is also “a period” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those wide-spread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.’

Hi, I’m C.S. Lewis! I really love books and I have a funky Irish accent.


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