In the closest thing we have to an autobiography, C. S. Lewis, an unfailingly honest and perceptive observer of self, here shares the story of his personal spiritual journey. With characteristic candor and insight, he describes how his "search for joy" led him from the conventional Christianity of his childhood to a youthful atheism, and finally back to an assured Christianity compatible with his formidable intellect. With no pretense, Lewis describes his early schooldays, his experiences in the trenches during World War I, and his undergraduate life at Oxford, where he reasoned his way to God. Lewis' "surprise" holds continuing interest not only for admirers of his work but for any modern seeker concerned with the compatibility of the rational and the spiritual.
Some things shocked me (I can't take the rampant pederasty of British public schools with quite Lewis's aplomb); other things merely surprised me. I learned a lot of things I didn't know about Lewis, such as his difficult relationship with his brilliant but eccentric father, his various boarding-school experiences, and his interest in the occult.
He traces his atheism and general pessimism about life as far back as the chronic, unusually marked clumsiness he possessed even as a child. He believes that because of this clumsiness, he soon grew to expect that everything he touched would go wrong somehow, that things going well was the exception and not the rule. His mother's death of cancer when he was ten years old also had a profound effect on his worldview.
Lewis also explores his early creative and rational influences. His friend Arthur had a strong part in helping Lewis appreciate what Arthur termed "Homeliness," a type of cozy beauty in sharp contrast to Lewis's passion for Wagner and Norse mythology and what he called "Northernness." This passion Arthur also shared, but rounded it with a love of simple, wholesome sights and ideas. Lewis also talks about his friend Jenkins who taught him to savor the taste of everything, even ugly things, to enjoy them fully for what they are. The influence of Lewis's strictly rationalist tutor, William Kirkpatrick, is also acknowledged as a deep debt.
All of this is written in Lewis's characteristically excellent prose. I loved this passage about his final thrashings before accepting the reality of God:
The fox had been dislodged from Hegelian Wood and was now running in the open, "with all the wo in the world," bedraggled and weary, hounds barely a field behind. And nearly everyone was now (in one way or another) in the pack; Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself. Everyone and everything had joined the other side. (225)
I am finding that the more I learn about Lewis, the more divided I become. I agree with him more; I agree with him less. It is hard to really articulate where we are different (well, besides his obvious and all-permeating Arminian leanings which conflict sharply with my Calvinist tenets). I think one of the issues may be Lewis's reliance on and almost religious respect for literature besides the Bible. Of course he is detailing a period in which he was first reading the world's great literature as a student and lover of beauty, so naturally he will have a lot to say about its influence on his thinking and development.
And I have to remember too that Lewis is a Christian thinker, not a pastor charged with preaching the full counsel of God and illuminating Scripture to his flock. I do think, however, that at bottom I have a much deeper reverence for Scripture than Lewis has displayed in the books of his that I've read so far. This both simplifies and complicates my thoughts about him and his work.
The thread that ties everything together in this story is the central idea of Joy, which Lewis describes as the "unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction" (17–18). These flashes of beauty, themselves insufficient, point to something else, something outside the person experiencing this longing. Ultimately Lewis connects Joy with the desire to know the source of all Joy, God. Those flashes of beauty and the unfulfilled longings are divinely given. And yet they are not the goal. Lewis writes,
But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has been mainly about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian... I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter... But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we will be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. "We would be at Jerusalem." (238)
This was a fascinating read on so many levels. Recommended.
In Surprised by Joy C. S. Lewis describes his life from his early childhood up to about 30 years of age when he was converted to Christianity. A journey from atheism, to theism and finally to the Christian faith.
I liked the first part of the book best. His description of home in Ireland, the loss of his mother which marked him for life, the estranged father, the close connection with his brother Warnie. A lot of space is devoted to his very bad experiences in school, the horrible teachers and the cruel fellow students. Also a lot about how his logical thinking is sharpened by his teacher and mentor, The Great Knock, W. T. Kirkpatrick.
Surprised by Joy reminded me of how our faith is shaped by so many things, not only our own pursuits and reasonings, but experiences in childhood and youth, the friends we have, the mentors and peers we learn from.
Lewis kind of lost me in many of his philosophical thinking about the source of “Joy” about nordic and greek myths and the “true myth” of Christianity. His journey to faith in Christianity didn’t resonate with my own - but that is the beauty of it. We all have our own spiritual journey and the “leap of faith” is highly individual.
There exists a feeling that comes upon people at some times. I do not know if it comes to all people – though I have no reason for supposing that it is available to some men and not others, barring the possibility that it has to be prompted by certain environmental factors that some people may not be exposed to – what is important is that the feeling exists. In my opinion, the discussion of this feeling, which Lewis calls “joy” is the greatest contribution this book makes. If you are a Christian, this book is valuable as a discussion of some part of human nature that cries out for another world. If you are an atheist, this book is valuable as an example of some peculiarity of human psychology that leads people to search for God.
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (A quote from Mere Christianity, which I imagine was a reference to the desire that Lewis came to call “joy”)
You will get plenty of discussion about the rampant homosexuality in the school Lewis was sent to (which was largely a result of Lewis's own overly-sexual and overly-suspicious view of his peers. His older brother was baffled by his portrayal of their school), you will get information about Lewis's time with Kirkpatrick where he began to put on intellectual muscle from a very logical, literal, and precise teacher, you will read about him enduring time as a soldier in World War I, him attaining a prestigious teaching post, and plenty about his love for mythology – especially Norse mythology. You won't find many logical proofs about what led him to Christianity. You won't get a list of facts that Lewis took into account to determine that Christianity was more likely than otherwise. The book would be worse if he included them, as they would detract from the main contribution the book makes: the personal and subjective account of what led a reasonable and intelligent man to place his faith in Christ, and his account of an experience of longing and desire called Joy.
If you put aside the pretenses of commitment to facts and evidence that both sides posture with, you will get an glimpse of what can really move an intelligent man to faith – whether or not you consider a move to faith to be an improvement. Or, perhaps just as likely, you yourself may have felt what Lewis called Joy: a bittersweet longing and desire, in which case this book will give you an opportunity to read how he reacted to that experience. Or maybe you think Lewis is just a ridiculous man, well, he certainly won't change your mind here, but you might find some opportunities to laugh at him if that's how you get your kicks. If religious experiences and conversion stories interest you, or if you are interested in Lewis in general, I highly recommend the book. If your main interest is apologetics, I advise skipping this one.
[As a general caution, I would recommend reading this book as events that happened in C. S. Lewis's life – as Jack would want you to believe them. This book was nicknamed “Suppressed by Jack” among those intimate with the details of Lewis's life. That's not to say it is not valuable, merely that it should not be taken as true, at least as far as it concerns Lewis's account of his external circumstances. If you want his biography, you can look up George Sayer's book Jack. This book is more valuable for insight into Lewis's internal development.]
You must have a heart of stone not to read on.
I have difficulty conceiving of anyone enjoying the book unless they agreed with either his particular scholar's mind or his belief in the God of Christianity. I happen to be in the latter camp, and confess that at times his mind eluded me. Whole passages referring either to the books that most moved him or schools of modern thought of his times completely eluded my grasp, and I can only conclude that my mind must work very differently from his or that I must have a longer time on this earth before I can fully grasp his reflections on childhood, boyhood, and young adulthood. Yet then a sentence, a thought, would break through and give me pause or move me to tears. This is a book that I would reread not so much because of any initial enjoyment but because my appreciation would increase, perhaps once I read another biography or some of the classics which molded his thought.
Perhaps this was my biggest problem with the book - I expected a deeply inspiring, imaginative and very personal account of his spiritual awakening. Instead, this book is mainly autbiographical with a few paragraphs here and there covering his spiritual journey. Emotion was thin on the ground - intellectual scholarship was densely packed into each sentence.
Thanks to my long ago classical studies I could wade through the allusions without getting too lost, but still ... I wanted to be inspired, to feel what Lewis felt as he journeyed back to his God.
Instead, it took me nearly two weeks to struggle through it because as a rule, I don't read autobiographies. Ultimately, this was more biographical than it was spiritual and thus SURPRISED BY JOY didn't meet my expectations as a reader.
Too much of the book is
In any case, the quality of Lewis' prose is practically beyond compare, and whatever the subject matter or disagreements I may have with him, his writing is always a pleasure to read.
A key quotation: "What I learned from the Idealists (and still most strongly hold) is this maxim: it is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should ever reach it."
C.S. Lewis in his pursuit of truth was atheistic but made a 180 degree turn about to embrace Christianity. This largely came about by those authors that he read (and, of course, by being decidedly responsive to God’s grace). He speaks of a thread of occasions in his journey when he experienced inexplicable joy, and he gives insight into his personal experience, of the events and the persons that shaped him, and more primarily the great authors that influenced him.
His thoughts on the schools of his boyhood era are also interesting.
God was not the obvious solution for Lewis. A seasoned dialectician, the fight is long and hard. Lewis fights teism and Christianity until he is caught up in "an undebateable reality." We know the outcome of the conclusion he reached; To Lewis philosophy was not a subject, but a way of living, he continued to fight, bending fantasy to becoming the most unlikely soldier for the ultimate human(e) reality.
I love this book--it was one of the first Lewis that I read after the Narnia books and Mere Christianity. Only years later did it occur to me that--in my most humble opinion--Lewis had chosen the wrong word for that illusive feeling so close to the sorrow of
In my opinion--and based as much on my own experiences as the pages of this book--Lewis felt a longing for he knew not what, only knowing that without it he was not whole. I know or knew this feeling. To put this in the words of Tolkien, if one is blessed to discover the reality behind or beyond the longing, -then- the person experiences the eucatastrophe of Joy.
Complete joy does not come first as Lewis' words in this book imply repeatedly. Yes, perhaps an ephemeral glimpse or taste of it, but it is blended almost on the instant with its loss. Real joy comes when what is behind the glimpses abides.
I probably shouldn't have written this. As someone said, "Words are hard". Or perhaps stubborn. Never more so than when trying to describe something so ephemeral.
I was now by no means unhappy; but I had very definitely formed the opinion that the universe was, in the main, a rather regrettable institution.
A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too
The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
I loved what he said about experience. I don't have the book with me now to quote it but he
Good book and well worth the read.
The first several chapters of his schoolboy days are quite boring. It's almost as though he feels compelled to record the story for posterity but does not do so with much passion-- I
Lewis was Irish and he and his brother initially attended a boarding school in England. I have never read any positive accounts of English schools, and this is no exception. All it seems to do is alienate kids from their families, who they see infrequently. The headmaster was likely insane. Later, Lewis attends a public high school and hates it and recounts the social drama. He criticizes current members of Parliament for insisting the English educational tradition continue. Lewis contends all it does is make people "priggish"-- snobbish and bitter. He is thankful that he didn't become as snobbish as others from the experiences.
Lewis learned Latin at an early age and began reading the classics. He also has an affinity for fantasy type books and enjoys mythology--something he has mixed feelings about. In his adolescence he makes friends with a neighbor boy who shares Lewis love for Norse mythology and other fiction--his first real friendship. Lewis eventually convinces his father to send him to live with a tutor to prepare reading for university exams. He later learns Greek and enjoys reading things like Herodotus' Histories in the original. He learns French and Italian to read classics in those languages, and enough German to get by (I'm rather envious at this point). England enters WWI, and Lewis' brother enters the service while Lewis prepares for university; he later decides to enlist and enter university afterwards. After a relatively mild Army service, Lewis is accepted to Oxford. He recounts his closest friendships, including with J.R. Tolkein, and his first real encounters with English literature, learning to appreciate Bronte and others.
From an early age, Lewis had decided on atheism. He almost feels guilty with his affinity for books involving mythology, pantheism, and the occult. He develops the typical intellectual elitism of university atheists, wondering how anyone could believe otherwise. But he's troubled by reading other intellectuals who don't hold to atheism, including French philosophers who espouse pantheism. Aren't these all unsatisfying? During his university days he reads G.K. Chesterton and enjoys him, despite his Christianity. Real blows to Lewis steadfast atheism occur when his closest friends become interested in Christianity and begin reading the Bible. He begins to appreciate the consistency of other Christians he meet who actually live out what they believe. He says one of the biggest blows came when an adamant atheist he knew commented on the evidence for historical veracity of the Gospels-- "one can almost believe those things happened." The man never became a Christian, but just the fact that the evidences of real events being behind the writings of Scripture being stronger than other classics that Lewis had read made a real impact. Lewis' lifetime of reading Latin and Greek mythology allowed him to see that the Gospels were not written as myths-- they did not have the same qualities. Lewis contends that the only two valid worldviews could be Christianity or Hinduism, but notes that Hindu mythology lack the historical evidences and basis that Christianity has; hence, he rejects Hinduism. Lewis also had a nagging sense of lack of joy-- something he was unsure whether he wanted. But it seemed Christianity would be the solution-- it would give him a worldview with a finality of how it all comes together. It would free him to love.
So, on the final pages Lewis decides to become a Christian. No Emmaeus road experiences, just a decision to become a Christian while going to the zoo. Thus the book concludes abruptly.
I give it 2.5 stars out of 5. If you're a huge C.S. Lewis fan, then you can read this book to understand the man better. If you're just interested in the final events leading Lewis from atheism to Christianity, as many were at the time of his writing, then read the last few chapters.