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Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life Paperback – March 23, 1966
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In this I was greatly disappointed. The book is neither a true autobiography nor a rigorous Christian apology and sadly, rather than using his considerable talents to persuade atheists and agnostics to his way of thinking, he frequently resorts to disrespectful, even scornful attacks on non-believers that are sure to offend and alienate them. Moreover, his arguments are written not for a layperson but for someone well-versed in philosophy and literature. And even with all the scholarship he brings to the table, in the end, he resorts to his gut feeling rather than rational discourse when explaining why he decided to convert.
In the beginning of the book, Lewis tells us quite a bit about his early childhood and formative experiences. His story becomes increasingly sketchy as he ages. Although his life was certainly filled with dramatic events, such as the death of his mother and his combat experiences during WWI, his accounts of these events are vague and seem strangely devoid of emotion. Other life experiences that most people would consider important and relevant - the death of his father, for example - are barely even mentioned and are dismissed as having no bearing on the story Lewis is telling. One always has the sense of being held at arm's length in this book. We are invited into Lewis's mind but rarely into his heart.
What is left, then, is an extremely cerebral life story. Lewis writes endlessly about his education, the books he's read and the influence they had on him as well as the brilliant young men (and it's nearly always men) who befriended him over the course of his life and made him re-evaluate his thoughts and beliefs. All well and good.
But when he actually comes to his conversion, I'm afraid it's difficult to follow his train of thought. Lewis clearly expects his reader to be as erudite and well-read as he is. Sadly, that isn't the case for me, nor I suspect, is it true for most modern readers. I am not a student of philosophy and I am woefully ignorant of English literature. All his references to these topics, therefore, were entirely over my head.
Still, it's clear that an element of the irrational creeps into his arguments for rejecting old ways of thinking. For example, when Lewis senses a certain inconsistency in his own beliefs and the tenets of realism, he's must decide whether to reject realism altogether or embrace Behavioristic theory. He chooses the former not for any clear objective reason but because, as he writes, "I cannot force my thoughts into that shape any more than I can scratch my ear with my big toe..." I suppose I could give the same reason for my lack of faith. In fact, it isn't a reason at all.
Lewis would have us believe he was a very reluctant convert. Perhaps he was. But once converted, he clearly had very little patience for those whose views he once shared. He explains this with a quote from Donne: "The heresies that men leave are hated most." He goes on to add, "The things I assert most vigorously are those that I resisted long and accepted late."
To be fair, Lewis retains respect for an atheist called Kirk who played an essential role in his education. But he doesn't extend that respect to other atheists: "Atheism has come down in the world since those days, and mixed itself with politics and learned to dabble in dirt...I am ashamed that my old mates and (which matters much more) Kirk's old mates should have sunk to what they are now. It was different then..."
Ah yes. Somehow, when Lewis himself was an atheist, that particular way of thinking was far more respectable than after he converted. I suppose he would have nothing but contempt for atheists and agnostics today.
I don't mean to sound bitter but I really expected something much better from this book. I honestly hoped I would like it. I didn't. His reasoning, though bolstered by a veritable library of books, is unconvincing. His life story, though intellectually compelling, is an emotional desert. As I read it, I kept wondering, What of love? And anger? And sadness? And passion? Doesn't he feel anything at all? Even his description of Joy is oppressively unemotional. Was Lewis really so unfeeling? The Chronicles of Narnia suggest otherwise.
In short, the book was not to my taste but I suspect it was never meant to be. Lewis seems to be preaching to the choir, not reaching out to sinners. Those religious types out there who already adore C.S. Lewis should, no doubt, disregard my opinions on Surprised by Joy - I'm sure they, at least, will love it. But for those non-believers out there half hoping to be converted by Lewis's words I can only say it didn 't do it for me.
C. S. Lewis was one of the most profound British scholars of the twentieth century and possibly the most irrefutable defender of the Christian faith in modern times. Though he is most well-known for his children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, his apologetic proclamations were what first brought him international fame. What Justin Martyr gave to the early church, Lewis has given to the modern church through his apologetic writings. In his well-known trilemma, in which he states that Jesus never gave people the option of calling Him a “great moral teacher,” Lewis calls for the reader to accept one of three choices: that Christ “was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” This argument was first voiced during World War II when Lewis shared his thoughts on BBC radio. Within a few short years, these broadcasts made him the most popular Christian apologist in the English-speaking world of the twentieth century. Rather than a “general autobiography,” the book Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is Lewis’s defense of his own faith, as he shares his personal account of how he “passed from Atheism to Christianity” (vii).
Surprised by Joy clearly reveals the Divine master plan in the author’s life. While God could have brought Lewis to salvation through simpler means, He instead allowed this champion of the faith to journey into the depths of philosophy, spirituality, atheism, and agnosticism in order to prepare him for the great role he would play in furthering the Kingdom of God in the modern era. In this partial autobiography, Lewis employs analogy, imagery, and allusion in his typical literary style to answer the many questions he had received regarding his transformation from atheism to faith in Christ. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life carries the reader through Lewis’s life-story as he veers from an early child-like belief in God, to a harsh denial of God in the dark pits of atheism and agnosticism, to finally turn to Jesus, and “fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”
In explanation of the title, Lewis recounts his many experiences of a longing or desire which he calls Joy, and which once encountered, seemed to both entice and elude him throughout his life. Early in the book, Lewis claims that he detests emotion, yet this Joy which he so longed to re-encounter was clearly an emotion of something greater than pleasure. Lewis shares the many occasions in which Joy returned and the influences that led him to awaken to this sensation, only to realize that the longing, once achieved, never truly satisfied.
Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1898, in a socially secure and well-educated family. His father Albert was a lawyer who loved books, and Lewis grew up surrounded by a vast array of titles. His mother Flora was the daughter of a clergyman, and Lewis had one older brother with whom he was very close. It was through works of authors such as Beatrice Potter and Longfellow, and a shared imaginary world with his brother Warren that Lewis first experienced the sensation of Joy. When they were boys, Lewis created a magical, medieval Animal Land in which animals wore clothes and talked, and Warren created drawings and wrote stories set in India. The brothers’ close relationship was interrupted when Warren was sent to boarding school, and they had to limit their adventures to holidays. This was a sad and lonely time for Lewis, yet in the solitude his imagination flourished.
Lewis’s relationship with his father had always been distant and strained, and his mother’s death, when he was only nine years old, widened the chasm. Following this loss, the brothers grew even closer, however, and Lewis was sent to the same boarding school as Warren. The head master was a man called Oldie who was a poor teacher and an unfair and abusive administrator. Although Lewis never experienced Oldie’s harshness, he saw a great deal of injustice against other boys, and other than geometry, he learned nothing academically at the school. He did, however, develop a strong sense of camaraderie with four other boys, and thus a sense of loyalty. At Oldie’s school, Lewis also first came to an awareness of God and assented to the doctrines of Christianity. Within a short time Oldie’s school closed and in 1910, when he was almost twelve years old, Lewis was sent to Campbell where he saw much abuse by the older boys and little intervention from the staff. After only a few months at the school, Lewis was sent home to recuperate from a childhood respiratory illness and, to his delight, never returned.
Lewis’s self-awareness increased in his thirteenth year, after his father enrolled him and Warren in a preparatory school called Chartres. There young Lewis took up smoking and, in time, abandoned his childhood Christian faith. At Chartres, Lewis was greatly influenced by a matron he called Miss C who introduced him to spirituality and the occult, but he readily admits that he was relieved to shake off the restrictions he found in his religious life. The time spent at Chartres was only two school years but they led Lewis into a season of weakened inhibitions and increased apostasy.
At Chartres, Lewis earned a scholarship to Wyvern and transferred there in 1913 at the age of fifteen. Social struggles were a huge issue at Wyvern, with the more established boys controlling those of lower status and forcing them to do chores such as shine their shoes, and even perform sexual favors. Lewis saw this school as a negative effect in his life, as it was here that he grew most prideful and intellectually arrogant. He later recognized that, as an atheist, his life had been full of contradictions. While he claimed “God did not exist,” he also found himself angry with God for both “not existing” as well as for “creating a world” (170).
The next season in Lewis’s formative and educational years was more positive. From 1914 until 1916 his father sent him to a private tutor in Bookham named Kirkpatrick, generally referred to as Knock. Knock taught Lewis that there must be some basis for his beliefs, and that they should have a logical foundation. This increased his relief at being free from Christianity, as he saw no logic or basis for belief in God. Yet even this new-found way of logical thinking, was a part of God’s plan to equip Lewis for the task ahead – to defend the Christian faith. With wonder Lewis later acknowledged that God had protected him from becoming more radically entrenched in atheism. For it was during these last days at Bookham that Lewis read George MacDonald’s Phantastes and recognized a holiness in MacDonald’s tale. He found that Joy was ever present in the story, and against his will, his heart began to stir.
In the winter of 1916 Lewis received a scholarship to Oxford, but before he had completed even one term he was called to war. Lewis served in the British Army during World War I and was wounded in battle in April 1918. As he was recovering in the hospital, he read Chesterton and greatly identified with his work. Although the author’s essays were notably Christian, Lewis determined that he “did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it” (282). Lewis later reflects that in reading these two great Christian authors, Chesterton and MacDonald, he “did not know what [he] was letting [himself] in for,” adding that God can be “very unscrupulous” (283).
God continued to orchestrate His plan in Lewis’s life through encounters and friendships with strong believers in Christ. As Lewis put it, “The great Angler played His fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue” (311). Lewis returned to Oxford after his discharge from the army and, in 1922, met Nevil Coghill. The two became great friends in spite of Coghill’s strong Christian faith. In 1925 Lewis began teaching at the college, and there two other Christian friends came into his life and both greatly influenced him: H. V. V. Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien. During this time, the longing known as Joy continued to entice him.
Through both literature and unbelievers, God tugged at the cynical heart. After meeting Dyson and Tolkien, Lewis continued to read works of Chesterton, and through the book Everlasting Man, the history of Christianity was starting to make sense. In 1926 Lewis met the “hardest boiled” atheist he had ever encountered, who ironically claimed that the “evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good,” and that the death of Jesus “really happened” (330). Soon after this Lewis felt he was given a choice to either “open the door or keep it shut; […] to unbuckle the armor or keep it on,” though he also felt he really had no choice other than to “open” and to “unbuckle” (331). Lewis defines this as his conversion to Theism, when he came to accept that “God was God, and “knelt and prayed” (337).
Near the end of his journey from Theism to Christianity, Lewis came to realize that as a literary scholar he could no longer disregard the truth of the Gospels as if they were only myths. Quite distinctly he recalls the sunny morning, on a drive to the zoo, when he came to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Lewis describes the final stage in his conversion as the moment when “a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake” (350).
Regarding Joy, Lewis realized after he became a Christian, that it no longer held the importance he had once thought it had. He then saw that its true value was only that it pointed to something greater outside of himself. When he had been lost, Joy had been the signpost to direct him to Christ.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life leads the reader through Lewis’s deepest thoughts as he fearlessly opens himself to the criticism of the Christian and non-Christian world. It is an excellent testimony of humility in one who accomplished earthly greatness, yet acknowledged God as Supreme. Lewis never refers to himself as the defender of the faith he is known to be, nor does he make reference to his accomplishments, other than scholarships and teaching posts, except to state that he was “experienced in literary criticism” (348). The fact that he concedes to the public demand to know his salvation story by writing the book is all the acknowledgement he gives to his own credentials and fame. He spends the majority of the book simply describing God’s workmanship in his life and how, despite his resistance, he came to see that God’s “compulsion is our liberation” (338).