Surprised by Joy

I’ve read a few biographies of C. S. Lewis and recently watched The Most Reluctant Convert, based on his journey from atheism to theism to Christianity. It occurred to me while watching the latter that I had never read Lewis’ testimony in his own words, Surprised by Joy. So I got the audiobook version of his book.

I thought that, since these other sources all quoted heavily from this book, I’d be familiar with most of it. Much was familiar, but there was a lot I didn’t know. There were also some incidents missing that I thought came from this book.

Lewis writes that this book is not an autobiography of his whole life til that point. He focuses mainly on everything that led to his conversion. That story encompasses much of his early life and what went into his becoming the personality and type of thinker he was. As he goes on, the focus narrows to just his spiritual movement.

One fact that I don’t remember reading before was that both Lewis and his brother had only one workable joint in their thumbs. Trying to make models of things or cut cardboard with scissors ended in frustration and tears. Games at school were the bane of his existence because he could never play them well. He could write and draw, though, and he liked solitude, which factors led to his creating stories about “dressed animals” in what he called “Animal Land.” His brother drew and wrote stories about India and trains and ships. Eventually they combined their imaginary worlds into what they called Boxen.

It was quite interesting to follow all that made Lewis into the man he became, from being unable to reason with his father, to (mostly negative) experiences at school, to his time with a private tutor (the “Great Knock”) who demanded that he be able to defend every opinion he expressed. Then the books he read and people he came across and conversations he had with them at various junctions all led step-by-step to his becoming a Christian. His journey was driven by philosophy more than emotion.

Surprised by Joy was written after the majority of Lewis’ other books were published. He said he wrote the book partly to answer questions he regularly received and partly to correct some misconceptions. Some of his detractors assumed he came from a Puritanical background, but Lewis assures them that the family he grew up in was not religious at all. Then when he came to make his own choice about religion, he turned against it though he did not tell his father. It was only many years and much reading later, after he began his career, that he came to believe. He likened it to a chess game where God knocked down his objections and false beliefs one by one by one.

The joy in Lewis’ title was what he described as a feeling of longing. It first came upon him when his brother brought in a toy garden he had made in the lid of a tin. It was something beautiful but ineffable, a small glimpse into something greater. “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” (p. 86, Kindle version). At times through his life, he sought to recreate that feeling. After he became a Christian, he realized that what he thought of as joy was not an end in itself, but a signpost to point him to God.

A few quotes from the book that stood out to me:

The greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life” (p. 137).

[Of his tutor, Kirk] Here was talk that was really about something. Here was a man who thought not about you but about what you said. No doubt I snorted and bridled a little at some of my tossings; but, taking it all in all, I loved the treatment. After being knocked down sufficiently often I began to know a few guards and blows, and to put on intellectual muscle. In the end, unless I flatter myself, I became a not contemptible sparring partner (p. 167).

I knew very well by now that there was hardly any position in the world save that of a don in which I was fitted to earn a living, and that I was staking everything on a game in which few won and hundreds lost. As Kirk had said of me in a letter to my father (I did not, of course, see it till many years later), ‘You may make a writer or a scholar of him, but you’ll not make anything else. You may make up your mind to that.’ And I knew this myself; sometimes it terrified me (p. 224).

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. (p. 288).

There’s a verse of “Just As I Am” by Charlotte Elliott that is not as well known as the rest of the hymn, but seems to sum up Lewis’ journey of faith:

Just as I am, Thy love unknownHas broken every barrier downNow to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

I’m grateful God pursued Lewis and “broke every barrier down,” both for Lewis’ sake and our own. What a gift Lewis has been to us, even so many years after he lived. But his example gives me hope that God will do the same for dear ones I pray for.

20 thoughts on “Surprised by Joy

  1. I definitely want to read this — I’ve heard it referenced often too. Such an interesting review, from the thumb joint thing to the little garden in the tin lid. “Just As I Am” was such a big “invitational hymn” when I grew up that the words to that verse are very familiar. Thanks for prompting me to put this officially on my to-read list.

  2. I had seen this title several times and didn’t realize it was a biography. I’ve put it on my list of “next reads”. I’ve also seen adverts for the video as well. Thanks for the review.

  3. Barbara, it seems I’m in a Lewis phase right now. I read The Great Divorce a few weeks ago, and now I’m in the middle of rereading Screwtape and reading a book of his letters to children. I’ve seen several references to Surprised by Joy in the latter book, and you’ve definitely whetted my appetite. Especially the parts about the type of thinker he was and how his journey was driven more by philosophy than emotion. Thanks for the review!

    • I was amazed in Letters to Children, as well as in the Narnia series, just how well he communicated with them. Especially since neither he nor his brother had children. Some of his more academic stuff is really hard to follow, yet the same mind can speak so clearly and personally to a child.

  4. This sounds like an interesting book. CS Lewis is an author I’d like to read more of and I always enjoy people’s life stories and discovering what influenced them.

  5. I think I have left this book unread for far too long. Just today I was contemplating re-reading The Screwtape Letters but perhaps I should dive in this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. I was very motivated to read this book after watching the film. My favorite part was his description of his schedule with the ‘Great Knock’ – the meals, the time for reading, thinking, walking, joining friends. It sounds just lovely.

  7. When I reread this not long ago I was surprised to note that it really only comes up to the point where Lewis became a Deist, rather than an atheist — it doesn’t say much of anything about his relationship with or understanding of Christ. Maybe he felt that was covered enough in his other books.

    Since I’ve been reading a lot lately about the effects of childhood trauma I was also struck by how hard his upbringing was in so many ways, although in typical male and English fashion he downplays it. But there were serious things for him to work through, wow. I’m not always in agreement with Lewis, but I do have great respect for how he tried to journey toward greater wholeness and to communicate the truth of Spirit to others. His books have meant a lot to me.

    • He does talk about finally believing in Christ as the Son of God, but doesn’t go into much detail about it. I think once he accepted deism, it wasn’t that much farther a step to believe in Christ.

      He really did have a lot of trauma–from losing his mother so young, to run-ins with his father, to horrific boarding school situations. I wonder if writing helped him process those situations.

  8. Pingback: March Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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