Surprised by Joy is C.S. Lewis’s autobiography on his ‘accidental journey from atheism to Christianity’. I am not sure how much of what I read I am going to be able to process tidily enough to put down in a blog post; but I intend to try.
Lewis’s entire book is based around this one word, JOY. He first experiences it as a lad — I can not recall the instance since I began reading this book months ago — and the rest of what he writes is threaded through with his desire to experience this ‘joy’ again and again, seeking to recapture it or recreate it in any way he could think of. It would appear that there was not much that Lewis had not tried or had not been exposed to when he was very young. He seems to have been a very opinionated young man who was very clear about what he wanted and what he did not, what he was seeking and what he did not want to seek. Perhaps, since this is a book written in retrospection, there is more maturity in the looking back than there actually was in the time of experience.
It was fascinating to read all about the process Lewis’s journey took from near full-fledged atheism as a teenager to reluctant acknowledgement of, not just a god, but the God as a young man. His struggle was real, and yet he was constantly seeking after that ‘joy’. He writes of discovering Wagner, Norse mythology (I can so understand the allure!) and exploring further afield the otherworldly. He writes of beauty and aesthetics, of Yeats who had briefly had him considering dabbling in the occult. He writes of the various philosophies that influenced his mind-set, bringing him to points of cynicism, and believing himself a realist.
Throughout his reading process he comes across various interesting people who become good friends and help him along the way. He is puzzled when he comes across ‘realists’ like him who are moral, honourable, chaste and upright. He is horrified when he discovers that some brilliant young man in his class, is actually a staunch Christian. He feels betrayed when close friends of his, almost like him in thought, begin to consider that the God of Christianity is indeed real.
He begins to read George MacDonal, George Herbert, and other Christian novelists and poets and realises that there is something different and more desirable in the writing. The ‘joy’ he sought to experience with Wagner and Morris and the like was of something distant, hazy and, at the end, dissatisfying. But the Christian writers brought out something that was present, in the very room with him, full of light and heart-warming. On reading Phantastes this is what he writes:
❝ […] I found the light shining on those woods and cottages, and then on my own past life, and on the quiet room where I sat and on my old teacher where he nodded above his little Tacitus. For I now perceived that while the air of the new region made all my erotic and magical perversions of Joy look like sordid trumpery, it had no such disenchanting power over the bread upon the table or the coals in the grate. That was the marvel. Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert […] Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. (pg. 209) ❞
Personally, there was much I could understand and relate to in Lewis’s journey. It was also fascinating in that his conversion did not come upon him in such a way that he changed overnight. It was a slow process, a reluctant process, a process that involved Lewis shedding away, bit by bit, his old notions and prejudices before he could fully experience his walk with the Lord. He writes of his ‘terror’ of letting go of his old life because the new would demand explicit obedience to God. He would no longer be ‘allowed to play at philosophy’. This last is something I understand personally. Having once been open to reading and studying philosophy, when my relationship with the Lord matured, I found that philosophy had become nothing but gibberish. After all, philosophy is man’s search for truth. It is an interesting, intellectually satisfying experience. But once a person knows the truth, there really is no going back. One cannot feign ignorance nor would one really want to for the truth, does indeed, set one free.
On the whole, Surprised by Joy was rather unlike any other autobiography I have read. But then again, I have not really read that many. It was, however, absorbing to read about the man C.S. Lewis was before he became this powerful Christian writer.
Have you read Surprised by Joy? What did you think of it? Would you read it if you haven’t already? Have you read anything else by C.S. Lewis? Let’s start a conversation below in the comments.