Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Book Review: Surprised by Joy

The Shire Reviews schedule has been amended to two posts a week, book review on Tuesday and movie review on Thursday. Unfortunately, one can only think of old favorite stories for so long before running out. :(

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Recommended for: Ages 15 to Adult (mentions of sinful behavior by the other boys at school, and mentions of certain temptations)

"A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous."

This book is not an autobiography. It is not a confession. It is, however, certainly one of the most beautiful and insightful accounts of a person coming to faith. Here, C.S. Lewis takes us from his childhood in Belfast through the loss of his mother, to boarding school and a youthful atheism in England, to the trenches of World War I, and then to Oxford, where he studied, read, and, ultimately, reasoned his way back to God. It is perhaps this aspect of Surprised by Joy that we—believers and nonbelievers—find most compelling and meaningful; Lewis was searching for joy, for an elusive and momentary sensation of glorious yearning, but he found it, and spiritual life, through the use of reason. In this highly personal, thoughtful, intelligent memoir, Lewis guides us toward joy and toward the surprise that awaits anyone who seeks a life beyond the expected.

Many years ago, I read the first few chapters of this book as research for a speech on C.S. Lewis. I simply didn't have time to read the whole thing then, but I think I'm glad I waited until now. I don't think I would have quite understood the purpose of the book in the frame of mind I was in at the time, and without having read The Pilgrim's Regress.

Lewis covers his childhood much in the way that any man might cover his childhood in an autobiography, relating the general atmospheres of his home and schools, notable events, and particular memories. But he also has a slightly different focus. He always tells of the flashes of what he called Joy, sharply distinguished from both Happiness and Pleasure, a thing which becomes more apparent as the book progresses. Having just come out of The Pilgrim's Regress, an allegorical representation of Lewis's journey to Christianity, I recognized his Joy as the real life basis for John's Island. I would recommend reading those two books one right after the other, though I'm not sure if the way I happened to do it is best, or if you'd be better going the other way around.

His school experience was interesting. His first boarding school was terrible in basically every way, his second not so bad, though he was bullied somewhat, and his time at that school did not last long. Wyvern is why I give an age caution on the book. While he was never involved himself, he does address the fact that there was some homosexuality between the older and younger boys. Yet during his time at Wyvern, despite how horrible it was, he managed to find Joy through the books he discovered.

Post school is really where he starts focusing on the specifics that affected his religion. He called himself a reluctant convert, and it's easy to see throughout this book how that was so. But it's also easy to see how inescapable God's calling is. Lewis resisted, but it is impossible to ignore that God was calling him. Even which authors he discovered point back to God's calling.

What I find interesting is how logical Lewis was. He really thought things through. It may be more difficult to see in his fiction, but it's very apparent in his nonfiction. And logically, he could not make himself adhere to his teenage and young adult atheism. "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." This was certainly true in Lewis's case. And it was very interesting to see how someone with Lewis's background could grow to become one of the most influential Christian writers of his time.

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