Surprised by Joy. By C.S. Lewis. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012. 238 pages. Reviewed by Randy Everist.
This book, penned by C.S. Lewis originally in 1955, is intended to be a story of how Lewis was converted, and is not, primarily, to be conceived of as an autobiography (vii). As such, while the story is nearly completely chronological, it is more thematically arranged than anything else. This theme moves from early childhood to early adulthood; it seems that he was converted by 1929.
The first stage of Lewis’ life concerned the state of imagination. This occupied much of his young life and played an important role in it (15). One can see in his creation of “Animal Land” and its rich history his imagination that would set the stage for his later works of fiction. In many ways, it is quite appropriate for Lewis to have begun with the child-like wonder of Joy, hinted at in imagination, because of his life stages. Those stages, as they seemed represented, were as follows: imagination, with the hints of Joy; introspection, with its self-serving attempt at religious devotion; intellectualism, with education leading to arrogance and a rejection of God; interference, with Lewis’ views being laid bare for the contradictions that they were; and finally, invitation, with his acceptance of theism (and later Christianity).
For Lewis, Joy is “a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from Happiness and from Pleasure” (18). Joy is a desire “which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (18). As such, the pursuit of it could just as often have resulted in grief or sorrow, or a sense of loss. This is because Joy, for Lewis, seemed often enough elusive. He remarked that, in a sense, his life was about nothing less than the pursuit of Joy (17). The phase of imagination, unfortunately, was interrupted by the death of his mother (succumbing to cancer). It is remarkable that so tragic and impactful an event should have been given such little coverage (perhaps two and a half pages); yet Lewis implicitly recognizes its significance whenever he writes of the relationship between him and his father.
The phase of introspection, as it seems to be, occurs when Lewis is sent off to school. He curiously nicknames the headmaster of his school Oldie, and Oldie was a very stern man (26). The students were actually taught very little, and Oldie was content only to teach them geometry and administer a good beating. Interestingly, this is treated by Lewis almost as though it had happened to someone else. One would be forgiven for thinking that it was not of much impact to his life. Clearly, however, it was. Aside from his own father, Lewis referred to Oldie by name the most throughout the rest of the book.
While Lewis’ intellectual and imaginative life faltered while at Oldie’s school, he did eventually move on to another school. Within these school changes, he began to rediscover his imagination. It was also during this time he would have classified himself as a true believer. A telling anecdote about his immature faith is that Lewis would attempt what he called “realizations;” these were prayers where he tried to focus on really meaning what he was praying (61-62). Of course, this can lead to an infinite regress. For what if one wants to be sure he really means that he wants to really mean his prayers? One can never be sure of an answer to this question. As a result, this introspection resulted in spiritual frustration.
The third phase is of intellectualism, leading to Lewis’ rejection of God altogether. Throughout each of these phases, one gets the sense that Lewis retained what he would later call “signposts” of the truth: he was able to see glimpses of the real Joy, but it was not itself real Joy. It merely pointed to God. When Lewis went to Wyvern College, this had the ultimate result of his intellectual pursuits as an atheist. In Wyvern, there was a class system where new students were obliged to serve the older, so that they may not think too highly of themselves (88-89). However, Wyvern gave him a sense of superiority over others who were not as widely read as he (101). He writes of his anger with God thusly: “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world” (115).
Despite the entire point of Surprised by Joy being to tell the story of Lewis’ conversion, the actual details surrounding the conversion itself (the final two stages) occupy very little of the work. In fact, it is the entire book that is the story of his conversion, since the sum of his experiences explains what occurred, rather than merely relaying information. The stages of interference and invitation nearly run together. Though separated by a gulf of time where Lewis accepts mere theism but not Christianity, it seems clear from this vantage point that he was always headed that direction. God used men like J.R.R. Tolkien, who was both a “Papist” and a “philologist,” (216) to help him to see that some of the most intelligent people he had ever encountered were believers, and they seemed to be closer to the truth behind Joy than were the irreligious.
Lewis came to believe that either Hinduism or Christianity was true, but not both. Indeed, he came to believe that what was good, true, and commendable about any given religion could be accounted for better by one of these two. In the end, it was Christianity’s historical claim that persuaded him to become a Christian. Lewis came in, as he describes it, “kicking and screaming,” and eventually praised God for his love and mercy (229).
Lewis accomplishes his goal of conveying his conversion story. He weaves a metanarrative through the telling of various episodes of his life, showing how each plays a role in not only his deconversion (if it may be called that), but his conversion to Christianity as well. It comes highly recommended for laypeople, pastors, and lovers of literature. Stylistically, he occasionally relays anecdotes or hints of anecdotes that serve to confuse (such as his hint that he has a major story left out on p. 198—why mention it?), though usually all becomes clear from his particular anecdotes.
A particular strength of Lewis—perhaps the particular strength of his—is his ability to see into the heart of the nature of man. This existential reflection seems to be woven throughout the entire work. For example, he recognizes that no particular experience of Pleasure or Happiness is itself Joy. This is because Joy, as a technical term with a stipulative definition given, is just a sign pointing to the more permanent. He recognizes that God designed man to be in fellowship with Him, and thus no earthly pleasure can be a fulfilling and lasting eternal Joy.
Psychologically, Lewis also recognized the arrogance that came with his youthful atheism. He writes that he was shocked he did not recognize as absurd that what was so easily understood as a young man escaped the veritable minds of Christians that had come before him (215). This absurdity was, Lewis suggested, due to his blindness. An extrapolation of this suggestion is that there are undoubtedly others who are atheists and remain comfortable in their intellectual superiority due in large part to blindness. It is to Lewis’ credit that he does not attempt to diagnose the whole world; he is giving a tale of how he came to Christianity, not necessarily others. He clearly achieves his goal of relaying that metanarrative, with each of the major parts intact.
Another strength was Lewis’ ability to speak with humility. One never reached the sense that he was extolling his intellectual prowess in coming to the truth of Christianity, nor was he demeaning the intelligence of those who did not so come. In fact, some of his kindest remarks are reserved for Kirk, the man who taught Lewis logical thinking and reasoning. His intellectual conversations did not seem to be fraught with conflict, and the times when it may have been, he frankly admitted it had been so on his part alone. This level of honesty allows the reader to take Lewis at his word, and thus makes his message more likely to come through than it would have otherwise.
Nonetheless, the book is not without some weaknesses (albeit seemingly minor ones that do not affect his overall point much). First, it seems he makes far too little of the horrifying situation at Wyvern with respect to the “Tarts” (88). He almost casually relates that the younger boys were asked or persuaded to do sexual favors for the older boys, and that this was due in large part because there were no females around. This struck me as quite depraved, and while Lewis stated he did not focus on it because it was not a vice with which he struggled, it would seem that two responses are in order.
First, his defense of these homosexual acts being no worse than other particular vices is a double-edged sword. While it seems he exposes some hypocritical attitudes by some toward homosexuality, it does seem to fly in the face of Romans 1. All sins are sins against God and therefore worthy of punishment, but not all sins bear the same consequences (both temporal and eternal). If this is the case, it is most plausibly because some sins really are farther away from the moral standard than others. Second, I think Lewis has underestimated the effect this likely had on his deconversion. Having such debauchery as normal, even if one does not partake in it, surely affects one’s soul. An unregenerate soul, further, cannot be expected to cope as well. With atheism often comes moral lapse preceding; this appears to be the case here as well.
Next, Lewis seemed receptive to a type of thoroughgoing evidentialism that he did not repudiate or even seem to amend in his later years (136). The idea is that he seemed to accept the idea that in order to believe some particular proposition, one must have evidence for that proposition. But evidence is not always available for a particular proposition, and yet sometimes people are justified in holding that position. Take the proposition that “My name is Randy.” I certainly can investigate this belief by perusing legal documents, consulting the state, interviewing doctors, etc.—even though these will eventually run into a problem—but I am nonetheless justified in taking my parents’ word for it (all things being equal). There are also some beliefs for which there can be no further justifying evidence: these beliefs are called foundational beliefs. In normal situations, evidence is needed for holding a belief, but not in all.
Finally, Lewis seems to take for granted a certain Kantian view on a few areas (including ethics and metaphysics). For example, he granted Kant’s view of the distinction between the noumena (the really “real”) and the phenomena (the mere appearance of the real) (198-99). However, if this is accepted, then one cannot really speak of God as he is in reality, since God belongs to the noumenal realm. Only an approximation of what God appears to us to be like can be known. Possibly, this is illustrated in his metaphor of Shakespeare inserting himself as a character in one of his plays as standing for the Incarnation (227). In this case, Shakespeare’s character is not actually himself, but a mere representation. This can be seen in a character’s interactions with the author, as claimed by Lewis. He suggests a mere character cannot interact with the author (226). But if this is so, what if Shakespeare’s character, who is in the story, is killed? Does it follow the author actually dies? If not, then it seems the character of the author and the author himself are not identical, and surely identity is necessary for sameness of persons!
This book was a fascinating, encouraging, and honest read. It was intellectual without being heady; existential without being flighty; insightful without being arrogant. I can wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone interested in the spiritual lives of those non-Christians around them, and for anyone who has ever struggled with deconversion and doubt.