Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was my Classics Spin book for this round, and I finished it ahead of schedule! (Of course, I’m way behind schedule on all of my other books, but I prefer to dwell on my successes.)
I very nearly loved this book. Lewis’s path—although very different from my own—resonates with me in so many ways. Lewis has so many insightful things to say, and I found myself citing this book frequently in conversations. My spouse was very tolerant of this. He did gradually follow up my, “You know, this reminds me of something C.S. Lewis says in his Surprised by Joy…” with a mumbled “Of course it does.” But he still listened to what I said next.
Most of the things Lewis says that I found near mind-blowing, other people didn’t seem excited about at all when I relayed them, which was a little frustrating. Throughout the book, Lewis paints himself as a man apart from the crowd, someone misunderstood and largely content to be so. I shouldn’t have been surprised that other people didn’t share my excitement when I talked about the ways in which I could relate to a fellow who couldn’t really relate to other people.
I do think I understand better some of the anti-Lewis sentiment I hear sometimes. The first thirteen chapters were, I thought, awesome, aside from a few gratuitous judgmental bits he tosses in there without much elaboration (like that one of his friends was nearly as exasperating to talk to as a woman). These were especially annoying because he goes to such lengths to see things from different perspectives and to avoid judgment in most all of the book. These rare moments of judgment seem out of character, like he’s trying to be chummy with the reader in a way, tossing out little conversational barbs.
Or maybe these are rare moments of the true Lewis that he masks the majority of the time, because it does happen with more areas more pertinent to the book’s subject. At one point, Lewis defines “chronological snobbery” as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Later he claims that Paganism is merely a stepping stone to more mature religions, and seems completely oblivious to the fact that this smacks of the very “chronological snobbery” he claims to have sloughed off. The only other proof he offers that Paganism “had been the childhood of religion” is the fact that he embraced it when he was a child, and he later decided it wasn’t doing it for him and moved on to something else. It’s fine if he’s made this personal conclusion so long as he doesn’t make it sound as though it’s an established truth.
I understand how Lewis makes the transition from Atheism to Theism, but I don’t really get how he goes from a belief in God to belief in a very specific, anthropomorphic God who acts directly and consciously in the universe, and I really don’t get how he makes the leap from here to Christianity. (But then, perhaps from “anthropomorphic God” to “anthropomorphic God coming to Earth as a human for the purpose of dying for our sins” it’s more a step than a leap.) This might be just because he doesn’t understand how he became Christian, either (which he admits in Chapter XV). This is totally fine, except that I thought that was kind of what the book was supposed to be about, and I really wanted to know how he got from Atheism to Christianity. Maybe if I want that, I need to read more of his other writings on Christianity.
You know, my overall reaction to this book reminds me of two things C.S. Lewis says in his Surprised by Joy:
“Of course he shares your interests…[b]ut he has approached them all from a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got all the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it.”
“I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what [Lewis] said in order to enjoy it.”
One more thing: I’m re-reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with my kids right now, and I’m finding a lot of Lewis’s conversion story and opinions about his own childhood beliefs about religion and faith woven through there since reading Surprised by Joy. I worry that some of the magic of both books is suffering as a result.
8 Replies to “Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis”
I haven’t read this one yet but it’s coming up in my C.S. Lewis project.
My spin book was Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and it’s interesting that he also had a connection with pagan myths when he was younger. I don’t think he would say they specifically led him to God but perhaps prepared his mind to accept God later on.
I remember reading Enid Blyton’s books or other children’s books from that period and the kids would call each other “stupid” or “donkey” or “fool”. No one took offence and it always surprised me but then I realized I was reading through modern eyes. Anyway, my point is that I’m not sure that the “friend as exasperating to talk to as a woman” would have raised eyebrows back then as it does now. I’m reading Lewis’ letters right now (slowly —— three HUGE volumes) and women just loved him. They wrote to him all the time about things so in spite of how we view some of his comments, I don’t think he was viewed by them in a negative light and I’m certain he didn’t hold them in disrespect. In fact, I’m surprised how gracious he is in his letters with people continually asking him for things.
Your review intrigued me because this book doesn’t sound as logical as some of his others. It would show a more human Lewis with some faults and foibles as all the rest of us. I think I would find that refreshing.
Thanks again for a great review, Charity.
You make a good point about keeping the period in mind. I understand that Lewis lived and wrote in a time when (and an academic environment where) that kind of statement would have sounded different than it does today. I pointed it out because it seemed not to fit with the logical way Lewis approached so many other things, not because it was offensive (I actually wasn’t offended; I felt more disappointed than anything).
It was really interesting to see how male his world seemed to be. I got the impression there were women on the periphery and that sometimes he was avoiding mentioning them out of respect, but even taking that into account, he paints a picture of himself as a man always surrounded by men and only influenced by men.
You’re right, this book does show a human side of Lewis. I got the impression this level of self-disclosure was slightly uncomfortable for him. There were a couple of times when, after revealing a lot about his inner thoughts, emotions, and struggles, he would step back into more abstract descriptions and explanations. I’m not sure if this is an accurate reading or not—all I really knew about his personal life before reading this book was the fictionalized version in the movie Shadowlands—but that’s the impression I got.
CS Lewis was a really complex person. I read a lot of his works in college and right now I’m working my way back through The Four Loves because the last time I read it I had neither been in love romantically nor experienced maternal love, and I felt like approaching it with a more mature perspective would open the text a little more to me. But I agree with you that some of what he writes about is inadvertently contradictory. Even so, he was wonderful and there will always be a special place in my heart for his work.
Lewis was definitely an incredible writer. I think that part of why he contradicts himself is because he’s working through in his writing just what he thinks/believes and why he thinks/believes this way. This leads to contradictions, but it also leads to really powerful writing. Have you read Till We Have Faces? I love that one. I’m going to have to pick up The Four Loves; it looks really interesting.
I loved it too! I read it about 12 years ago, but it deserves another read too.
I’m really enjoying your blog posts. Write ON, Charity!
Wow, that was a great boost for this afternoon! Thank you!