Thursday, May 17, 2012

Surprised by Joy Briefly Revisited

A review for C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, written on LibraryThing.

It's been quite a few years since I read this book, and I now have a far different worldview than I did when I read it, but this book continues to interest me as I continue to be interested in the possibility of and nature of religious experiences. It is no longer fresh in my mind what he wrote and, considering I read it back in High School, there was much that he discussed that probably meant nothing to me then that would mean something to me now. But that's why I'm writing this review with it as a distant memory, I want to talk about what was in the book that stuck with me.

There exists a feeling that comes upon people at some times. I do not know if it comes to all people – though I have no reason for supposing that it is available to some men and not others, barring the possibility that it has to be prompted by certain environmental factors that some people may not be exposed to – what is important is that the feeling exists. In my opinion, the discussion of this feeling, which Lewis calls “joy” is the greatest contribution this book makes. If you are a Christian, this book is valuable as a discussion of some part of human nature that cries out for another world. If you are an atheist, this book is valuable as an example of some peculiarity of human psychology that leads people to search for God.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (A quote from Mere Christianity, which I imagine was a reference to the desire that Lewis came to call “joy”)

You will get plenty of discussion about the rampant homosexuality in the school Lewis was sent to (which was largely a result of Lewis's own overly-sexual and overly-suspicious view of his peers. His older brother was baffled by his portrayal of their school), you will get information about Lewis's time with Kirkpatrick where he began to put on intellectual muscle from a very logical, literal, and precise teacher, you will read about him enduring time as a soldier in World War I, him attaining a prestigious teaching post, and plenty about his love for mythology – especially Norse mythology. You won't find many logical proofs about what led him to Christianity. You won't get a list of facts that Lewis took into account to determine that Christianity was more likely than otherwise. The book would be worse if he included them, as they would detract from the main contribution the book makes: the personal and subjective account of what led a reasonable and intelligent man to place his faith in Christ, and his account of an experience of longing and desire called Joy.

If you put aside the pretenses of commitment to facts and evidence that both sides posture with, you will get an glimpse of what can really move an intelligent man to faith – whether or not you consider a move to faith to be an improvement. Or, perhaps just as likely, you yourself may have felt what Lewis called Joy: a bittersweet longing and desire, in which case this book will give you an opportunity to read how he reacted to that experience. Or maybe you think Lewis is just a ridiculous man, well, he certainly won't change your mind here, but you might find some opportunities to laugh at him if that's how you get your kicks. If religious experiences and conversion stories interest you, or if you are interested in Lewis in general, I highly recommend the book. If your main interest is apologetics, I advise skipping this one.

[As a general caution, I would recommend reading this book as events that happened in C. S. Lewis's life – as Jack would want you to believe them. This book was nicknamed “Suppressed by Jack” among those intimate with the details of Lewis's life. That's not to say it is not valuable, merely that it should not be taken as true, at least as far as it concerns Lewis's account of his external circumstances. If you want his biography, you can look up George Sayer's book Jack. This book is more valuable for insight into Lewis's internal development.]

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