Surprised by Joy

I love C.S. Lewis. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, I loved The Abolition of Man, I loved Mere Christianity, and I picked up his autobiographical conversion story because I love the way he views Christianity – surely, I would love hearing about his conversion.

The book is called Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, and the version I picked up has some of the weirdest cover art illustrations I think I’ve ever seen (and I work for a bookstore!) But hey – never judge a book by its cover, right?

surprised by joy

Seriously – who designed this?

It started off a little dry, talking a lot about his early childhood, how much he loved solitude and reading, and how hard it was to get along well with his father, who was a well-meaning man but a bad listener. I muscled through.

Then he talked about his boyhood days at a boarding school, which was miserable, and then his teenage days at another boarding school, where apparently they were required to play sports (which he hated) and some of the boys pimped themselves out to those who were most sexually frustrated (which he sees in retrospect as sinful, but apparently isn’t concerned about abuse at all).  I muscled through.

Then things got Classical. Lewis spent a lot of time obsessed with Norse mythology, (about which I know little more than the Avengers has taught me), learning Greek and Latin (I once took a Latin class and nearly failed out of college), and a whole lot of classics I’ve never even touched. Some of them I haven’t even heard of. At this point, Lewis felt “joy” – a kind of beautiful longing for something spiritual – but didn’t really understand it.

Then things got Philosophical. At this point, I completely had no idea what the man was talking about anymore. I feel like I got plunged into a think tank full of classical literature professors – the kind who keep lapsing into medieval Latin phrases and making punny jokes in Greek – and I never got a chance to come up to the surface and breathe.

Here’s the problem: the book is about Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. But his conversion, as far as I understand it, came through a series of classroom experiences where he kept comparing philosophies and realizing they all came short. And I simply haven’t taken the prerequisites to understand this process. And he seems to assume that everyone else has taken the prerequisites.

To be fair, he was educated in Britain in a very Classics-heavy time period, and I was educated in modern American public school. I can type 100 wpm, but don’t ask me about the Aeneid.

Still – the thing was so obscure that I can’t tell you why C.S. Lewis became a Christian. He apparently had some philosophical journey that resulted in a belief in God, then a belief in Christ. Most or all of it was logical. Little to none of it was emotional. My religious experience is completely different from his, because my personality is completely different from his.

The biggest takeaway message I took from this book was this: I love Lewis’s essays. He explains Christianity to others so well it’s ridiculous. But we would not have gotten along on a personal level. In fact, I don’t even know if we would have had a clue what the other was saying.

I highly recommend any other book by C.S. Lewis. But not this one. ♦

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2 thoughts on “Surprised by Joy

  1. I’ve always thought that C.S. Lewis didn’t express his emotions about his conversion because he couldn’t, not because they didn’t exist. His background, the school for instance, was institutionalized abuse. The classic British system was about denying emotion. Emotions are vague and expected to be intuitively understood and not discussed or expressed.

    “Well, of course I loved her.” is a typical statement of undying love in this world.

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