Book Review: ‘Surprised by Joy’

C.S. Lewis’ spiritual autobiography was a joy to read. Before starting this book, I didn’t really know much about the private life of Lewis other than the fact that he was an atheist and then became a Christian, but now, I feel like I know a lot more about the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia. The endorsement from the Sunday Times on the front cover called the book a ‘spiritual thriller’. I don’t know if I’d have used the word ‘thriller’ to describe it, but it was certainly insightful and entertaining. I’ve always found that one of Lewis’ great strengths is his clarity of explanation and the way that he seems to be sitting in the room, explaining things to you in person whenever you read one of his books – ‘Surprised by Joy’ was no exception to this. As you read, you get the sense that Lewis is being open and honest with you, affording you a look into his complex young mind. For someone like me, who loves learning about the testimonies of people that have become Christian, it was a fantastic book that I read at every opportunity.

One of the specific things that I liked in this book is that Lewis never looks back on himself as if to say, ‘how stupid I was’. I feel that had he done so, the story would have lost some of its honest appeal. Of course, Lewis points out the flaws in his own atheist thinking, sometimes showing that his previously held convictions and philosophies were a bit silly, but he never does so in a way as to cast doubt on the genuineness of those beliefs and he does not deny their importance to him at various stages in his life. Furthermore, he doesn’t mock the people who led him down the path to atheism. One man, his private tutor before he went to Oxford, developed his atheist thinking and reasoning almost to its maturity, and though Lewis makes it clear that he no longer believes those views to be true, he nevertheless presents his tutor in an affectionate way.

Lewis also makes it clear that this book is not a normal autobiography, the kind of book in which one would set out everything that they remember about their past, instead, this book is about his spiritual journey, and if an event did not impact this, however important it was at the time, it was left out. This means that the book was no longer than it needed to be and that there was nothing to distract the reader from the main purpose of the book. Another consequence of this selection was that the story was very coherent and easy to follow. Always, you could see why something was relevant and you could build a picture in your mind of the way that the young Lewis thought. This, of course, contributed to the honesty and insight that I have already mentioned as being a great strength of the book.

The book is not simply a dry recounting of events, either. By its very nature, it requires some explanation of various philosophies and ideas. Lewis does not go into these in great detail (it’s not a philosophy textbook, after all), but he does provide the reader with a working knowledge of what his ideas were and why he accepted/rejected them. All the way through, Lewis is also showing the reader what joy is and how it impacted his life. In many ways, his spiritual journey was actually a series of his attempts to recapture the simple joy he knew as a child. It becomes clear that in order to enjoy something, you have to pursue it for its own sake and not pursue the joy that it can bring. If you focus on the joy and not the thing, you will never experience the joy. I haven’t explained that as well as he did, but hopefully you get the idea!

In this post, I have purposefully not explained any events in the book. This is because it’s his story, not mine, and if you want to know what happens, you have to read it. I found that reading the book was encouraging, uplifting and generally pleasant. It was not a difficult read, but it was an interesting read. Also, the book is obviously not written to try and convert anyone, it’s just one man’s journey from atheism to faith and as such, I think it is definitely readable for people of all perspectives, not just Christians.

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