Book Review: Surprised By Joy

Surprised By Joy, by C.S. Lewis

Although C.S. Lewis does not claim this particular spiritual autobiography to be the same sort of work as Augustine’s Confessions [1], there are at least a few ways in which the two works are very similar in striking ways. For one, both C.S. Lewis and Augustine write in such a way as to avoid discussing their lengthy emotional entanglements with women and are remarkably private about that aspect of their lives in their supposed confessionals. Additionally, both discuss the lures of pagan religion and share a fondness for the blend between Athens and Jerusalem, between biblical theology and Greek philosophy. Both also speak about the lures of certain types of sin, their lengthy and cerebral journey to faith, and the importance of friends, family, and teachers along the course of their journey. The resulting book is a little less than 200 pages, highly quotable, and if the memory is a bit fuzzy in some details, the story itself is a compelling and unusual one. Readers should note that the joy that C.S. Lewis is talking about is not happiness, but rather sehnsuct, longing [2].

In terms of its contents, this book is a spiritual autobiography of the author’s life from birth to his conversion to Christianity in the early 1930’s. Each of the fifteen chapters to this book is introduced with a quote from another writer of relevance to the subject matter of the chapter, like this quote from Goldsmith for the chapter “Light And Shade:” “No situation, however wretched it seems, but has some sort of comfort attending it.” Those readers who expect a staid intellectual account will likely be surprised by the author’s blunt honesty, including his fairly blunt discussions of the pederasty of the English public school, although the author’s gentlemanly ways prevent him a full discussion of the sins and faults of his youth. About his longtime common-law wife, Lewis has this to say: “But before I say anything of my life there I must warn the reader that one huge and complex episode will be omitted. I have no choice about this reticence. All I can or need say is that my earlier hostility to the emotions was very fully and variously avenged. But even were I free to tell the story, I doubt if it has much to do with the subject of the book (160).” Lewis’ reticence about personal matters makes this an extraordinary autobiography in that it self-consciously conceals as much as it reveals, making this little book both an essential volume in understanding Lewis’ path to faith, and also a less than tell-all account of his youth and young adulthood.

It is particularly telling that Lewis does not portray himself as being particularly active in seeking God. Rather, he portrays God as seeking Lewis, as behaving like a cat does to a mouse, in being the source of fear and awe and even terror. Likewise, Lewis, as a romanticist, approaches spiritual matters with a strong distrust of emotionalism that leads him to be ironic and cerebral where a less intellectual person would be more comfortable with their beating heart and their emotional longings. Likewise, for an intellectual, Lewis has a great deal of vehemence about certain aspects of his life, calling one of his schools Belsen because it was run by a crazed teacher whose inhumane beatings were apparently quite traumatizing. Lewis shows great insight, and in revealing a bit of his spiritual world and the struggles of friendship and family, Lewis creates a spiritual autobiography that is both delicate as well as full of rewarding quotes and stories about a most reluctant convert’s coming to faith. What Lewis said about his beloved Old Knock was also true of him: “The idea that human beings should exercise their vocal organs for any purpose except that of communicating or discovering truth was to him preposterous. The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation (110-111).” Those who think they have Lewis entirely figured out would be advised to read this book and be surprised [3].

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Book Review: Surprised By Joy

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