Surprised by Joy

joyI was in a religious book store with my brother and sister-in-law who were in possession of a 40% off coupon expiring that day. It was clear that I would commit a sin if I didn’t save some money, and so I bought this C.S. Lewis memoir of his early life. It’s been the best 40% I’ve ever saved.

OK, that might be overstatement, but I did enjoy Lewis. He wrote it in 1955, and it’s about his spiritual life through his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Basically, it’s about how he reasoned his way to his Christian faith.

I picture him as Anthony Hopkins (weirdly) writing this in a tweed jacket in his Oxford study back in the fifties, but if you know the Chronicles of Narnia, then you know that even though he’s something of a stuffy academic, he’s never dull and usually surprises you with a wry turn of phrase.

“Joy” comes to him in a few isolated episodes throughout his childhood and adolescence. It’s hard, even for Lewis, to describe what he means by it, but it’s sort of a very intense, bitter-sweet pang or longing that he experiences quite unexpectedly, and then can’t quite figure out where it comes from or why. Much of his intellectual and spiritual life is spent trying, and failing, to recreate that joy.

During his adolescence and early adulthood he describes himself as an atheist, but eventually through various things – people, books, experiences – God comes to him. The chapter where it ultimately happens he titles “Checkmate,” and then describes God’s chess moves (and then I lost my bishop, etc.). Having lost more chess matches than I’ve won, I could relate. I’m sure God would best me, too.

Joy is very droll, but it’s not preachy, and really very interesting. One of my favorite parts is near the end where he talks about the role of heaven and hell. He writes:

I have never seen how a preoccupation with that subject at the outset could fail to corrupt the whole thing. I had been brought up to believe that goodness was goodness only if it were disinterested, and that any hope of reward or fear of punishment contaminated the will. (231)

I was glad to hear that I’m not the only one to suspect a corrupting influence there. I also like his observations of organized church:

And then the fussy, time-wasting botheration of it all! the bells, the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organizing. Hymns were (and are) extremely disagreeable to me. Of all musical instruments I liked (and like) the organ the least.

Philip Pullman, who’s The Golden Compass trilogy is very popular right now, has made a big deal of out bashing Lewis. I love Pullman’s books, but I love Lewis’s, too. Oh, the botheration of it all.

I’m gonna make that word a regular part of my vocabulary.

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4 Responses to Surprised by Joy

  1. Sarah says:

    I like Pullman’s preemptive penance… torture yourself now ’cause you know you’re gonna do something wrong soon enough.

    C.S. Lewis used to be my favorite author. Haven’t read him since my straying from the fold. I wonder what I’d think of the Screwtape Letters now.

  2. david says:

    Still reading yo’ blog…just nothing bright to say!

  3. J. Marvin says:

    I was walking by and thought I would create mischief. A very dear (Christian) friend of mine has been trying, for nearly 20 years, to cram Lewis down my throat. Admittedly, my throat hurts and I will never be able to swallow, let alone taste, any of it. My children loved the Narnia tales, and I even encouraged them to read them…when I was a child, I spoke and thought like a child….

    I (too) strayed from the fold many years ago and I greatly prefer being lost and having no answers. I have grown to love and prefer questions. I cannot speak to Lewis’ perspective on most things, but I think I would disagree with most of them. I know my friend’s attempts at converting me to seeing things Lewis’ (his) way have simply hardened my aging heart.

    I am glad you liked the book. My friend would be happy that you read it. Be well.

  4. Jocelyn says:

    Could you also make “droll” a part of your everyday vocabulary?

    There is no better word to apply to the tone of a book to get me to read it.

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