Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Review (#27 of 2014) Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is an autobiography of C.S. Lewis' childhood to sometime in university.

The first several chapters of his schoolboy days are quite boring. It's almost as though he feels compelled to record the story for posterity but does not do so with much passion-- I don't think he looks back on his childhood with much enjoyment. His mother dies of cancer when he is young, and his father never fully recovers. His best friend was his slightly older brother. You don't get much of a sense of whether Lewis was affable or awkward; it appears he loved little more than reading.

Lewis was Irish and he and his brother initially attended a boarding school in England. I have never read any positive accounts of English schools, and this is no exception. All it seems to do is alienate kids from their families, who they see infrequently. The headmaster was likely insane. Later, Lewis attends a public high school and hates it and recounts the social drama. He criticizes current members of Parliament for insisting the English educational tradition continue. Lewis contends all it does is make people "priggish"-- snobbish and bitter. He is thankful that he didn't become as snobbish as others from the experiences.

Lewis learned Latin at an early age and began reading the classics. He also has an affinity for fantasy type books and enjoys mythology--something he has mixed feelings about. In his adolescence he makes friends with a neighbor boy who shares Lewis love for Norse mythology and other fiction--his first real friendship. Lewis eventually convinces his father to send him to live with a tutor to prepare reading for university exams. He later learns Greek and enjoys reading things like Herodotus' Histories in the original. He learns French and Italian to read classics in those languages, and enough German to get by (I'm rather envious at this point). England enters WWI, and Lewis' brother enters the service while Lewis prepares for university; he later decides to enlist and enter university afterwards. After a relatively mild Army service, Lewis is accepted to Oxford. He recounts his closest friendships, including with J.R. Tolkein, and his first real encounters with English literature, learning to appreciate Bronte and others.

From an early age, Lewis had decided on atheism. He almost feels guilty with his affinity for books involving mythology, pantheism, and the occult. He develops the typical intellectual elitism of university atheists, wondering how anyone could believe otherwise. But he's troubled by reading other intellectuals who don't hold to atheism, including French philosophers who espouse pantheism. Aren't these all unsatisfying? During his university days he reads G.K. Chesterton and enjoys him, despite his Christianity. Real blows to Lewis steadfast atheism occur when his closest friends become interested in Christianity and begin reading the Bible. He begins to appreciate the consistency of other Christians he meet who actually live out what they believe. He says one of the biggest blows came when an adamant atheist he knew commented on the evidence for historical veracity of the Gospels-- "one can almost believe those things happened." The man never became a Christian, but just the fact that the evidences of real events being behind the writings of Scripture being stronger than other classics that Lewis had read made a real impact. Lewis' lifetime of reading Latin and Greek mythology allowed him to see that the Gospels were not written as myths-- they did not have the same qualities. Lewis contends that the only two valid worldviews could be Christianity or Hinduism, but notes that Hindu mythology lack the historical evidences and basis that Christianity has; hence, he rejects Hinduism. Lewis also had a nagging sense of lack of joy-- something he was unsure whether he wanted. But it seemed Christianity would be the solution-- it would give him a worldview with a finality of how it all comes together. It would free him to love.

So, on the final pages Lewis decides to become a Christian. No Emmaeus road experiences, just a decision to become a Christian while going to the zoo. Thus the book concludes abruptly.

I give it 2.5 stars out of 5. If you're a huge C.S. Lewis fan, then you can read this book to understand the man better. If you're just interested in the final events leading Lewis from atheism to Christianity, as many were at the time of his writing, then read the last few chapters.

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