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Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy, by C. S. Lewis

This book chronicles Lewis’s early childhood up to his conversion to Christianity. Most of the book focuses on Lewis’s childhood. He talks about his encounters with bullies, experiences with sports, family, and his literary interests. It was different from all his other books, but it still embraced his unique style of writing – intellectual, verbose, exploratory, psychological. Primarily, the books covers Lewis’s intellectual journey from atheism, to theism, to Christianity. It’s considered an autobiography, but it’s not a conventional autobiography. Lewis’s stories relate specifically to his pursuit of joy, and the psychological discoveries along the way, that eventually led to his Christian-based conclusion. There were some interesting parts, but for the most part, not terribly enjoyable. Too many references to authors that I’m not familiar with, and too many Latin phrases that I did not understand. This made it difficult to read. And, I’m not willing to re-read it and seek to understand all of his references.


The big theme of this book is Lewis’s transformation from pursuing joy to pursuing Christ. Lewis spends most of his early years seeking joy, but eventually learns, through intellectual probing and psychological inquiry, that the greater pursuit in life is worshipping the Christian God. Joy does not fulfill. God fulfills. From the books of his childhood, Lewis discovers joy in the mental escape offered by a well-written text. He praises authors such as John Milton, Willian Morris, and Homer. Lewis also finds joy in the fantasy worlds that he crafts inside his mind. For example, he created an imaginary world called “Animal-Land” with its own aristocracy and landscapes and beasts. In “Animal-Land,” Lewis found joy. In many of the great literary creations, Lewis found joy. Throughout his maturation into adulthood, Lewis sought joy in other places. But ultimately, his pursuit of joy led him to wholly embrace Christianity. Joy was simply a signpost along the path to his final destination, belief in God. It is not until the last few paragraphs that Lewis reveals this revelation. It was a great way to wrap up the story.


What stood out to me? Lewis talked a lot about his father. His dad was an eloquent speaker and would punish his sons with verbal assaults. Lewis had an older brother. Lewis’s mom died when he was a child. Under his father’s wishes, Lewis was baptized. At the time, Lewis only agreed to be baptized, because it was what his father wanted. Lewis did not believe in God, but he knew that holding a debate with his dad would be fruitless. Dancing and sports – Lewis hated these activities. He resented dances. He thought that, “Even adults would not find an evening party very endurable without the attraction of sex and the attraction of alcohol.” What a great quote! I disagree with Lewis, because I think that dancing is thoroughly enjoyable, even without the prospects of sex and alcohol. Similar are my thoughts about sports – sports are an enjoyable activity. I think they are great fun! Although Lewis abhorred dancing and sports, his commentary on these topics was quite humorous. There were several points in the book that made me literally laugh out loud, and drew strange looks from my roommates.


In chapter IX, we are introduced to “The Great Knock,” who was one of Lewis’s most influential teachers. “The Great Knock” was also called “Old Knock,” Mr. Kirkpatrick, or Kirk. He was a tall, lean, and muscular man. In addition to his attractive appearance, he had a unique intellectual persuasion. I want to talk about his propensity towards valuable and logical conversations, because Lewis’s discussion on this topic stood out to me. Mr. Kirkpatrick engaged in meaningful conversations. Not the banal topics of politics, money, death, and digestion, which Lewis admittedly had zero taste for. As a child, Lewis assumed that these discussion topics were for adults only, and that he would learn to appreciate them as an adult. However, this was not true. For Lewis, these trite topics never prompted interest. Even as an adult. I can relate to this! I remember sitting at the child’s table in my grandmas’ house while all of the adults discussed news, politics, money, and food. I had no interest in these conversations, and at the time, I considered these topics reserved for the adult mind. I was just a child, and what did I know. Now, as an adult (actually just a 26 year-old kid), I still have no taste for the typical topics of adult conversation. Discourses about politics, movies, current events, and food are simply not engaging to me. This has not changed since my childhood. From the conversations at the lunch table in middle school, to the conversations at the dinner table in grandma’s house, to the conversations during office game nights, none of them are interesting. And it seems reasonable to expect that in the future, my taste for conversation will not change. Like Lewis, I prefer talk “that is really about something.” I appreciate that Lewis is able to articulate this point that I can so strongly relate to. What is the type of conversation that I enjoy? That’s a tough question to answer. I think it is the type of conversation that can be described as an intellectual sparring match. The type of talk that questions, that seeks to understand. Maybe this implies the presence of verbal blows or probing questions. It is the type of conversation that is devoid of, or seeks to break down, vague and meaningless statements. The Old Knock was a master at this type of discourse. And Lewis was his pupil. Lewis held much respect for Kirk, but explained that the master had one grave fault. With books, Kirk would grab the pages with his filthy gardener hands, thus leaving the pages of the once-beautiful book, stained with dirt and filth.


On the act of reading, just like with conversations, Lewis was against the popular methods. During the war, students were encouraged to read the newspapers and stay current with the events and propaganda. Lewis says that this type of media is “false emphasis and interpretation.” It establishes “an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.” What a great quote! The information offered by news outlets does nothing to advance our intellect. I think this quote accurately sums up the problem of news media.


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