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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprised by Jack, 10 Mar. 2012
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This review is from: Surprised by Joy (Paperback)
"Surprised by Joy" is one of C.S. Lewis' most well-known books. In it, he tells the story of his conversion to Christianity. I found the book both interesting, confusing and somewhat disturbing.

Lewis' mother died young, his father seems to have been quite insane, and his school years at "Wyvern" were marked by extreme pennalism. He describes both the hazing and the institutionalized pederasty with a remarkable restraint - something I frankly find somewhat objectionable.

Lewis' Christianity, despite his claims to strict orthodoxy, always had certain original features. One was the idea that paganism had foreshadowed Christianity, just as much as the Old Testament. Virgil, Plato and Aeschylus were a kind of "pagan Old Testament". It comes as no surprise to learn that Lewis was enamoured of both these and other pagan writings already before converting. Thus, he went through a Wagnerian-Norse period as a child and teenager. Despite his participation in World War I, Lewis comes across as very much an "ivory tower intellectual". Romantic longing, ancient and early modern poetry, classical music and philosophical speculation - these were his main preoccupations, rather than politics or science. (Lewis claim to have been interested in science, as well. If he did, it certainly doesn't show!) Lewis also reveals that he had periodically been interested in Theosophy and the occult. He was seriously shocked when two of his best friends, including Owen Barfield, became Anthroposophists. However, Lewis never broke with Barfield, and even included Charles Williams (a Christian "ex"-occultist) in his circle of friends. I wonder why? Did he nevertheless feel some kind of unwanted fascination with occult teachings? Barfield mentions that Lewis was unable to objectively discuss Anthroposophy, perhaps due to some kind of psychological conflict.

The point of "Surprised by Joy" is to explain why the author converted to Christianity. Ironically, I found those parts of the book somewhat confusing. Lewis talks much about a peculiar longing he calls Joy. At one point he realized that Joy must have an object. Thus, Joy points to God. The book's title makes Joy central. Yet, I also got the impression that his conversion to theism-in-general and later to Christianity wasn't connected to Joy, but rather to intellectual speculations. Lewis even writes that Joy became less important after his conversion. It's almost as if Christianity gave him an intellectual satisfaction so great, that he no longer needed the coveted feeling of Joy. This presumably rather essential turn of events emerges suddenly out of nowhere at the very end of the book, and Lewis never reflects on it at length.

Another interesting aspect is that Lewis was very introverted as a person, yet somehow wanted to become an extrovert. This may also have been connected to his conversion. Barfield once said that Lewis needed to believe in the existence of an objective outside world. Both occultism and Idealism presumably tended to feed Lewis' introverted tendencies. When he reluctantly recognized the existence of a living God "out there", he also became more extroverted. This intriguing psychological conflict makes the conversion more believable than the idea that he simply realized that Idealism is philosophically untenable, and the poetry of the metaphysical poets great. (I still wonder about his exact relationship to Joy, though.)

"Surprised by Joy" feels somewhat disjointed, but it's nevertheless an interesting (and surprising?) look into the mind of C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century.
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