Have you ever heard of C. S. Lewis? Surely you have. His children book series The Chronicles of Narnia is a big hit worldwide. The book series, as you may have realized, is a sort of Christian allegorical work as Lewis himself was a Christian. Yet, do you know that Lewis had been an atheist for about a third of his life? Lewis described perfectly his period of searching for identity – and God – in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.
Probably you would say to yourself, “I am not Christian. Why do I want to read a Christian autobiography?” Well, I am trying to review this book not in a Christian way, but in a general way of the acknowledgement of God. It is crucial to learn from other’s lives; how they overcame similar problems we are dealing with as we seek for our identity. It is also important to learn that belief in something that is more powerful than us is important in our lives, and the cause is simply because we have Joy in our heart.
The book opened with Lewis revealing about his first years; his Irish family, his imaginative world called Boxen created with his brother Warren and his mother’s death when he was 10. During these days, he accidentally discovered “Joy”. He described Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”. In other words, it is the intense longing for something so good and so high up it could not be explained with words.
Throughout the next pages, he described his education through tutors and private schools, his struggles in dealing with others (like his relationship with Warren and neighbor Arthur), his happy and painful moments, his ideologies and beliefs, etc. However, his main focus was still Joy as he strived to feel it again and again.
This search for Joy – or rather something that can fulfill it – led him to atheism, occult and mythology. He eventually became an atheist himself. His reason was a quote from Lucretius,
“Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.”
When he embraced atheism, the Joy that drove him to the atheism was forgotten. However, as he grew to be an adult, his atheism was clearly hypocritical as he continually pursued for Joy unconsciously.
These atheism ideologies that Lewis defended and believed tremendously gradually crumbled to pieces in constant arguments with Owen Barfield, J. R. R. Tolkien, (the author of Lord of the Rings), Hugo Dyson and other Christian colleagues in Oxford. Lewis then began to experience what he called “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet” through these arguments and other spiritual experiences.
Lewis’s faith in atheism trembled gradually until one point, when his arguments about atheism were all rebutted and he began to believe in God, Lewis discovered the true nature of Joy and converted to theism. He described it as the following, “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Not so long after this conversion, during a trip to Whipsnade zoo with his brother Warren followed with a long talk with Tolkien and Dyson, he believed in Christianity and concluded that Joy “was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer”.
You may find this synopsis I gave was weird and strange. Well, this is how a human’s life is. Lewis experienced his own struggles in dealing with Joy and finding God. He has dealt with lust, pride and pretty much every problem most of us are dealing with. I myself found that similarity with Lewis as I too was once a theist and have experienced Joy before.
In my opinion, Joy is a sort of mixture of lust, greed and gluttony. This Joy leads human to search for something that can fulfill this longing. It could be lust, pride, games, occultism, mythologies, fiction, or anything worldly and physically obtainable. However, they are all temporary and vain. Lewis has proven that Joy is a kind of distraction to conceal the true thing that can complete the need: a deity in our lives in whom we believe and put our faith in. He described its value only to be “a pointer to something other and outer”, which is God.
That’s why Lewis depicted life as a journey through the woods to find the road to God and walk on it. Joy is only a series of signposts every few miles to show us that there is God beyond the Joy itself; it reminds us of God. It is important to see the signposts to make sure we are walking in the right way, even though we know it’s wrong and tempting.
But Lewis has proven we are able to overcome Joy as he finally turned to God in his life. This is what we ought to do; searching for the road and the goal so that we may not be deceived by the tempting signposts.
I was a bit disappointed that this kind of important message for the people (especially teenagers) was delivered in “very high” English style of writing. Surprised by Joy uses a lot of hard terms and is barely understandable to those who are not used to think about what they are reading, but the depth and the reality of Lewis’s own life complement this high English usage.
Overall, this book prompts us to reflect if we are setting our eyes on the true goal line to be what we ought to be or we are just merely staring at the signposts of the road, wondering if they can fulfill that longing within our heart of the true goal line.