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Surprised by joy: re-reading books

31 January 2017

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early LifeSurprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis

Reading a book a second time a long time after the first reading often means one sees it in a completely different way, and this one is no exception.

It is a spiritual autobiography, an account of how C.S. Lewis abandoned the Christian faith of his childhood, and returned to it in later life.

When I first read it, I had not read many of his books. I was still at school, and so it was the parts of the book where he was a schoolboy that stood out in my memory, comparing the schools he had attended with those I attended, and noting the similarities and differences. I thought then that Surprised by joy was by far the best of his books that I had read up to that point. I recall three that we had in the house, Mere Christianity, and one with a title like Broadcast talks, and one that I think was called Transposition and other addresses.

All these had been bought by my mother who was then returning to the Christian faith after having been agnostic for most of her adult life. And it was she who recommended that I read Surprised by joy. The things that struck me most about it were, as I have said, his schooldays, and the experience that he called joy, an intense longing for something indefinable, sparked off by something one had seen or read or imagined.

One of the things that struck me both times I read it was that Edwardian education took the classics much more seriously. As a schoolboy Lewis was familiar with Greek and Latin authors I had never heard of. Our education was shallow by comparison, but perhaps what it lacked in depth it gained in breadth. Lewis does not mention geography, physics or chemistry in his education, and mathematics seems to have been an afterthought.

One of the things that struck me on the second reading is that Lewis stressed his discovery that Joy came unbidden. It could not be organised or sought for its own sake. Towards the end of the book he talks about the difference between “enjoyment” and “contemplation”, between experiencing something and contemplating the experience. On my first reading that was probably way above my head, and I hardly recall it at all. On the second reading it made a lot of sense. But something of what Lewis said may have rubbed off on me the first time, as a few years later I discovered this existentially instead of just reading about it.

I was in my final year at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and had become involved in promoting student ecumenism. There was an ecumenical (or interdenominational, or non-denominational) student organisation, the Students Christian Association (SCA), which, though it had four sections, Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured, nevertheless brought Christian students of different denominations, traditiions and cultural backgrounds together. In 1964 the Afrikaans section, which was the most powerful and the most well-off financially, proposed that, in accordance with the then dominant policy of apartheid, the four sections become completely separate organisations. Those who disagreed with this idea began looking for ways of having a more inclusive student ecumenism, and one of the ways we tried to do this was to organise an ecumenical student camp for members of the four God clubs at the University of Natal.

The God clubs were the SCA, which was largely evangelical Protestant, the Anglican Society, the Methodist Club and the Catholic Society.

The camp was held at Lexden, a camping ground on the other side of town from the university. There were speakers from each of the traditions, and the SCA speaker brought a bright and bouncy organising type slomng with him, who immediately tried to take over and said, “Let’s sing ‘Joy, wonderful joy’. That should get things started.” I think most of those presenrt were embarrased at this attempt to impose the SCA Evangelical tradition of singing bouncy choruses with little theological content, but apart from that the theological content of this one annoyed most of the others.

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart.

We objected that this put the cart before the horse, means before ends. Joy was a by-product of knowing Jesus, not the main motivation. We tried to articulate our objection, and eventually said that the chorus promoted spiritual masturbation.

And on re-reading Surprised by joy I discovered that Lewis had already articulared this, in very similar terms — he said that the moment he sought joy as an experience, with value in itself, he lost it. It was the longing for something else that was the occasion for joy.

About ten years after the camp at Lexden the charismatic renewal movement was sweeping through South African churches, and many people found that it helped to make God real to them for the first time in their lives. It was not just an intellectual faith, but an existential faith. But the charismatic renewal movement gradually dissipated, sank into the ground, and almost disappeared. And this was largely from s similar cause — people began seeking spiritual experiences, which were sometimes experiences of joy, as ends in themselves, rather than as by-products of knowing God.

Was awareness of this something I had discoverered for myself, or was it a seed planted by C.S. Lewis in his book, which had suddenly germinated when the conditions were right?

Another idea that struck me on the second reading, but not on the first, was that of chronological snobbery.

It came up in an online discussion a few days before I reread the book.

Someone described a certain Anglican bishop as a “celebrity heretic”, and, in my usual pedantic fashion, I noted that description was not apt because the bishop in question had not been tried for heresy by his own denomination. The person who had started the discussion then said:

‘Trials for “heresy” are a bet dated, don’t you think?’

That strikes me as a supremely illogical argument, and is what I call “chronological chauvinism”, and Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. As Lewis put it:

‘Why — damn it — it’s medieval,’ I exclaimed, for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.

and he goes on to say,

Barfield… destroyed for ever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery’, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

I must have read this the first time I read the book, but am not aware of having read it then, and can’t remember having encountered any instance of chronological snobbery before reading it. But I have encountered several instances since then, and have similar objections to those expressed by Lewis. People claim to be amazed that anyone can do or believe such and such a thing “in 2017”, as though there were some peculiar and almost magical quality of 2017 that makes the thing incredible.

Was this logical fallacy my own discovery, or was it a seed planted by reading Lewis that was waiting for the right conditions to germinate?

Sometimes reading a book again after a long interval can make the book seem trite and almost boring. Such was my experience with Brave new world. Reading it at the age of 17, I thought it profound and illuminating. Rereading it at the age of 67, it seemed a bit trite. Is that in itself a form of chronological snobbery? Or is it just that science ficrtion has its strongest appeal among teenagers, or “young adults” as they call them in the book trade, and is less attractive to old adults?

But rereading Surprised by joy was very different. I had read more of Lewis’s other works, especially his fiction, and had much greater experience of the things he wrote about.

At the age of 18 I went to university and studied English literature. In some ways it was far too young. I’d like to have done it again at the age of 68, when I’d had more experience of life. But on the other hand, perhaps it was reading those books when I was too young to appreciate them that helped me to interpret life as I lived it later, as seems to have been the case with Surprised by joy.

View all my reviews

One Comment leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    1 February 2017 10:47 am

    spiritual masturbation? You’ve sparked a profound crisis 🙂

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