Friday, July 14, 2006

Mildly Roused by Joy

I love the writings of C.S. Lewis. I enjoy the way in which he can use fictional situations to illustrate moral and spiritual truths (as in The Great Divorce or The Screwtape Letters) and the way in which he can begin with an unassuming, simple premise and build his argument into something overpowering and majestic (as in Miracles or Mere Christianity).

Lewis rarely disappoints, which makes it all the more notable when he does. Ever since I read his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, I've felt that the ending was unsatisfying. The passage I mean, on the last page of the book, is this:
But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, since I became a Christian, the subject has nearly lost all interest for me. . . . I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, "Look!" The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful for the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. "We would be at Jerusalem."
Now, I understand what it is that Lewis is saying: Joy was a tool that God used to bring Lewis to Christ. The tool was not actually the important thing; what it accomplished, where it led Lewis, was the important thing. A vivid but sporadic sense of awe and wonder--without being related to anything specific--cannot possibly have the importance of a developed, concrete faith in Christ. You use a map to get to a destination; once you get there, you stop puzzling over the map and enjoy the place it led you to.

I guess my problem is that I came to the Lord as a young child. I don't have much of a "before" that I can clearly remember. And yet, Lewis's theme of Joy resonated strongly with me. There have been times when I have experienced that sense of awe and wonder, and a lot more times when I longed to experience it and didn't. I know that Joy is a signpost pointing to God; but is it only a signpost? To put it more bluntly, once we come to Christ, do we lose the transcendent experiences that brought us there? Is the experience of glory to be replaced by theology?

I reproduced the quote above the way I did because that's how I've always remembered it--not that I've remembered it word for word, but I specifically didn't recall the section represented by the ellipsis points. I now reproduce that section, because it does make a difference:
I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know . . . .
So Lewis wasn't saying that once he became a Christian he stopped experiencing Joy. He was merely saying that it no longer had the importance it once had for him. He recognizes it as not a goal, but as a signpost toward the real goal. But nonetheless, he did still experience it.

And yet . . . it just seems that once having told of his conversion, Lewis just cuts off the narrative as quickly as he can. What he says about Joy seems merely to be the tidying up of a loose end. One can't help getting the impression that his experience of Joy as an important thing has ended--and to experience Joy is to experience it as an important thing. It's hard to get past the phrase, "The subject has nearly lost all interest for me." I understand that he means the intellectual interest--the attempt to discover where it comes from and why and what it means. He has found the answer in Christ. (That, of course, leads to other questions, but these are not directly related to Joy.) But for someone who longs to feel more of the presence of God than a busy life often allows, it just seems to be a bit of a flat ending.


  1. I reread this post and recognized that I had left out a crucial phrase from the first Lewis quotation. (I had later referred to it, probably making the post unintelligible.) Anyway, if anyone saw it earlier and couldn't make sense of it, and has come back, it's fixed. It'll make more sense now.

  2. Hi Keith,

    I suppose I should actually read some of my Lewis books besides the Perelandra and Narnia stories.

    My own experience, having grown up in and around religion, but not coming to Christ until just short of my 18th birthday seems to reflect more of the section you quote from, although perhaps not in such an extreme manner.

    The casting about for true happiness that only finds ultimate fulfillment in the joy experienced at conversion is, I suspect, an experience common to many believers who came to the faith as adults, but it certainly seems to me God never intended that such joy would end at that point. Whilst on the road to Jerusalem, we can (and should?)marvel at the signposts along the way. Since my own conversion experience 22 (!) years ago, I've experienced pure joy on a great many occasions, and have reveled in it each and every time. At the conversion of a childhood friend, at your wedding, at my own wedding, and the births of my children, and every time that I see the light of discovery in my children's eyes, I experience a deep sense of awe, reverence, and love for my Savior Who has given me the experience.

    Like Nehemiah, who toiled against many obstacles while doing the work God set before him, I can say in trying times that the joy of the Lord is my strength.

    So maybe joy isn't just a signpost on the road to heaven, maybe it's a rest area.

    Grace and Peace, Dave Porter