Book Review: Surprised by Laughter

One cannot read too many books about C. S. Lewis.  Even if you do not particularly enjoy reading Lewis, reading about him can only do you good.

Thomas Nelson book publishers recently sent me a copy of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall for review.  I was not required or expected to give a positive review.  Now, Surprised by Laughter is not a new book.  It was published in 1996, but never received the publicity it deserved, and many a hardback copy moldered in Mardel bargain bins.  So I am delighted that Tommy Nelson has released this new trade paperback edition, which is both more attractive and more economic than the old hardcover.

As I have argued before, there are really three C. S. Lewises to read: first and foremost is C. S. Lewis the academic, a historian of the English language, a scholar and philologist.  In this area he stands among giants and his words carry authority.  Second is C. S. Lewis the apologist, a fascinated layman of the Church of England, trying his best as a reluctant spokesman for Christianity to translate the historic faith into commonsense terms for the everyday person.  Third is C. S. Lewis the fiction writer, a composer of poems and stories.

There is overlap in these fields, of course, but what really binds  them all together is C. S. Lewis’s constant, sometimes shocking use of humor.

Terry Lindvall rites what he calls an encyclopedia of Lewis’s use of humor, and in some ways that is what we have.  Nearly 500 pages analyzing the broad patterns of Lewis’s use of humor, the writers (particularly Chesterton) who influenced him, the techniques he employed, the deeper meaning behind injecting humor into a serious work.  But the total is much better than the sum of its parts, and what we are left with is not a simply encyclopedia, but a dynamic argument for joy, rather than despair, as the bedrock of our lives.  Just as Augustine argued that good is “ontologically prior” to sin, Lindvall demonstrates through Lewis’s catalog that laughter is more basic to our lives than weeping.

As such, this book is deep.  Far deeper and more serious than most of the pop Christianity you find within the walls of Christian bookstores.  For all these reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Any Christian reader ought to have a space for this on the bookshelf, alongside Louis Markos’s Lewis Agonistes and C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert.  (You’ll notice these three volumes conveniently focus on each of the three Lewises.)

What do you think?  Have you read Surprised by Laughter?  Have you noticed the strain of humor (joy, wit, frivolity) that run through Lewis’s work?  What is your impression of its place in Christian thinking?

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One response to “Book Review: Surprised by Laughter

  1. I began this book recently. I almost quit after the first chapter, which read very much to me like a dissertation. I’m so glad I stuck with it, as I’m enjoying it more and more with each chapter. Your point about joy winning out over despair does come through strongly in the book. Excellent review!

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