There’s a joke I often see on social media that goes ‘an atheist, a vegan and a CrossFitter walk into a bar. I only know because they told everyone within two minutes’ and it always gives me a little chuckle.
This article is going to open by me proving it true.
No, I’m not a vegan (I have too much of a weakness for bacon sandwiches) and no I’m not a CrossFitter (see bacon sandwiches). What I am is an atheist and I have been for the majority of my adult life and I therefore approached Surprised by Agape by Justin Wiggins with a small amount of trepidation. I do not avoid books with religious themes, in fact I push myself to read a lot of books (both fact and fiction) that convey the themes and the stories that are pertinent to differing world religions in the very firm belief that knowledge and understanding is how we will all find a way of getting on better with each other on this planet of ours. I was however a little worried, as this was a memoir of the author’s personal journey to faith, that I would feel preached at, informed that the road the author was on was one I should follow too. I picked up the book though as I had seen the reviews from previous readers and there were certain parts that intrigued me.
(The rest of this article may contain spoilers -if there is such a thing in a non-fiction book- so just a warning for any readers going forward)
Justin begins the book with a very open and honest account of his struggles with mental health and the depression that nearly led to suicide. Luckily, Justin was pulled back from the brink of that tragic event but the road to recovery, as he documents, is not an easy one. I think anyone who has ever suffered with depression or suicidal thoughts will be able to appreciate the journey Justin has been on (and indeed is still on) and will know the value of finding something to focus on during that period. I myself have been there when the world felt as though it would be a better place without me in it and I too was lucky that a split second decision changed the outcome of the day. I found my focus in reestablishing my creativity and, just under a year later, the birth of my daughter. These are the things I look to whenever that voice comes to me again. For Justin, his focus and the aim of his recovery was the discovery and the growing certainty of his faith. Where this part of the book could have run the risk of becoming preachy it is instead presented with such heart and such a focus on his own self that it is instead inspiring. It is truly a joy to read that from such a bleak period of his life he was able to find a focus for his recovery. You read the passage and you cannot help but be grateful, whether a believer or not, that there was something there for him to hold onto.
For me, Justin’s way of presenting his faith in the Christian God is such a healthy one. He does not insist that all should follow, instead he uses the power of his faith to embrace all. Not only has it given him power to love his own life but to also seek out new experiences and friendships and to appreciate the world as a whole including the different ways people live in it.
The second part of the book was something I was not expecting. I knew that the book would focus on the author C.S.Lewis who, quite famously, returned to Christianity and weaved the mythology into his stories. I had imagined that Lewis would be used as a comparison to Justin’s journey, instead I was faced with a selection of detailed and insightful essays into Lewis himself, his life and his works. Whilst I have enjoyed the Narnia series, I have not read anything else by Lewis but, having read Justin’s book, I now have a lot more of his works on my to read list. The analysis of the retelling of the creation myth, Perelandra, was fantastically done and I will definitely be bumping the trilogy it features in to the top of my list.
I have certainly walked away from Justin’s book with a wealth of education on a writer I had known purely as ‘the one who wrote about Narnia’. I think for anyone with an interest in Lewis or the Inklings in general would do well to include this book in their studies as it is well researched with an strong bibliography of sources for further reading.
Again, as with Justin’s own story, Lewis’ struggles with faith and his ultimate reconnection with religion, are never presented with any condescension. Instead they allow you to better understand the man and the motivations behind his literary works.
I did not hesitate to give this book five stars when I formally reviewed it. It is heartwarming, insightful and full of such understanding that it would be well received in any circle. I certainly felt welcomed to the text as a reader with a different world view and at no point was left uncomfortable by the content. This, to me, is the mark of a truly accomplished writer when dealing with such a polarising subject as religion.
I certainly look forward to seeing more from Justin, non-fiction and fiction alike.
Check it out and see for yourself – Here