Surprised by Oxford (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011) is Carolyn Weber’s memoir of her first year at Oxford University. It is the story of a young woman from Canada, who discovers Jesus Christ while experiencing the charm of studying in England at Oxford University.
Carolyn Weber was fortunate to be able to go to Oxford University on a scholarship. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been. I mean really, imagine being able to wander the hallowed halls of Oxford University and being able to visit the pubs and bookstores still haunted by the ghosts of such men and women as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, etc. I am red with envy.
Ms. Weber finds much more than she expected at Oxford. I am tempted to use the title of C. S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy (1956) to summarize Weber’s personal account of her journey from agnosticism to Christian faith. Coming from a dysfunctional home and a difficult relationship with her father, Weber had every reason to resist yielding to the Holy Spirit’s call on her life. Among those whom she met during her time at Oxford were Christians who testified to their own faith, not just verbally, but most importantly by their love and patience.
Ms. Weber’s descriptions of meeting and mingling with Oxford dons and other students hungry for all that Oxford has to offer were for me the best parts of the book. Her description of a tutorial with a Professor Nuttham reminds one of how far removed the real world of academia is from what passes for higher education at most American colleges and universities.
On the whole, I enjoyed reading the book, although it is a bit long. However, I do have one criticism. Too often the narrative reads like a Christian romance novel, the sort of pulp paperbacks that clutter the shelves of Christian bookstores. The target audience is clearly the Evangelical Christian woman who enjoys reading inspirational books.
I find it hard to imagine a real life character such as “TDH,” short for “Tall Dark and Handsome.” Do sophisticated Christian students really talk like he does in the book? Anyone who could speak of nothing else but his faith, and do so in such simplistic terms, would not be given a second hearing by an honest agnostic. I can easily imagine someone like Carolyn Weber laughing and walking away shaking her head.
Surprised by Oxford is just too sugary, too naive. For someone who was able to attend Oxford University, and in fact earn both MPhil and DPhil degrees, the struggle with the meaning of life and the truth of who Jesus Christ was and is, surely must have been more complex than presented here. Perhaps Carolyn Weber wanted to write a more realistic memoir of her journey to faith, something on the order of Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy (1977), but was constrained by editorial demands. I do not know.
I am afraid that Surprised by Oxford will be ignored by all but those addicted to inspirational books. We need more serious writing by Christian authors, books that appeal to thinking people, both Christian and non-Christian. I would like to read Carolyn Weber’s story written for a secular publisher, a serious memoir, one that tells “the rest of the story.”
Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.