When Carolyn Weber arrived at Oxford for her graduate studies in Romantic literature, she felt no need for God. Her childhood in a broken but loving family taught her to rely on reason and intellect—not faith—for survival. What she didn’t know was that she was about to embark on a love story of her own—one much deeper, more colorful, and more surprisingly God-shaped than any she’d read before.
Make no bones about it; I adore the history of my home country. Oxford and its university are steeped in it. The town was founded in the 8th century and there is evidence of teaching there from the 11th century. Sadly, in 22 years of living in the United Kingdom, I never had the opportunity to visit. Carolyn Weber, on the other hand, got to spend a year there. Her university home was Oriel College, established in 1324.
I thought I’d get a travelogue, mixed with some poetry I didn’t understand (English literature never having been my forte), and a monologue of Biblical philosophy versus humanism. (For the record, I didn’t do too well in my Philosophy of Religion class at high school either.) Was this going to be above my head, a tediousness of page turning?
Carolyn Weber is an engaging writer who doesn’t write in a style only fellow academics can understand. Her adventure in Oxford began with her having to drag a suitcase full of shoes across town because she missed her bus stop. “Fashion comes with pain,” she told herself. (So normal, so not snotty academic!) On the third day, she met the man she refers to throughout as TDH (“Tall, dark and handsome”) and it is the conversations with him that eventually changes her life.
The majority of Surprised By Oxford is comprised of discussions with Christians and non-Christians as she wrestled with the decision of whether or not to put her trust in God. Since she didn’t have a Christian background, friends and family were more than a little concerned. At one point, her brother joked that the family needs to, “make sure you’re not bald and barefoot, handing out flowers at the airport,” as though she was considering joining a cult. Many of the academics she met were scathing of Christianity. Along her journey, however, Carolyn also met people who answered her philosophical questions even when they admitted they didn’t have all the answers. One of her new found acquaintances was an Irish priest who spent time hanging out with Carolyn and her friends in a local pub. Eventually, Carolyn made her decision.
Early on, Carolyn writes of the moment she understands an internal eternal paradox: nothing matters and everything does. That phrase jumped out at me so hard that I wrote about it in my own journal. If you remember the old chestnut about how you can’t take it with you when you die, you’ll understand how nothing material in this world matters. In sharp contrast, what we do and who we are can make a HUGE difference in eternity. Which means that everything does matter. Carolyn’s decision will decide how she spends her eternity. Every one of our actions will be examined by the highest judge of all.
While I’m still not totally clued in to the romance poets, or the philosophy of Christianity, reading this book was not the endeavor I feared. Towards the end I dreaded having to put it down; my main regret was that I hadn’t been able to start it earlier. Carolyn Weber at Oxford is every student who has ever wrestled with how Christianity fits in with academia and the world in general. She is you, she is me. She is one of us and her book makes for brilliantly insightful reading.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Page Count: 480
Release Date: 09 August 2011
I received my free copy of Surprised By Oxford from Thomas Nelson in exchange for an honest review.