Surprised by Oxford is a memoir of Carolyn Weber‘s (then Carolyn Drake) first year at Oxford. She arrives in the autumn and by spring has become a Christian. This is a story of how you might wish all evangelism went. She meets a stack of incredibly smart, thoughtful people who are humble, kind, articulate Christians. Her non-Christian friends by and large recognise that she’s on some sort of spiritual journey and are supportive of that. There are no crazies and no bigots to be seen on either side!
The book doesn’t end with Carolyn’s conversion but follows her early Christian life as well, including the ‘crash’ after the post-conversion high. Carolyn’s quest is to work out how to do Christianity in a way that isn’t divorced from the real world. It includes interesting discussions of how we experience God in the ordinary, including the pleasure of finding God in your academic discipline. There are many lighthearted and honest moments and I loved discovering the amazing and ancient world of Oxford with Carolyn. However, it is a book for the serious reader, recounting many philosophical and theological conversations about God in full.
Carolyn is a student of romantic literature which contains great fodder for reflection on the Creator and it’s partly as she tunes into this that she experiences a spiritual awakening. Each chapter begins with a quote, often from a romantic poet. Her English background is also evident in the beauty of her prose. I wonder whether I particularly enjoyed this book because of my undergrad in English literature.
The personal nature of the book means that many of the discussions speak to Carolyn’s issues and ought not to be read as a full Christian treatment. For example, Carolyn’s feminism is largely driven by a mistrust of men because of her own experiences, and she’s able to let go of it as she meets men who are respectful and caring, even enjoying their chivalry rather than being insulted by it. After she learns this, not much mention is made of feminism. Though there is plenty more to say from a Christian perspective, it isn’t necessary because it’s not pertinent to her own journey. I think there’s probably a similar thing going on in the discussions of science and Christianity.
I might recommend this book to an Aussie uni student who was exploring the Christian faith and I would definitely recommend it to one who was a new Christian or struggling with assurance. I identified with many of her fears and insecurities and found many of the encouragements given to her warmed my heart as well. I was also challenged by the grace of the Christians she met at Oxford and want to be more like them!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.