Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir
SURPRISED BY OXFORD. What a great title for a conversion memoir, especially for Christian readers already interested in the academic world of C. S. Lewis, who taught at Oxford and wrote a parallel volume titled SURPRISED BY JOY.
The book’s prologue is masterful. The first line: “As an undergraduate in Canada, I knew of only one ‘evangelical,’ although I did not really understand this nomenclature at the time.” That person was a “quite elderly” poetry professor, “the perfect gentleman” who taught from notes “penciled out in longhand.” She describes his verbal critique of her feminist-rant critique of a John Donne sonnet: “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” His blunt assessment startled her. “I had no idea what he had been talking about, or that he could even talk like that” --- very ungentlemanly though respectfully.
What startled her more was his unexpected death at the end of the semester, right before she intended to talk with him about the existential questions he’d planted in her mind. God seems to have used this eccentric professor as the prologue for Carolyn Weber’s spiritual awakening, a year or two later, while a graduate student at Oxford.
So the book’s prologue draws the reader in, and then Weber weaves a story that continues for one academic year, during which she shifts from spiritual ambivalence to reluctance to a conscious conversion --- saying yes to Jesus as Savior and Lord. It’s also a journey from angry feminism to a mellowed appreciation of gender roles. It draws in her Canadian family, her Canadian fiancé, and a wide group of Oxford colleagues, fellow students and professors.
Early in the autumn, she meets an ardently Christian though not exactly stuffy American student who, though never named, becomes a central figure of the story. He’s tagged simply as TDH, referring to physical characteristics --- tall, dark, handsome. She sometimes thinks he’s creepy; sometimes too good to be true; sometimes jealous of his attentions toward a beauty queen visiting from Georgia. Let’s just say the spiritual journey is overlaid with romantic tension --- and it’s not primarily concerning the Canadian fiancé.
The book is much too long, as if Weber feels she need to address every new theological insight --- and as if they would all be interesting or insightful to her reader. Will skeptics stay with her? Is she trying too hard to write a Christian apologetic? I got bogged down in the rumination. And yet I kept reading, all the way to the end. Was the lure the tease of romance? The question hung out there unanswered until the final pages: Will she or will she not land in the arms of the tall, dark and handsome American man?
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on August 9, 2011