Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

Surprised by “Surprised by Oxford”! Forgive me, but like a reluctant maiden, I was not easily captured. It took me a full 60 pages to fully engage with the author and to fall in love with her story. But fall, I did. Sometimes even the most enduring romances get off to a rocky start. In this memoir of spiritual and romantic awakening by Carolyn Weber, we are guided through the privileged halls of Oxford University, and ushered into the inner life of a young person who is in the process of becoming.

She is…
…becoming a woman, arriving in London with a suitcase of shoes, an engagement ring and high hopes.
…becoming a teacher, a female doctoral candidate at a prestigious institution with rigorous intellectual demands.
…becoming a believer—to her own surprise. She is a wide-eyed romantic who takes a clear-eyed objective look at the Christian gospel.
Each of these “becomings” is challenged by her unique past which she shares with endearing transparency while avoiding the dangerous drop into self-indulgent disclosure. Ultimately, it is she who is captured, by the Lover of Souls.

Along the way we meet her favorite—and some less—professors, her family and friends, and an eclectic crew of classmates. It is equal parts narrative non-fiction, apologetics and Bible study. It is also something of a primer in classic literature, peppered heavily with allusions to writers of the Romantic era. The bibliography alone is a treat. And then there is the matter of Tall Dark Handsome. Though we follow the agonizing growth of a romance from the beginning, we don’t learn until the epilogue what—if anything—comes of it. We do however learn along with Weber and Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well.”

An academic specialist on romantic literature certainly contains elements of paradox. However, on topics in which the head and heart are often cast as opponents in a contest for preeminence, it is a joy to experience how Weber has weaved the two together like dancers performing an exquisite choreography of faith. Non-Christians will find here a running dialogue about the Christian faith between intellectually-honest people—some of faith, some not—about Christian faith. It happens in a context of inquiry against a backdrop of friendship and love. For Christians, Surprised by Oxford embodies this statement by Samuel Johnson: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” 1 This delightful memoir does both. I will read it again, recommend it to others and refer to it often. Check it out. 

1. Carolyn Weber, Surprised By Oxford (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 393.

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