It all started back when I was teaching Contemporary Christian Writers and researching twentieth century writers who had something important to say and who said it well. The kind of writer whose words are still speaking today a hundred years later.
C. S. Lewis came to mind right away, and then the Inklings. C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien sat at the center of this group of writers meeting from early 1930 to the late 1940’s at a pub in Oxford called “Eagle and Child” or more popularly “Bird and Baby.” That started my love affair with Oxford. And then Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers, but that story calls for another time.
So when I saw a memoir titled Surprised by Oxford, I had to have it. (I had recently read Surprised by Joy, by C. S. Lewis) Its writer, Carolyn Weber had left her home in Canada, a scholarship student headed to Oxford University for her postgraduate education, secure in only a few things. Secure in a relationship with a handsome young man, secure in a world view with no place for God, and both secure and thankful for her full scholarship. This meant that for the first time in her life, she could read and study, her passion the Romantic Period writers, without fitting it in between up to three jobs at a time to pay for her education.
Surprised by Oxford documents her first year at Oxford, a journey that turned her security on end. Oh, and gave her a new foundation and definition for security. I’m no spring chicken, but I still love learning, and I soaked up every new morsel in this book. First it was written chronologically according to the academic and church calendar at Oxford. Read it and you’ll understand. Then she took me inside those ancient buildings to her wee rooms and the great halls and events and even balls. Though I had seen some of those places in 2015, (our fiftieth anniversary trip) it was with new appreciation seeing them through Weber’s eyes and understanding of them.
Each chapter begins with a quotation, most of them familiar from my own graduate studies. It was rather like beginning a chapter by reading an email from an old friend.
But, the most important part of the book is watching an unbeliever wrestle through her fears of peer pressure, her doubts and failure to understand how a good God could allow such sickness and evil as fills the world, and what a conversion to God might require of her. Perhaps her family, or friends, or education or future employment.
I have to tell you she did not even own a Bible and contemplated stealing one when she was challenged to read it. Instead she borrowed one from a nearby church, sneaking in every morning to read as much as she could in the few “stolen” moments.
You can stop reading here and just read the book, or if you are like some who read the end of the book first, just continue here.
Like her, it never occurred to me that there could be a community of believers among the brilliant faculty and student body of Oxford University. In general, we assume academia and higher learning excludes matters of faith. But like her, I am thankful that such a thing as believers among the learned community in public or private universities exists and that she came to faith in an atmosphere perfect for her own intellectual and spiritual development. Note,t his is something worth thinking about later too.
At the end of that year Weber received an appointment at the University, and she parted from the boyfriend back home. Her world view was tipped on its head, and she not only bought her own Bible but she found herself a believing member of the faith community at Oxford.
Once more I have been reminded that there is no one suit or experience or faith-practice that fits all, that God loves us enough to tailor a journey for each of us through His Son to Himself.
I loved this book, as it both reminded me of my own trek to faith and the pilgrimage since, sometimes up hills, sometimes across wide plateaus, a slide down into a valley more than once, but thankfully always ending up just a bit farther along in the right direction. Surprised by Oxford was nothing like I expected, but I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks. It is worth the read.