I’m not sure I’ve ever read an autobiography before. I almost entitled this post “Surprised By An Autobiography,” but that’ve been a bit pretentious. There are a lot of “Surprised By…” books: C. S. Lewis was surprised by joy, N. T. Wright was surprised by hope, I’m sure there are others. And now I’m finding Carolyn Weber was Surprised by Oxford. To be honest, the only reason I read this book was because my in-laws loaned it to my wife last summer, and between having a baby and starting pharmacy school she had absolutely zero time to read. Eventually I felt bad it was still sitting in our living room, got a little curious, and finally took a look inside. Despite clocking in over 400 pages in length, I managed to read it within a couple weeks.
My hesitancy, I suppose, was founded on my general experience of popular Christian conversion testimonies: they tend to be rather cliche, almost predictable at times, appealing to a narrative that someone like me (who grew up with the faith and never left and returned) just can’t relate to. Thankfully, the author (Caro, as she lets us use her nickname throughout her story) is a very intelligent woman who knows good literature and writing, and avoids the overdone tropes. The general arc of her story is a familiar conversion narrative, but the insight she provides into her heart and mind throughout the process is very thorough and mature.
She starts out as a highly accomplished English/literature student from Canada who receives a full-ride scholarship to Oriel College at Oxford University. She had nominal exposure to Catholicism as a child, but no experience of “committed Christians” as she tends to call us. Not until she meets “TDH” – the Tall Dark Handsome American theology student – and he shows her what a gracious, patient, loving, intelligent, and serious Christian looks like. The circumstances of their meeting and the situation that basically forces him to admit (and subsequently explain) his faith in the Gospel are pretty funny, and Caro does not spare us any of the snark and suspicion with which she initially regarded him.
The book, with plentiful flashbacks along the way, walks us through her first year at Oxford starting with Michaelmas Term (late September through December), Christmas break at home, Hilary Term (January through March), Easter break staying in England, Eastertide Term (April to June), and the Trinitytide (summer) ending. I was struck by how quickly and thoroughly she was introduced to the Gospel in the academic year, and the impact it had on her for the following months before she fully accepted it as true.
During those months she reminded me of a couple friends I’ve known, who are not Christians but have a decent understanding of Church History and the basics of Christian teachings, and act as slightly-surprised apologists for us against the more ignorant Christian-bashers out there. If you’re going hate Christians and revile the Bible, at least know what they believe and understand what’s written therein, right?
In Caro’s case, she’s a formidably well-read woman who knows how to read critically and intelligently, so the Bible proves a captivating read for her as she pores through it over the course of the book. We don’t get a lot of insight into her thoughts on her early Bible-reading, which makes sense because it’s probably hard to untangle first impression memories with the insights of later re-reads. Instead we are treated to her mental and emotional struggles with the nature of God, the nature of truth, and the deeper significance and fulfillment of life and love. She’s specialized in the English romantic poets of the 19th century, so it makes sense that that’s the angle from which she primarily wrestled with Christianity. It both challenged and affirmed the way she looked at the world.
Negatives: her beautiful and frequent literary references will probably go over a lot of people’s heads. I’m not very well-read (despite the impression I often give), but I’ve at least heard of a lot of famous authors and writings, so I could kind of keep up with the ride, so to speak. But to appreciate her and her story more fully, it’d be helpful to have a stronger background in the literature in which she walked and lived. There were also a couple immature judgments on the importance of right doctrine in selecting a church to attend, and her comments on Baptism were painfully reductionistic, but those issues can be attributed in part to the fact that she was a brand-new Christian at that point, and that she seems to have been largely shaped by the “non-denominational” tradition which itself is highly reductionist in tone.
Positives: As the endorsements on the cover attest, Caro’s story is almost perfectly free of cliches. It’s an honest story, and interesting story, and (I dare to presume) worth sharing with friends who aren’t Christians. It won’t hit them over the head with Bible verses and theological propositions, nor will it bore them with predictable proof arguments for the existence of God.
As for myself, in reading this, I was reminded, both in heart and mind, of the reality of God’s love and grace. I even felt I shared in her sense of inadequacy compared to the several accounts of seemingly-perfect Christians around her – how could I ever measure up to the too-good-to-be-true pictures she painted of those first believers that showed her the beauty of Christianity? (And let it be noted that she didn’t delve into their flaws very much because she didn’t get to see those parts of their lives at the time; and the book was already going to be long enough!) I was reminded that I need to reground my spiritual life on thanks and praise; it is just and right so to do, after all.
And, to end on a lighter note, I spent seven weeks at Trinity College, Oxford, for a summer program back in 2007. It was nowhere near as intense or as involved as her graduate-level studies, of course, but it gave me a visual taste of what she she described throughout her book. So not only did I enjoy this book on a religious level, but also culturally and experiential it brought up some very good memories.