It was a summer ago that I read Surprised by Oxford. I was working on a novel, an attempt to resurrect a story that lingered in the distant past. I needed something to inspire me, to move me forward, to push me out of the rut I was stuck in.
I can’t remember how I found the book. Not at a bookstore. Almost all of them had long since closed their doors. The days of browsing the shelves were over. Instead, I was tapping around on my iPad, not really knowing what I would find, when I stumbled upon it. I read a few of the reader comments, then noticed that I could download the prologue for free.
It was a stunner, grabbed my attention immediately. A young college student (the author-Carolyn Weber) is walking with her professor, pitching him her idea for a feminist interpretation of a John Donne sonnet about God. His reaction? Twofold. There is a short version, which I’ll not give away, and a long, which is this:
Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty and futility. This is the unholy trinity we humans fear most.
Her reaction? She’s blown away. Her brilliant analysis is so far off base she’s afraid she’s going to flunk the class.
So begins the memoir of an agnostic running the gauntlet of academia, one of the last places on earth you’d think you’d find God. But everywhere she turns, he’s there, surrounding her with his love, speaking to her through teachers, fellow students, books, paintings, etchings on paving stones, the Oxford crest (Dominus Illuminatio Mea-The Lord Is My Light), even a coffee mug.
This is an incredible story–required reading for anyone considering a life-major in agnosticism. Written in a snappy, self-effacing (though not always), off-the-cuff, sometimes irreverent style (did I just think of Joan Rivers?), you never know what or who’s lurking around the next bend.
Though the subject–the nature of God and our relationship to him–is huge, Caro (the author’s nickname) tackles it head on, showering us along the way with her delightful humor, wit, and wisdom. One minute she’s talking about the pervasiveness of sin, the next minute a Buck’s Fizz is going up her nose. One day she’s enthralled by a painting of Christ, another day she’s lost on the streets of London, dragging a suitcase full of shoes behind her. She’s not intimidated by an eminent Oxford professor who puts her on the spot about the existence of absolute truth, yet she’s thrown into a tizzy by a gorgeous rival in stiletto heels (whom she calls Miss Georgia).
In spite of her agnosticism, Caro falls for a Christian, a handsome American she (a Canadian) names TDH (why do I keep thinking of him as Hugh Grant–he’s British), who bears a striking resemblance to the original James Bond. One stormy night he presents the gospel to her, plain and clear, patiently answering each of her questions.
“So what is faith?” she asks, not sure if she wants to know the answer. TDH replies:
Faith is simply belief in the gift of eternal life, made possible by Christ’s resurrection. This gift of grace is yours for the taking. We just have to accept it.
Wherever Caro goes, God is always there, answering her questions, spoken and unspoken. At a dinner she overhears a fascinating conversation between a waiter and a brilliant scientist.
I wondered if you could tell me what you consider to be the strongest force in the universe.
Love . . . Life without faith is death. For life, as it was intended to be, is love. Start loving and you’ll really start living. There is no other force comparable to that.
Which leads us to the heart of the memoir, one of light and of love. For above all this story is about Christ’s love for us, told from the heart of a wounded soul who discovers (with great surprise) Christ’s deep and and tender love for her.
Behold! My servant whom I uphold,
My Elect one in whom my soul delights!
I have put my spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.
He will not cry out, nor raise His voice,
Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.
A bruised reed He will not break,
And a smoking flax He will not quench.
Isaiah 42: 1-3
Toward the end of her story Caro puts several questions to a fellow Oxford student, hoping that he’ll follow her down the new path she has taken with Christ:
Don’t you ever wonder what it’s all for? Don’t you think you’ll get to the end of your life, look back on it, and regardless of what you’ve built for yourself–if you’re lucky enough to have even achieved that–it won’t seem quite enough? Haven’t you ever had a strange, ‘What is it all for?’ feeling as you flip through an obituary? What about when it’s yours?
She is, of course, asking us the same questions, hoping that we will look with her beyond the stark, material world into the eternal heart of God.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough (as I’ve said, I’ve read it twice). It’s not just a memoir, it’s a guide for living, overflowing with wonderful, wisdom-filled advice. Whether you’re a college student, a college-bound senior, or anyone else who who wants to be able to judge wisely between the truths and the lies you’ll be presented with in life, you’ve got to read Surprised By Oxford.