Somehow I often end up running behind with books that are making the rounds all over the Internet. Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber was one such book: I saw many reviews of it a few years ago, was intrigued by the title hearkening to C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, but just never got to it until I saw it on a Kindle sale this year.
Carolyn Drake graduated from college in Ontario and traveled to Oxford for graduate studies in Literature with a full scholarship. She brought with her baggage from a broken home, distrust of men, feminist leanings, self-sufficiency, and agnosticism.
I reasoned that God most likely did not exist because we could not see Him, or if He did exist, He did not interact with us in any tangible way. I had dabbled in the Bible for various course requirements, these forays mixed with a few hazy images from childhood. Reason, not faith, however, helped me build the emotional boundaries I needed to survive…
Magnificently self-sufficient, like William Wordsworth on his deathbed, I would have said I had no need of a redeemer. Unlike Jane Austen, I did not believe the only power afforded women was that of refusal. I had no real need of believing in men, God incarnate or otherwise.
And yet I also knew that from the very first of firsts I felt a beam deep inside of me that was connected to and recognized a beautiful source, the utmost of all “reference” points, but that the world made it a dangerous place to open up this light, to shine it, to function from it. So I packed up that feeling like a cherished outfit that was now out of style (a robe, perhaps, of too many colors) and put it away.
She only knew one “evangelical” in Canada, but in Oxford, she seemed to come across Christians and Christian influence often, especially with “TDH” (tall, dark, and handsome), with whom she got off on quite the wrong foot at first.
She wasn’t looking for faith and argued against it, but she couldn’t deny the truths she confronted.
Most people who have never actually read the menu probably assume they can order à la carte at the Jesus table or customize their own recipe of faith. But you can’t say yes to the historical figure and a few parables but pass on miracles, the resurrection, and the Son-of-God thing. That is not the offering. Christ is a fixed meal. It is all or nothing with His claims. Everyone is invited, but only you can decide if you actually want to eat at His table. For those who do believe in Christ, it means getting real, being honest about your sin, and living your life as if you really mean it.
The morning after I heard the gospel, however, I woke up with what felt like a hangover. Little would I know it was of the spiritual kind that accompanies the inevitable dawn of realization that life is not, perhaps, what we previously thought it was. And we cannot go back to pretending. What a headache to be caught in that liminal space! Literally.
It was occurring to me that believing in the Bible was an all-or-nothing affair. Either you believe it is the revealed Word of God, or you don’t. It is like being a little bit pregnant. Impossible. Either you are in or you are out. Having eliminated lunatic, given the unavoidable seriousness warranted of my attention, was it now liar or Lord?
What would you like Him to say that He hasn’t said already?
How my friends who grew up in Christian homes took their gifts of faith from their parents for granted! How prayer came as second nature, an obvious problem-solver or comfort or alternative to panic, anxiety, and fear. They took for granted the powerful pause of grace before meals. How oblivious they could seem to the precious and effective armor they had been given: to have the gift of faith from your childhood, to lean into it and grow into it . . . to even have the luxury to rebel against it.
This book is the story of that first year in Oxford, Carolyn’s hard-fought journey to faith, and her wrestlings with the implications of it. Thankfully she also shares a bit of what has happened in her life since in the epilogue.
I’m always intrigued by someone coming to faith who didn’t grow up with it and wasn’t looking for it, an “outside looking in” view. Their stories reassure me that there is hope for some I love and pray for. And it’s so marvelous to see how God works to draw people to Himself.
Some readers would want to know there is a bit of crude language in one spot and a good bit of alcohol consumption. I would disagree with Carolyn on some secondary issues, but I ached and rejoiced along with her in her journey of faith.