Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Surprised by Oxford

Source: via Shelly on Pinterest

I finished Carolyn Weber’s book, Surprised by Oxford a few weeks ago, but I’ve put off writing a review of it. I don’t know why.

Busyness, I guess.

Or other posts that needed to be written. (Not really.)

Or laundry. (Hardly. Just ask my family.)

No, if I’m completely honest, what has kept me from writing this review is intimidation—Carolyn Weber has a Ph.D. . . . from Oxford! How do I even begin to sum up the words of a woman like that?

And I also worry that if I finally write this review my experience with this book and that place will be over. I like to let books simmer in my head for a while after I read them. In fact, I never pick up another book in the same day that I finish one book--it just wouldn't seem right. So I guess the fact that I haven't picked up another book in the weeks since I finished this one (aside from all the papers I've been reading) says something. I didn't want my experience to end.

You see, Carolyn Weber took me back to a summer oh-so-long ago. Back to the summer I lived in Oxford, taking classes from great professors and enjoying my first real taste of freedom. Oxford changed me forever, to be sure.

But Oxford changed Carolyn Weber in even more dramatic ways than it did me.

Carolyn Weber went to Oxford pursuing her own dreams, her own passions, her own life, but she left Oxford a changed person who began to pursue the dreams and passions of Another, putting her own life aside for the sake of One greater. For it was at Oxford that God pursued Carolyn and showed her a grace and a life that she had never known nor expected.

Playing off the title of C.S. Lewis (Oxford’s own favorite son) 's famous book, Surprised by Joy, Weber’s Surprised by Oxford tells of her first year in that hallowed city when all was new (to her)—new school, new professors, new friends, new surroundings. She describes so beautifully the manicured lawns of different colleges, nights in hidden-away pubs with her friends discussing all things important, and events to which only the Oxford elite are privy.

She entered Oxford with one goal in mind: pursuing that Ph.D. in Literature. What she found in that first year, though, was that God had other plans, and the Ph.D. became secondary to pursuing Him.

Weber tells her story of growing up in many ways, but also growing into faith. She vividly recounts her struggles through most of that first year—her doubts, her questions, and her studies. Some of my favorite scenes in the book take place in Oxford pubs where Carolyn and her Christian friends hash out some of the most important aspects of faith (over pints of beer, no less!). These conversations are pivotal in Carolyn’s conversion because the people she met in Oxford appear to be real, vulnerable, and accepting of her doubts. It is because of these authentic Christians that Carolyn begins to change her view of Christianity.

Spoiler: she ends up marrying one of them!

This isn’t a happily-ever-after, Christian fluff kind of book, although I’m sure Carolyn Weber would tell you the outcome certainly is happy. She writes with a sincerity of thought and purpose. She is unafraid to tackle the toughest question that any atheist could throw at a Christian, because she was that doubter. This is a thinking person’s book. It’s a book for Christians who have friends who ask those “big” questions. It’s a book for doubters of Christianity. It’s a book for those who just enjoy a great theological debate.

Even after her conversion, Carolyn (or Caro, as her friends call her) continues the questions. I loved this scene at the end of the book:

“Surrounded now in birdsong, I considered how God laid His truth bare when I could do just battle, turning my deepest hurt—the fact that I would have traded every accomplishment for a close relationship with my father—into, miraculously, somehow even deeper healing. I thought about telling Dorian this, but I didn’t. There was no need.
            After a while, Doran spoke. ‘As I’ve discovered, Caro, if you look back on your life, you’ll see His hand in it, and over you. You’ll begin to see with new eyes all the times that were subtle as well as flagrant opportunities to know Him.’
            ‘True, and yet why did I not come to know Him until this year?’ I asked.
            ‘Only God knows.’ Dorian chuckled. ‘But maybe that’s not the question. Maybe the real question at stake is, why did He keep trying?’”

Why does He keep trying? Grace.

And Grace is what is written into every page of this book.

This is a delicious memoir. Get it. Read it. Share it with someone who doubts.

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson Publishers sent me a copy of this book in exchange for my review. The opinions are entirely my own.



  1. GRACE! It's so much more than we think. Don't you think?

    Sounds like I need to read this one!

  2. I've been wanting to read this and now I know I definitely must. It's moving higher up on the To Read list.

  3. Oh good, Richella and Leigh. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. You know, Shelly, Christy only lives 20 minutes from Oxford. . .

    The books sounds greast.


  5. Thanks for the good review. I look forward to reading the book!!!

  6. I have liked every book you've recommended so now this one is added to my list. I love the grand adventure found in books. Travel in my head. : )