Books: Surprised by Oxford

I came across Carolyn Weber’s blog when I was Googling “Maundy Thursday” and “liturgy.” I didn’t find any ideas for a Communion liturgy, but I found deeply thoughtful posts. I was so captivated by both the content and style of Carolyn’s writing that I promptly subscribed to her email newsletter.

I also read about her book Surprised by Oxford, and used our interlibrary loan program to request a copy. It came in right before I left on my business trip to Philadelphia, so I had wonderful reading material to occupy the hours I spent on the plane, in the airport, and evenings alone in my hotel room.

The book chronicles her year at Oxford University, a year of intellectual, personal, and spiritual growth. Carolyn is an excellent writer, and the book is fun to read simply to see the varied circumstances in which she finds herself, and how she deals with them. But the spiritual questions she grapples with make it far more than just good reading.

Carolyn is a student (and today a teacher) of literature, and she weaves a number of quotations – sometimes entire poems – into the text. Some I was familiar with, others I was not, but I enjoyed most (not all, I have to admit) of them. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed studying literature as a college student, and regretting that I so rarely read it nowadays.

Having been converted from an agnostic background myself (though at a younger age, and having attended church regularly despite my lack of personal faith), I was particularly interested in the questions Carolyn asks about God and about faith.The Christians she talks to give her wise answers (I couldn’t help wondering how much those conversations benefited from the editing process, as she distilled various conversations into one that reflects the essence of her questions and their answers).

For a number of years I wished I had, as she did, asked those questions before professing faith in Christ. In the churches I attended as a young Christian, those were acceptable questions for an unbeliever to ask, but I got the impression that to ask them as a Christian was very problematic.

One line of hers that I particularly recognized as reflecting how I once thought is when she says: “The problem, for me … was that I did not ask God to die for me.” I found it very difficult to be expected to feel so grateful to Christ for dying for my sin. Intellectually I accepted the idea that I needed his sacrifice, but emotionally I struggled with it.

(Today I find it strange to think that I thought that way then. Now it is so obvious how helpless and needy I am, how his grace is a welcome gift rather than an imposed obligation I must work at being grateful for.)

Carolyn also has questions after her conversion, but they tend to be less about doubt vs faith and more about living the Christian life. She is dismayed at how difficult it is sometimes to have a godly response to problems, rather than with anger, envy, or self-pity. I can certainly identify with those reactions, and I wonder how an account of her spiritual journey since that year at Oxford would read.

I like the description one of her friends gives for how she chose the church she attends: “It’s because I found that the people here, for the most part, take the gospel seriously without taking themselves too seriously.” I’ve always tended to take things seriously, including myself. It helps me to be a part of a group of people who are good at having fun, because it doesn’t come easy to me.

I find myself wishing I knew Carolyn personally. There is so much I think I could learn from her. Perhaps as I visit her blog and interact with her and other readers through comments, I’ll have the chance to get to know her somewhat.

One Response to Books: Surprised by Oxford

  1. Karen O says:

    This book is the next one I’ll be reading. Lee ordered it from Amazon for me, & I’m hoping Chrissy will read it, too. (Please say a prayer that she will be open to it.)

    (Chrissy is sort of an Anglophile, & she does enjoy reading, so that’s why I’m hoping she’ll want to read it.)

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