In Surprised by Oxford , Carolyn Weber shares her journey from agnosticism to Christianity. The story takes place over the course of a year and is set against the backdrop of time spent in graduate study at Oxford University in England, far from her home in Canada.
From the prologue, we learn that Carolyn had encountered one evangelical Christian professor during her undergraduate studies. She recounts a conversation she had with him after turning in a paper in which she completely missed the point of a poem by John Dunne, and this seems to be the beginning of her thoughts turning towards God:
The truth is in the paradox… 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. And we should, for we entertain it all the time at the pain and expense of not knowing the real one.
The book itself is laid out chronologically, with chapters for each of the terms of the Oxford school calendar. Throughout the course of the year, we are introduced to a wide variety of people – both professors and other students – ranging all the way from atheists to committed Christians.
As time progresses and Carolyn moves farther along her journey, we see her begin to examine everything that happens as a potential sign from God. She even talks about this in relation to actual road signs, after getting lost on a day trip to Stonehenge shortly after arriving at Oxford, and going around in circles trying to figure out what direction to go:
It is easy to coast and even easier to mock the signs, but reading them, really reading them, and then making the largest decision there is, the greatest decision to which all others defer and are tied back to—to know who we are, what we stand for, and for what we are responsible—to read the signs and then choose the right way… well, that’s hard.
There are so many fascinating and beautiful passages in this book, and I was entranced by her description of the moment when she crossed her last internal barrier and took the leap of faith:
It was then that I began to breathe more deeply.
To breathe Him in, and the breathe me out.
And then, I began, every so slowly, to transform.
I did not have to carry everything on my shoulders. I did not have to be everything to everyone. I did not have to know all the answers. Could it be that sometimes glorifying God involves negatives?
There were moments when I would have almost said this book is pretentious, except that the author is so earnest in her exploration of all aspects of faith and the impact it would have on her life. I think it’s more that it reflects the intensity of that time in your life when you are realizing how important the question of God’s existence really is and are grappling with who you will be when you grow up.
And I think we can all take note of the suggestion given to Carolyn by the widow of the undergraduate professor who had started her on the journey, in a letter written after Carolyn shared her new faith and asked for advice:
Oh yes, and have patience—with others, with God, and most importantly, with yourself. For it is by degrees that we truly learn that God is with us always.
Note: This is Book #109 of my 2011 Reads ( master list here ). I received a review copy for free from BookSneeze.com , and all opinions and comments are my own.