I started reading Surprised by Oxford, and I couldn’t put it down.
Surprised by Oxford is the story of Carolyn Weber. At the beginning of the book, Weber is an undergraduate student in Canada who knows only one evangelical, a professor who “would have annoyed me, except for the fact that I respected him so much.” Shortly before this professor dies, Weber has a conversation with him that unsettles her and gets her thinking.
Weber is granted a Commonwealth Scholarship and begins her studies at Oriel College in Oxford, a school that was established in 1324. She arrives in Oxford, laden with heavy suitcases full of shoes, a little lost, far from her college sweetheart and family, and unprepared for the new way of life she was about to discover.
Weber’s memoir makes me ache for the beauty of Britain, a land “full of magic; of fairies and elves; of Midsummer dreams; of witches’ moons, enchanted wardrobes, and nursery rhymes—all the things North Americans supposedly do not have. Or perhaps we do have them, but we are not aware of them.” My father lived in England until he died in 2007, and I used to visit him regularly. I haven’t been back, apart from an airport layover, since he died, and Surprised by Oxford made me desperate to return.
But the book is much more than an account of a place I love. It’s the story of friendship, of God’s gentle but relentless pursuit of Weber, and of longing. Weber writes with skill. She knows how write, and how to weave literary quotes and U2 into her story. It’s one of those books that, as a reader, you don’t want to end. As I finished the last page, it left me longing for more, but also deeply satisfied by what I had read.
I loved this book for a few reasons.
First, it’s so well written. Pack this book in a beach bag and read it as part of your summer plans. If you like good writing, I think you’ll enjoy this book.
Second, Surprised by Oxford reveals beauty: the beauty of an ancient city and university, of friendship, and most importantly, of God. Part of our church’s mission statement is to show “the beauty of relationship with Jesus.” I tried once to shorten this statement by chopping the part about beauty. Couldn’t we introduce people to Jesus and skip the beautiful part? Not so fast, one of my friends said. Something’s lost when we focus only on truth but miss the beauty. Weber’s book made the beauty of God real to me and left me gazing with amazement at how beautiful he is, and how kind he is to share that beauty with us. It reminded me of what I’m quick to miss in my rush to get to truth.
Surprised by Oxford filled me with hope. We don’t stand much of a chance once God starts to pursue us. He enthralls us and ravishes us with his love.
Weber has written a second memoir too, and it’s also good. If you’re looking for a couple of good books to read this summer, start with Surprised by Oxford and then continue to Sex and the City of God. I think you’ll enjoy them, and if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself reawakened to the story that God is writing all around us that we often tend to miss.