I like to read memoirs, but I rarely review them on the blog. (Dick Van Dyke’s was a notable exception.) But a recent book that caught my attention is Surprised by Oxford, a memoir written by Carolyn Weber, who came to faith in Christ during her time at Oxford University. The book is one part romance, one part Christian apologetic, yet all parts beautifully written, with prose that sings and paragraphs that beg to be read a second time. Carolyn was gracious enough to join me for a blog conversation based on her book, which I highly recommend.
Trevin Wax: Carolyn, what will probably ‘surprise’ the reader of Surprised by Oxford is the idea that one would attend this university and find a Christian witness powerful enough to break through the armor of an agnostic or skeptic. Was it the seriousness of the Christianity you encountered there or the vacuity of relativism that led you to deeper reflection about God and the world? (Or if it’s both, what was the role of each?)
Carolyn Weber: I think whenever seriousness bumps up against vacuity, a storm necessarily ensues. C.S. Lewis identified joy as the “serious business of heaven.” At Oxford, I was struck not only by the intellectual rigor of many Christians I came to meet but also by their deep joy. This combination intrigued me – taking one’s faith seriously but not oneself too much so.
Oxford is a fascinating place because many forms of dialogue about faith issues (among other things) coexist. So while there is certainly hostility toward the Christian faith (as there is everywhere, especially in much of secular academia), at Oxford there are also pockets of strategic Christian thinkers, activists, or at least curious and open-minded individuals willing to consider faith at face value and as a viable form of truth.
Trevin Wax: Your mentioning joy reminds me of the way G.K. Chesterton wrote – provocative, but funny, even when discussing serious matters. I thought your memoir did a great job of capturing the wonder you felt as you slowly stumbled closer to the Christian faith. Sometimes it’s easy for people raised in church who came to faith at young ages to lose that sense of wonder. How would you counsel someone who believes the gospel but has lost some of the joy associated with a rich Christian faith?
Carolyn Weber: This is a great question, and I think you are right to use the word “joy.” I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this topic lately (and was about to publish a new post on it), so your question is also timely.
Joy is not the same thing as happiness, nor is it contentment either. Rather, I think, joy runs so deep and clear, or blazes so bold and bright, precisely because it is purely a gift of God to His people. There is nothing we alone, without God, can do to generate, orchestrate, predict, secure, or micromanage it.
Without having a relationship with Christ, experiencing joy can certainly throw into relief our ache for such redemption through unspeakably immense mercy and love. It is even a means by which we are drawn closer to God. But for believers, joy not only reminds us of the eternal glory of God, it also re-members us into the body of Christ, in terms of communion and community. And so for Christians, I think it is possible to experience intense joy even in the midst of great sadness, loss, or isolation, perhaps even more so at times because of them. As a result, these spots of joy help us love and encourage – our only language for it, really, as joy is hard to “speak.”
Trevin Wax: I like how you are connecting joy to the body of Christ. One of the interesting aspects of your memoir is how you moved from being resistant to and even repelled by evangelical Christians at the beginning to being open to believers and their worship services, even before you came to Christ. How central was Christian friendship and Christian worship in your journey from agnosticism to faith? How might you encourage others to see these two pillars as a means of evangelism?
Carolyn Weber: Christian friendship and worship are indeed two pillars of sharing the gospel, and they were certainly key components in my journey to faith. I had the blessing of meeting many engaging, dynamic believers early in my quest and then being led to churches that were intelligently, sensitively, and unapologetically evangelical.
For many of us living in mainstream culture, maybe even because of mainstream culture, Jesus can seem remote, unknowable, even irrelevant. But when you meet and begin to engage with thoughtful followers of Christ, folks who not only purposely examine and grow in their faith but who also model it in a myriad of ways, well, that’s a powerful testimony. You can see the eternal life-giving water of Scripture at work in “real time”; you can put your hand in the wound, so to speak, and be transformed.
Christians should never underestimate the power of their priesthood among nonbelievers. I was hooked, and drawn deeper into the faith, by the character of various believers and how it spoke of their God: by their humility, humor, compassion, perspective, even priorities.
Christian worship echoes this, so that liturgy, or tradition, becomes alive, a deeply reverent relevance to our own lives. I tried to capture it in my chapter titled “Church Going.” Worship can be an alienating experience at first for a seeker or new believer; I think the savvier a church can be about creating a comfort zone in which people feel safe to explore and ask questions, the better. And yet a balance must be struck, and Biblical truths must not only be taught but upheld by the Church itself as an extension of Christian friendship and fellowship, even when this makes people uncomfortable in the face of what the world says.
Trevin Wax: Was there any particular doctrine or Christian teaching that you had difficulty accepting?
Carolyn Weber: Eternal damnation is not one of my personal favorites, though I do think of not having a personal relationship with Christ as pretty hellish in the very here and now. I have been haunted by the old arguments, such as what happens to the person who hasn’t “heard” the gospel, when babies die, etc., etc. As I ask in my book, how can heaven be heaven without those I love in it?
Since becoming a believer, scholarship such as Randy Alcorn’s or John Piper’s or Dallas Willard’s has helped me with such hauntings. In the end, however, I have to ultimately trust in God’s goodness and that His judgment and design and plans therefore must be more perfect and just than I could ever conceive. So, as I like to say, and truly mean, thank God I’m not God!
Trevin Wax: What do you hope your book will accomplish?
Carolyn Weber: I pray that the book touches hearts as readers come through the looking glass with me into Oxford. I hope that some will be startled – or at the very least, invited – into the abundant-life-everlasting of Christ, and I hope that others will deepen an already existing relationship and be encouraged to help others toward and along the path.
I pray, too, that the reading net is cast wide. This may seem obvious, but when I look back at my own educational experience in mainstream North American society, I am shocked and saddened at the lack of opportunities our schools and other forums of “ideas” offer for the young in particular to learn about faith, to even consider it a place from which to make informed decisions about their lives. Given my own experiences and varied relationships, I don’t feel particularly pigeonholed in my life; I tried to include characters and scenes that reflected this reality for me in the book.
I hope this way of trying to live in the world but not of it also speaks of how greatly I admire Jesus’ preference for discernment over discrimination. All we need to do is open the Bible to find identification with ourselves and reconciliation with God. We can find every single facet of our beings there, literally, I believe, every single one. So when God, the great Author Himself, enters the story as a character crucified to save the very reader, He not only makes the Word flesh but reconciles the dissatisfactions and satisfactions of being human with the perfect Holy Spirit moving among us, breathing within us. “The kingdom of God is within you,” He whispers, shouts, signs, teaches, reminds: “you know the way to the place where I am going.” When we have the courage, trust, or enough beseechment of wisdom to look (whether long and hard or short and clear) into our hearts, we do know the way. Absolutely.