Book Review: Surprised by Oxford


Magdalen Tower, Oxford


I’ve never been to England, but the environs of its most famous university, Oxford, are familiar through television, movies, and books. There is something endearing and awe-inspiring about Oxford. Most of us who aspire to university have a secret desire to go there. A few realize it, either through Rhodes scholarships or, in Canada, Commonwealth scholarships.

Carolyn Drake was one of those Canadian scholars, and when she completed her degree at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, she was awarded this prestigious opportunity to continue her work in Romantic literature at one of the most romantic universities in the world. She was a hard-working, self-supporting student, driven to stay at the top of her class, to excel in order to prove to the world that she, too, could make it. She had been raised in a fractured home, in the midst of one of London’s most prestigious neighborhoods, always aware of her mother’s relative poverty, and the lack of opportunities ahead of her unless she made them for herself.

She would teach, after earning the coveted doctoral degree. She expected Oxford to give her some of the polish and prestige that she lacked in her home environment. But it gave her much more: An introduction to the heart of the Christian experience. She had not planned to delve into Christianity, and like most upper degree students, she wasn’t much interested in it. Then she met a young man who set her heart afire, and through him, met God, who set her soul on fire.

I wanted to like this book, and anticipated diving into Carolyn’s soul-searching experience. Instead, I was puzzled and a bit put off by the format of her style, when she inserted long dialogues with characters she acknowledges are amalgamations of friends and classmates. I was dubious that she could recall this conversations after ten years, and I could have generously attributed her total recall to journaling except that she admitted that the characters were partly fictive. The dialogues were awkward, windy, and sophistic; it was too much like Tuesdays with Morrie. And while she explored the writing and influence of one of Oxford’s most famous Christian writers, C.S. Lewis, she seems cool to him, his enthusiasts and his church, the Church of England.

Carolyn becomes an Evangelical by adult baptism, another aspect that puzzled me, as her mother was Roman Catholic. There is no mention of whether she had been previously baptized as an infant, or if not, why her mother had decided against it. This would be an important point in someone’s spiritual biography. I also was unimpressed by her use of the “Surprised by” clause of her book title – the two words are incredibly reminiscent of both Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and the Anglican theologian N.T.Wright and his popular and influential book, Surprised by Hope. The use of the title would suggest that she was writing in the same genre, but it is only loosely attached to Lewis’s spiritual autobiography, and a far cry from Wright’s erudite exposition of heaven and earth. Carolyn Weber is yet a baby Christian, and it is too much hubris on her part to classify herself with these Christian giants.

I think the book could have used more of Oxford, less of the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the
publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review
bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I
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: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in



Crofting: First Day

It was a warm and sunny day. I decided to let goats lounge in the barn today rather than shift them around to shady spots every couple of hours. I went to church. Nicholas was still exhausted from a long trip to Fredericton yesterday to see Matthew, Sarah and Ava. They have a new kitten, and Nicholas either had the baby or the cat in his lap most of the time, and sometimes both. Ava is a little bit afraid of the big white beard, but she is amused by his hat, so she got over the pouty face pretty quickly. I had made little jumpers for her, and although they are bit big, she is tall and plump for her ten months. If I didn’t know better, I would say she looks to be fourteen months or so. She can take a few steps, but can chase the kitten a lot faster on her hands and knees.

I love living here in northern New Brunswick, on the banks of the St. John River. The winters can be long and harsh, but we rarely have unbearable summer weather. The drive to and from church, up and down the mountain, and across the river, was fantastic today.

The St. John River, from Brooks Bridge

The potato fields are in blossom. Potatoes have interesting little blossoms, a bit like miniature morning glories. Some varieties are white, some a light pink and my favourites are these lavender ones. If you weren’t told that this is a potato field, you might think it is a field of lavender.

Jensen farm, New Denmark

Three weeks ago, most of the potato fields looked like African violets had been planted. Then we had good rain and warm days, and they remembered what they are supposed to do.

I know some people, especially if they live in true alpine zones, must find it amusing that I call this area mountainous. But this is what I see when I cross the St. John River, and turn toward New Denmark.

east of the St. John River

That is a field is an alluvial plain, with the sharp slope of the rising land into New Denmark behind it. The bishop calls it “the parish at the top of the world.” There is a narrow road along the base of that hill, with a cliff on the other side for most of the stretch between Brooks Bridge and the Salmon River. The shoulders wash out, and shale washes down the mountain side in heavy rains. The quickest route up to New Denmark is a paved mountain goat path called “Lucy’s Gulch Road.” There is a gulch that crosses under the road. It is deep. One of the priests who had the parish down river said that when he first covered services at St. Ansgar’s in New Denmark, he usually came up Lucy’s Gulch in the winter and wondered why it was called that. Then the snow melted and he realized that one bad icy patch, and a whole car could easily disappear into Lucy’s Gulch. A few decades ago, a ministry student did put a parishioner’s new pickup truck in the gulch. He survived, but the truck was totalled. Lucy’s is not the only dangerous mountain road here. There is also Klokkledahl Hill, which is a toboggan run of a road in the winter – I ploughed the left ditch with the corresponding wheels of my old truck for a good fifty feet one horrible winter night – and Cote Mill, or Mill Hill. A retired priest was fatally injured in a car accident there a number of years ago, when he skidded into the gully beside the road.

An artist friend of mine once defined art as “the horror of the sublime.” Living in a wild hilly part of Canada is like that, too.

But we appreciate the work the great Artist has created.

Crofting – Not Homesteading, part two

I think I am weary of the word “homesteading.”  It is an American term, drawn from the Homestead Act of 1862; Americans could stake a claim on undeveloped land, and if they stayed long enough, built an dwelling, and worked to clear and plant that land, they could file with the government to own it. Homesteaders in the American West came as something of a surprise to the native people who lived in the same land, and saw no need to develop it, cut down the trees, tear up the sod, and stay, come hades or high water. The word “Homestead” had a connotation of the established family farm; this is what the American government wanted these new settlers to do.

We are in maritime Canada, and while the British and French settlers who built here had no better record of cooperation with and respect for their native neighbours, somehow “homestead” doesn’t work as a concept in this place. Farms were carved out of the boreal forest, often with grim labour and loss of life. These tracts, when not claimed for the Crown, were deeded out originally in huge acreages, then divided and sold.

My Scottish ancestors would have, most of them, come out of the Highlands and Islands, where crofting is an established practice, protected and governed by law. A croft is a rented smallholding – perhaps part of a larger farm or estate – organized under certain principles; the rent is minimal, the right to the croft hereditary, the crofter has right to improvements he has made himself, and for rented crofts, there is a commons for grazing.  (Some crofters were able to buy their smallholding, but this seems to eliminate their right to the commons.)

This is why we are more like crofters than homesteaders. We are on less on than four acres; we rent at a minimal price (although more than a croft lease, it is still less than the equivalent house rental in a developed area), we share the improvements with our landlords, and the goal of this crofting is to restore the land to usefulness. We have an outside income, although small, so growing our own food and supporting ourselves without additional expense is necessary to our way of life.

The ex-urban lifestyle was popularized by people like Helen and Scott Nearing, who left academia (under pressure – Scott’s socialist philosophy made him unpopular among his peers in the 1930s) and settled first in Vermont, then in Maine, at a village called Harborside. They wrote books, invited like-minded young people to visit and work with them, and turned an old farm into a vital colony of agrarian research and philosophy.

The Good Life Center at the Nearing farm

Quite a few disenchanted young folks headed into the Maine woods to do the same. Some stayed on and did well; many got tired of the long winters, the hard work, and the lack of city amenities. The Nearings exemplified the benefits of their “good life” at Forest Farm – Scott lived to be one hundred years old, Helen, 91. Self-sufficiency, community of choice, and a rejection of consumerism were their goals. (For more on the Good Life Center, see

We don’t have much in common with the Nearings. We are Christians, traditional Anglicans who have sojourned a bit with other, more conservative Christian groups, but were called home to the Church of England – we have more in common with Back to the Land Catholics and hereditary Mennonites than we do with the homesteading movement of the 1960s. We are also not “preppers” or “survivalists”. We are more concerned with stewardship and community than we are in outlasting post-apocalyptic urbanites. Our agrarian philosophy would be closer to that of Wendell Berry, a farmer, philosopher and former academic who went back to the family farm. (A good introduction to Wendell Berry’s writing is at

Wendell Berry

I think this has something to do with being Anglican. (Not that Wendell Berry is.) Our theology is organic, responsive to a changing world rather than reactionary; we are rooted in scripture and the tradition of the church, but we are also vernacular and adapting.

At the core of our life is Jesus Christ, who responded to the needs of the world around Him in His days on this earth. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, comforted the grieving. He was part of His community, as well as its leader. He didn’t stand out from His disciples (students, that is) by some badge of office, by dressing better than they, by choosing to ride rather than walk. When He was betrayed, an insider – Judas – had to point Him out to the guards. He ate with, walked with, talked with, wept with the poor, the ordinary, the common. That is what we are doing, and God has indeed brought us to that place.

But it has to be more than talk. (And I am afraid that we – Nicholas and I – were well-trained in Talk.) This has to be preached by doing. And the doing is not in isolation, in self-determined freedom, or in realizing the American dream of a freeheld, prosperous farm. It is in growing a place in a community – a community we know and that knows us – in cooperation, in caring, in communion.

I feel we have more in common with the crofters who share their common experiences via webpage and blog – asking for help, calling on neighbours and family, learning from others – than with the independent American freehold homesteaders. Our goal is to produce enough food to feed ourselves and others and to improve the health of our communities. We are trying to make do with little income – fewer taxes to pay, fewer temptations to face – and stay out of working for corporate structures we know to be destructive of comunity and environment. I know many homesteaders have these same goals, and they can call themselves what they want – but our roots are in the mother church and in the rocky soil of northern Britain.

For those interested in exploring what is happening in Scotland with crofting, see these blogs: The Barefoot Crofter ( and Stonehead (

In Praise of Common Prayer

I have found myself in the strange position lately of trying to defend the Anglican faith, as a unique aspect of Christian theology. The biggest challenge is how to explain it, where to send anyone who wants to know what it’s about, and make some sort of assertion of what “Anglicanism” is. The best analogy I could come up with was that the Anglican Church is like the British Constitution: unwritten, changing, and organic. The Anglican Church is the body of the faithful who follow Common Prayer, and I don’t mean the prayer book.

Anglicanism is not, perhaps, a true systematic theology. We seem to fall back on Richard Hooker quite a bit; we go to the old prayer books and our early English translations of the Bible for supporting evidence of who we are and what we believe. “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as we pray, so we believe. Our prayer books evolve and change and shift, too much so for most people’s liking, and such has always been the case. Every generation has hated its new prayer book. Some have been better than others, most certainly, but that is not the point. The Church responds to the needs of the body of Christ, even if in doing so we fall short of the glory of God.

It’s why the Anglican faith has a Book of Common Prayer. Two generations ago they were common; vernacular translations were word for word, from British English to whatever language of the people that was understanded. (I except the American BCP in particular; they went their own way in the early days of the nation – other national churches followed suit.) In the twentieth century, with English itself becoming regionally divergent, national churches undertook their own liturgies, but a central question still concerns how faithful new liturgies are to the old. The Anglican Church has always, and always will, put the understanding of the people above mere tradition. There are rock-solid traditionalists in every generation of the church, and it is part of Anglican communality that they are given credence and a voice even when they are in a minority. It is not part of Anglicanism that the majority rules in matters of faith; the many can be very wrong. Because of this, debate may seem endless and circular, but it is part of our commonality.

Another issue that puzzles non-Anglicans (and some Anglicans) is that we do not have a large body of professional theologians. Traditionally, our bishops have been our theologians, and that tradition continues in such writers as N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams. We, as Anglicans, read and admire non-theologians – mere Christians – who write and speak well of their faith journey. (C.S. Lewis is one of them.) While Anglican clergy are well-educated, I’d say we don’t admire or follow the teachings of someone based on their education, but on the words of their hearts. We are not Cranmerans, or Hookerists; we are the church that came out of England,w ith its many strands of thought and experience.

One misconception others have of Anglicans is that we are just “Catholic light” – that Henry VIII wanted to annul a marriage and the pope said no, so the king broke with Rome and started his own church. There is plenty of historical evidence that conflict between the English church and the Roman church continued after the Synod of Whitby, long before the Plantagenets and Tudors. A lot of English goods and money left Britain as church tax, donations, tithes and bequests. Henry saw that his tax base was going to a foreign monarch and moved to protect his sovereign rights. The English church had often disagreed with the Roman pontiff on appointments of episcopal sees and abbacies. The English church had a separate structure and theology before Whitby, and I suspect Abbess Hilda wished she had never agreed to call that synod. More Orthodox than Roman before Whitby, Anglican identity was entrenched and never forgotten despite the Latin facade. Cranmer looked to the East for liturgical structure, and much of the first English liturgy owes something to Chrysostom.

I am not apologizing in this apologia for the wrongs of the Anglican church – its collusion with the government in oppression, its deepseated worldliness, its occasional sense of entitlement, and its arrogance of power. The modern Anglican Church is lacking in humility – and the Lord will empty the house of the proud man. (Proverbs 15:35).

But here I stand. I have wandered and sojourned, and longed to return home. I did return, and I stand humbled.