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
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