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
have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal
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: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in



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.

Anglicans Only!

Well, not really. I made a comment on someone else’s blog that Anglicanism was a theological system in itself, not just part of the Roman Catholic Church that broke away over some legalisms. Another commenter tried to argue that “Anglicans always say that, and why do you hate the High Church?” (Or something to that effect.) I don’t hate the High church (Bells and Smells, processions and vestments, priest waving HIS hands a lot) but I find it a lot of extraneous action that distracts from the core Gospel message and perpetuates the Elevated Priest mythology. and I’m not “Low Church” in that I am Protestant in theology and practice.

Are we different or are we just Catholic Lite? Are we Protestants who wanted to keep priestly privilege? Or do we have a theological system well-exemplified in modern theologians such as Dorothy Sayers, C.S.Lewis and N.T. Wright? (Richard Hooker is the best of our Reformation era theologians in my view, but a bit of a hard slog.)

Here’s the link to Chris Armstrong’s blog if you want to see his original post and the following comments.

I didn’t bother answering back. I stay out of arguments, especially with someone who seems completely convinced of their own position.