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Surprised by Oxford

    Jul 20, 2022 | by Rachel Suffern

    When circumstances come together in miraculous ways for many devout Christians, they quickly attribute them to the providence of God. When these same kinds of events happen to pessimistic, skeptical Christians like me, we often warily cast an eye toward the sky and ask, “Is this for real? Do you actually do things like this?” When I read Carolyn Weber’s autobiographical work, Surprised by Oxford, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit.

    New Desires

    Two years ago, I began desiring something that I hadn’t wanted in a long time: to be in school again. I had been an intellectual sounding board for a friend going through seminary and, as I read through his work, I couldn’t help thinking how much I would love to be working on something similar. But the thought of school was ridiculous in my mind. Even though I had always been a good student, I never saw myself as the grad school type. I had been out of college for almost fourteen years, spending most of that time raising my three kids. We didn’t have the extra money for schooling I didn’t need, and I felt selfish even thinking of it.

    But other things pushed me in that direction as well. The volatile political polarization during the summer of 2020 caused me to engage in political conversations, which I had mostly avoided since I had graduated with a political science degree during George W. Bush’s presidency. My desire was to cool tempers and encourage people to engage each other with humility and reason. I made many connections with people over shared concerns about the hostility we were seeing on both sides. With all the talk on the political left and right of a need for “revolution,” all I could think was that, given our country’s current circumstances, anything with such a name would be more like the horrors of the French Revolution than the glories of the American one. While I had always been interested in history, I began to desire to study it more deeply—mainly the French Revolution and the origins of our modern political ideas. I wanted to better understand how we had gotten to our current state and what might be done to help our political situation in the future. After years of being contented mostly within the four walls of my home, that academic side had been reactivated, and I couldn’t figure out how to shut it off.

    Then there was that odd dream I had been having for ten years. In it, I was in grad school, halfway through the semester with my favorite history professor, and suddenly hit with the realization that I hadn’t completed any of the work for his class. This repeated reminder of him had led me, a few years prior, to call him and catch up. I knew that if I decided to go back to school, he would be glad to help me return to the department (I had minored in history in undergrad).

    Unexpected Provision

    As I wrestled with these thoughts, two things happened, seemingly out of the blue. First, my husband got promoted, freeing up our budget a little. Then, my mother-in-law let us know that she wanted to help any of her daughter-in-laws pursue further schooling if that was a desire. She had settled her mother’s estate, and since her mother was such a supporter of women’s education, wanted to make that available to us in her honor. Suddenly, my pipe dream wasn’t quite so unrealistic.

    I was dumbfounded. Could this be God working? My mother-in-law had been trying to settle her mother’s complicated estate for years, and if she had been able to do it earlier, I wouldn’t have been interested in school. I hadn’t told anyone about my secret wish to return. It felt silly and selfish. And yet, circumstances kept coming together. I reluctantly confessed to my husband that I had pondered grad school, but thought it was unreasonable. He didn’t think it was unreasonable at all, and encouraged me to take his mother up on her offer. After all, our kids would one day be out of the house, and I could use the next few years to slowly get a degree that would give me more opportunities when they were older.

    I chatted with one of my undergrad professors, who was very encouraging, nervously prepared for and took the GRE, and registered for a spring class entitled “European Intellectual History of the 19th Century.” It kicked off with the French Revolution and went on to chart the changing political ideas of the time. It was everything I’d hoped and more.

    Perfect Timing

    The history professor who had haunted my dreams welcomed me back with open arms. He wrote me a letter of recommendation and told me he would always be glad to help me with anything I needed. I got the chance, over lunch, to tell him what an impact he’d had on my undergrad experience and how thankful I was for him. Knowing he was in the department made me less afraid to return. I am thankful I went back when I did, because he passed away unexpectedly at the beginning of my second semester.

    I’ve just finished my third semester. Overall, the return to school has been challenging, rewarding, terrifying, fun, confusing, and amazing. I could share many stories of odd events and opportunities that I chalk up to God having a sense of humor about my skepticism. I feel like He is constantly reminding me that He knows better than I do where He wants me to be, and that He can be found anywhere He wishes.

    For Carolyn Weber, that was at Oxford University. Carol Mercer recommended Surprised by Oxford over coffee one day as we discussed my academic pursuits. I have to admit that I wasn’t looking for another book to read. I have a large and growing stack that I am always chipping away at. But Carol insisted that I wouldn’t be able to put it down once I started. She claimed it was the kind of book you didn’t want to end. I ordered it, and it sat on my coffee table—all 440 pages— for a few weeks before I finally dove in. When I finished it, I simply texted Carol that she had been right, that I didn’t want it to end. Once I picked it up, I really couldn’t put it down, and had gotten through the whole thing in three days.

    God’s Presence on Campus

    The book begins in 1994, when Weber arrives at Oxford from Canada to study English literature. It paints a vivid picture of life at Oxford: its architecture, its academics, its social scene, the varying cast of characters with which Weber interacts, and the haunting presence of a Christian faith that simultaneously attracts and repels her.

    Weber’s story is beautifully told and appealing to those who enjoy references to art, music, and literature, while remaining easy to understand and surprisingly down-to-earth, making it just as suitable for those who don’t. It is the story of a young woman in search of knowledge and an understanding of her place in the world and a reflection on the difficulties of making sense of life and learning to trust in the wake of a difficult upbringing. As Weber gets to know various characters, she is forced to rethink her preconceived notions about Christians and what it means to know God. On her journey, she discovers that some of the brightest minds she encounters are also those who confess a faith which at first appears to defy reason. Also, there is a love story with a charming American, which makes it quite the page-turner.

    In the end, Weber finds the answers to her life questions in the person of Christ, just as C.S. Lewis had done decades before on the same campus. She comes to realize that God has made no mistakes in shaping who she is, and that her life path has been perfectly charted to lead her to exactly the faith and the work that He has pre-ordained for her to do:

    “How differently things had turned out from what I initially expected to gain from Oxford University, the symbolic pinnacle of the ‘educational experience.’ As I aimed to become a teacher, God made me a student. My spirit as a questioner does not affront him; rather, it reflects Him, and honors Him, and pulls me toward Him. Through our gifts and weaknesses, our strengths and shortcomings, He works in each life thus” (399).

    The thought that “my spirit as a questioner does not affront him” is encouraging for me.  Despite my natural skepticism, I do believe that God has some purpose in sending me back to school, even if it is just to show me His grace in a new light. History is messy. To be constantly immersed in accounts often dominated by death, sorrow, and the immense cruelty displayed by humans toward each other can be heavy. But throughout my research, I find little rays of hope—usually Christian thinkers here and there who lived out their faith genuinely, believed that humans were made in the image of God, and were often the lone voices in their circles speaking against atrocities such as slavery and eugenics. I can certainly relate to a lot of the academic experiences Weber has while navigating the secular school culture in Surprised by Oxford, but even more, I can relate to her need to see God’s hand in her life and to know that He is present and is acting with purpose in the midst of our limited human understanding of the world.

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