Review: Surprised by Oxford

How does a well-educated skeptic become a Christian? That’s the thesis of Carolyn Weber’s new memoir, as she tells of her conversion from skeptic to believer during a year spent at Oxford University in the mid-‘90s. The title is a play on C. S. Lewis’ memoir of his spiritual journey, Surprised by Joy. It’s appropriate, but Weber’s memoir is not just a conversion narrative; it’s also a love story and pays homage to a historic university.

Memoirs are autobiographies sharpened to a point, using events as a lens to explore a subject. In 36 chapters (many of which could stand alone as essays), Weber transports readers back to her first year of graduate studies. She recounts how her engaging and thoughtful Christian friends helped her come to faith in Christ. Vivid descriptions of Oxford are mixed with discussions of the obstacles that made her hesitate to choose Christ. Weber, now a professor of Romantic literature, sprinkles her work with literary (and some musical) references.

Surprised by Oxford doesn’t end with Weber becoming a Christian; that’s just a step along the way, which is a delightful surprise. Weber recounts lessons learned from spiritual mentors and the sometimes messy interactions with loved ones who did not understand her decision. Her conversations with friends and family—some of whom were happy about her conversion, and some of whom were disturbed by it—give the book its emotional weight. Weber neatly balances these passages with other parts of her story that sparkle with humor, wonder, and—yes—joy.

Surprised by Oxford is not just for Anglophiles, but for anyone who enjoys spiritual autobiography or wonders how a well-educated skeptic could become a Christian. Weber’s winsome writing and honesty make this book worth reading, preferably with a cup of tea.