Oxford. That romanticized school in the heart of the United Kingdom. The oldest English-speaking university in the world. Students fantasize about the opportunity to study in its famed buildings. Carolyn Weber was one of those dreamers . . . until she received a full scholarship that uprooted her from Canada and deposited her at Oriel College of Oxford University.
As she recounts in her book, Surprised by Oxford,Caro thought she would be in for an intellectual revival, but what she mainly experienced was a spiritual revival—or, really, a spiritual awakening as she came to realize an important truth: “Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty and futility.”
Especially to someone struggling with the infamous “faith” question, Caro is easily relatable. She asks all the right questions: Why do bad things happen to good people, how can one trust a fatherly God when an earthly father has proven unfaithful, does a loving God really send people to hell?
She is confused, and she admits her confusion in a way that never makes her conversion seem inevitable—she can easily decide to commit her life to Christ or abandon the cause in frustration, within a single moment. Thus, the story is one of conversion, but not an altar-call, in-the-moment emotional conversion; no, it’s emotional in a different sense. Because Caro takes the entire book to make a decision, the readers, Christian or not, become invested in her ultimate choice.
Her friend TDH (or Tall, Dark and Handsome), as she unashamedly refers to him, is the object of her religious attacks. After he shares the Gospel with her, Caro is left in awe—not because of the message (well, that too), but more so because she had never heard the Gospel in that way before. In her mind, she had grown up a “Christian,” going to church and being a good person, but it was only after talking to TDH that she realized that she was, in fact, not a Christian.
That discussion in the seventh chapter becomes the beginning of many more conversations. Caro becomes obsessed with the idea of religion. “That is the bizarre thing about the good news,” Caro admits. “Who knows how you will really hear it one day, but once you have heard it, I mean really heard it, you can never unhear it. It is like a great big elephant in a tiny room.”
Throughout the book, Caro seems to accidentally run into conversations about God and randomly meet prominent Christian people who bring unique, yet important, points to her internal conflict. When she attends a dinner whose guests include the university provost, professors, famous scientists, and a brain surgeon, Caro begins to realized that, despite what she thought, perhaps faith is not the opposite of reason. Maybe academia (specifically science) and religion do intertwine in a way that does not make the two mutually exclusive, but rather just the opposite—dependent reflections of God’s design.
“There is a difference between fear and awe,” scientist Dr. Sterling explains at the dinner. “We shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the awe.” When asked about the greatest force in the universe, Sterling also admits that it is not a physical force, but rather love—not erotic love, but rather agape love. “Life without faith is death. For life, as it was intended to be, is love.” That night, Caro stumbles upon the great paradox of life: “Nothing matters, but everything does.” That is, nothing matters without God, but everything matters with God.
Carolyn Weber’s story, to me, was more than just a story. It detailed real life; it detailed the most important decision she had ever made, why and how she came to make that decision, and the struggles she faced after her conversion. Her choice to follow God was not readily accepted by many of her friends, family, and professors. Indeed, at times, it was not readily accepted by her own self, as she faced skepticism and scorn. How could a bright young woman studying at Oxford, of all places, accept something so absurd and seemingly “blind” as faith? In college or not, this is a question so many Christians face today. It certainly hit home with me, a current college student and the object of such ridicule.
Yet, Caro does not back down in her quest for truth, but allows her conversations to lead her to conversion (conversation, after all, stems from the root of conversion). She discovers that many of her professors are Christians, and that the burning question of faith is on many people’s mind, whether they care to admit it or not. Oxford changed Caro, and through this book, readers are able to be changed by Oxford too. The university, after all, taught Carolyn Weber that “despair is the greatest sin.” And what is despair? “It involves forgetting that God is here. Forgetting that He is good and that all He is and does extends from and works toward this perfect goodness.”