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Book Review: Surprised by Oxford

We are fortunate here in a land where English books are scarce, to have a lending library at our mission office.  John recently brought home a book which he obviously enjoyed immensely.  He read segments out-loud to me so I told him to let me read it before he took it back to the library.  I was not disappointed in this book which I enjoyed immensely.
Exeter College Chapel
Surprised by Oxford is written by Carolyn Weber and is the story of her conversion.  The copyright date is 2011 and it is published by Thomas Nelson. The title is obviously a take-off from C.S. Lewis' conversion story, Surprised by Joy. The author won a scholarship to study Romantic Literature and to earn her MPhil at Oxford University.  The book is organized around the academic terms at Oxford:  Michaelmas Term, Christmastide, Hilary Term, Eastertide, and Trinity Term.

Oriel College
The author, though raised in a Catholic home, had seldom attended church and considered herself an agnostic.  Early in her first term she met a fellow student at Oriel College.  He was showing her how to set up an email account and opened an email he had received, but hadn't read, to show her how convenient it was to have email.  The email content shocked her as she took it wrongly, not understanding the Christian references in it.  (Telling you what the email was and why it shocked her would be a spoiler!)  Thus began a honest sharing of beliefs and struggles, hours spent asking questions, and a growing conviction of her need for a personal relationship with Jesus.  She also recounts the conversations and relationships she had with friends and with professors that helped direct her into a personal relationship with Jesus.

I liked this book so much for several reasons.
Balliol College Hall
I've been involved with "street evangelism".  I think it has it's place, but I must admit I'm not comfortable with it.  Maybe it's just my personality.  I've also seen people take the approach of standing on a street corner and yelling and I doubt if very many people are reached this way!  In the picture here, we never
saw anybody stop to listen to him....they just pushed by to get to where they were going.  This approach often ends up with people feeling attacked and beat over the head with a Bible. There has to be a balance between the urgency of the message and respect for those you are sharing with.  I know some people, in general those that I consider to have the gift of evangelism, who can share the Gospel with absolute strangers in a loving and gentle way.  (My brother-in-law is an example of somebody who can do this.)  

This book, on the other hand, shows how having a relationship with a person while being honestly open about your faith, sharing as the person is ready to hear, in my opinion, is a much better approach.  I really enjoyed following the dialogues she had with friends who gently pointed her to Jesus, but who didn't compromise anything in their beliefs.
"The High", Oxford
The second reason I liked the book is that if you are in a relationship with somebody who is asking hard questions, this book helps you figure out some of the ways to answer some of those questions.  It would even be a good book to share with that person as it is never preachy or heavy-handed.  It is simply one woman's story.

The third reason I liked the book is that, though some of the topics are a bit heavy, she writes with a great sense of humor which saves the book from getting too bogged down in theology.  As I said, it's a memoir, not a theology book.
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

And the fourth reason I enjoyed this book is because of its setting in Oxford. I've been to so many of the places she describes. Since John has been working on his degree from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies based in Oxford, I have a pretty good understanding now of how the higher level MPhil and Doctorate programs work.  But even if you don't have any background in that, and even if you've never visited Oxford, I think you would still enjoy this book.

One of the things about the book that was neither good nor bad for me, were her many references to literature, and to the Romantic writers in particular.  They did not detract from the story, but for somebody who is well versed in the Romantic writers, the book would have even more depth and meaning.  I just wasn't really sure what she was referring to at times!

A few quotes from Surprised by Oxford

"I remembered when I had fully expected Christians to be naive and unrealistic...what I really did not expect to discover was just how realistic they are, while striving for the idealistic.  Now I understood that there is an art to honesty.  And there is nothing naive about cultivating a pure heart."
Church of St. Mary the Virgin

"I saw how they ministered to the dying and sick, the forgotten and neglected.  How they touched the untouchables, whatever a society deemed those to be.  Tey walked a far braver walk than that of self-indulgence.  Our culture wants to ignore death, pretend it does not happen.  We want to live forever, and live that way without, very literally, the weight or weakness or wrinkles of wisdom."

"How my friends who grew up in Christian homes took their gifts of faith from their parents for granted!  How prayer came as second nature, an obvious problem-solver or comfort or alternative to panic, anxiety, fear.  They took for granted the powerful pause of grace before meals.  How oblivious they could seem to the precious and effective armor they had been given:  to have the gift of faith from your childhood, to lean into it and grow into even have the luxury to rebel against it."

Merton Street....I loved this street because the tourists hadn't discovered it and it really felt like you were stepping back in time.


Beth said…
I'm glad you enjoyed the book, Nancy. I follow this blog called Reading to Know...she reviews a lot of literature from children's all the way up to adult. From what I have seen she had very good judgement and taste in books and this was one she recommended highly so I had Anisa put it on the list. It's fun to hear that it was a good choice!

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