Saturday, September 17, 2011

A blog post about a great book

I review for BookSneeze®

Yesterday I finished reading Carolyn Weber's book, Surprised by Oxford. Some books are indeed a joyful surprise. I agreed to read Surprised by Oxford for Booksneeze, and wasn't sure what to expect. Having spent my junior year in college studying at Oxford, I was sure that I would enjoy any references to Oxford in this memoir, but I was not expecting to be captivated by the author's journey to a deeper faith, her blossoming romance, and her wonderful treatment of literature. Each chapter begins with a thoughtful quotation that invites the reader to consider life, faith, love, beauty, meaning. It's a great book.

Carolyn Weber is a Canadian scholar who studied for her master's and doctorate degrees in English literature at Oxford University. Surprised by Oxford is the story of her journey as a maturing person who reverently and thoughtfully considers the "head and the heart" of faith as she pursues her studies. The book provides a lovely balance between her personal faith journey and the rich experience of studying at an ancient and revered institution of higher learning.

One of the strengths of the book is the author's treatment of conversations, especially around faith. Soon after her affirmation of her faith, Weber travels by air seated next to a South African woman named Veronica, and has a deep and helpful conversation that is neither heavy-handed nor filled with cliches. Weber's conversations with her mother are also very compelling, as the author attempts to sort out her feelings about life and her complex relationships with both parents and the reflections they have upon her faith. I thought the exchanges with both women were real, fully, loving and most particularly, thoughtful.

Of course, the centerpiece of the book is her romance with TDH (Tall Dark Handsome), an American student at Oxford who is studying theology. TDH is the person who engages her in ongoing conversations about faith and lives his faith in such a way that Weber cannot help but notice, be intrigued, have questions, arguments and spirited conversations about scripture, about the Trinity, and about redemption. Sometimes overhearing or reading about faith conversations between two people can sound contrived or cloying. In Weber's memoir, neither is true. In fact, like the other characters in the book, the reader is aware of the romance that is beginning between Weber and TDH before the two acknowledge such. It's sweet without being saccharine, and compelling without being "preachy."

Weber could certainly be categorized as a Christian feminist and considers carefully the joys and challenges of relationships of all sorts as her faith deepens. When she affirms her faith (p. 270), it is on Valentine's Day, in the evening, in the historically romantic city of Oxford, and Weber describes her commitment, her feelings, her faith statement, her prayer in less than two pages. It's very compelling.

I was impressed with Weber's expanding, spacious faith and well as her deeply burning questions. She writes, "How can heaven be without those I love most in it? What if this question plagues God too? And yet what if He's already answered it for us?" ("Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.-Joel 2:32) I am at home with Weber's expression of her faith because it is humble and leaves the judgement to God.

I particularly enjoyed these quotes and thoughts from the book. From TDH's father, a pastor, whose journey included time in service as a Green Beret, when asked about the presence of God in the midst of war and suffering "Caro, suffering and violence have the capacity to compress things into an airtight decision. Literally aritight--keeping you from breathing--until you make the choice. Will you join the dark, or fight for the light? That's the warrior's great question. And just ignoring it, or hoping it will go away, or lingering without your boots on....well, indecision is decision, too. Apathy is often the darkest of options."

And this quote, as the author is struggling with stereotypes of "loud" Christians: "Later Hannah (a friend) gifted me with a poignant and funny true story by Joni Rodgers about living with cancer and faith as a wifwe and mother. Her book's titile, Bald in the Land of Big Hair, is hilarious and apt, since the story meaningfully chronicles her hair loss due to chemptherapy while living in Texas, of all places, the "home" of big hair. One of her many wonderful images particularly stays with me. She rightfully rants about her problem with the phrase used when someone dies of cancer, that he or she "lost the fight." "Lost?" she replies vehemently. This is not about "failure" as the world tends to see it. How can anyone "lose," fighting something as insidious as a disease, something so symptomatic of our fallen world? You might as well accuse someone of not dodging a bullet in time. From her strengthened identity in this God who works HIs grace even through cancer, she shows us that the ultimate coming home for those who believe in what this grace entails is far from "losing." Lost, rather, is remained ashamed in the persistently loving face of grace. Lost means not knowing your way home."

I loved this book and am so glad I stumbled upon it. It is a treat, for anyone who enjoys insight into a growing mind and heart. It is, indeed, a book about thoughtful Christianity.