Surprised by Oxford

Weber, Surprised by OxfordI just started reading Carolyn Weber‘s Surprised by Oxford. Subtitled simply “A Memoir,” it’s more specifically a spiritual autobiography, one more in that long line descended from Augustine’s Confessions that has included C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (its title clearly evoked by Weber’s) and Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. Like those two, Surprised by Oxford tells the story of conversion to Christianity through (or at least in the midst of) studies at one of the Oxbridge colleges.

In part because I had such a gradual, quiet conversion myself—unremarkable in any respect except the most important: that every conversion is a miracle—I’m always intrigued by these stories and eager to get into Weber’s.

Once I’m done, I might come back with a review or further reflection. Today I simply want to observe that Surprised by Oxford starts with as promising a prologue as any I’ve read in recent years. It tells of the one evangelical she knew as an agnostic undergraduate in Canada: an aged poetry professor named Deveaux, who assigned Weber, then “a sycophantic senior,” to give a presentation on John Donne’s sonnet XIV (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”).

She recounts being quite proud of her conclusion that the poem “illustrated a classic subversion by the dominant patriarchy (whether it be the church, the priest, the male construction of God or Savior) of the threat posed by maternal power, or the feminine spiritus.” (p. 3) Proud, that is, until hearing his response, which I’m going to beg pardon to quote at some length (profanities included):

Dr. Deveaux paused, looked thoughtful, and then resumed walking. I kept pace beside him, expectant. Without missing a step, he said quietly, “It is an interesting reading of the poem, Miss Drake [Weber’s maiden name]. And you obviously have command of the language. But you didn’t really seem to get the point. To really get at the essential grappling. You didn’t untie that ‘subtle knot which makes us man’ [“The Ectasy,” line 64] so central to Donne’s spiritual pilgrimage.”

John Donne in his burial shroud
John Donne (1572-1631), posing as he imagined he would look in his burial shroud

He quickened his stride: “The truth is in the paradox, Miss Drake. Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty, and futility. This is the unholy trinity we humans fear most. And we should, for we entertain it all the time at the pain and expense of not knowing the real one.”

“Huh?” I managed to puff, for Dr. Deveaux was a hard person to keep up with, physically and mentally.

Dr. Deveaux stopped and looked at me hard. He leaned in and whispered, “The rest is all bullshit, Miss Drake. It’s as simple as that. Your purpose here in life is to discern the real thing from the bullshit, and then to choose the non-bullshit. Think of the opportunity that God has given you to study as the means by which to attain your own personal bullshit detector. Sometimes that will be particularly difficult, because those who proclaim to know the truth, well intentioned or not, are spewing the most bullshit. But you will know when you have been properly ravished. [from Donne’s sonnet: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me”] And then you’ll see, then you’ll see, how the entire world is eyeball deep in it and that we choose it, and that we choose it every day. But the good news is that, although we struggle with it, there is a way out. Yes, there is a very worthy antidote and option to all the bullshit.” (pp. 3-4)

This passage speaks to me powerfully as a college history professor. I’ve been in the academy long enough to know that Deveaux is quite right about “those who proclaim to know the truth, well intentioned or not….” I’ve studied enough history to know that the “entire world is eyeball deep in it….” And I’ve been teaching long enough to imagine what Weber’s professor was feeling at the moment he paused and those words came to him:

The frustration, tedium, anxiety, and insecurity that comes with your work falls away, and you’re reminded that you are an instrument of grace in the lives of young people who desperately need to hear the Gospel, to be startled by the vulgarity of the Fall, but more, by the hope of the Resurrection.

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