Surprised by Oxford: Michaelmas

Weber, Surprised by OxfordI’m in the middle of reading Carolyn Weber’s excellent new spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir (Thomas Nelson). The book is rich enough that I’ve found myself setting it down for a few days at a time while I ponder some issue it raises. So rather than waiting to finish the entire story (which will take weeks at this rate) and offer a straightforward book review, I’m going to share periodic posts as I amble through it.

Last week I started with Weber’s prologue. An agnostic college student, she was confronted with a memorably profane version of the Gospel courtesy of an evangelical professor: “Think of the opportunity that God has given you to study as the means by which to attain your own person 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. And 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)

After two chapters focused on her childhood, adolescence, and the educational path that led her to graduate study in Romantic literature at Oxford (none of which should be skipped, as I’m doing here), we enter “Michaelmas” (the parts of the book are named after the terms of an Oxford academic year) and find Weber beginning to entertain the possibility of there being a “very worthy antidote” through coursework and conversations with fellow students at Oriel College, especially a “tall, dark, and I now noticed, very handsome American” (thereafter known as “TDH”).

At the end of this part of the story, the theme of the prologue reasserts itself in a Christmas party conversation featuring a physicist and a heart surgeon. But before I come to that compelling scene, three stray observations from the first 100 pages or so of Surprised by Oxford.

1. Beware blurbs

As biologist David Barash recently discussed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “one of the least pleasant aspects of book writing… is the obtaining of blurbs,” those brief testimonies in praise of a book that are often less significant than the (famous) names of the persons giving said testimonies. Now, it’s not like blurbs don’t work; I picked up Surprised by Oxford in part because it came with a recommendation from a former pastor of mine who happened to become Weber’s pastor after leaving Minnesota. But often, blurbs result from quid pro quo rather than genuine admiration or even, say, actually having read the book being blurbed.

And there’s another danger: blurbs often praise a book by comparison to other books. Which is fine, to a point: amid all the proliferating options for reading, having a point of reference is helpful. But it invites continuing comparisons that may cause the reader to lose sight of what the author is trying to do.

Case in point: even if Weber (or her editor) hadn’t selected a title designed to make one think of C.S. Lewis (whose own memoir about coming to faith while at Oxford finds him Surprised), a blurb by Lyle Dorsett made the comparison explicit. The same blurb also put Weber’s book “in the vein of” a much more recent memoir, also by a North American woman who studies the 18th century and converted during her time in England: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God.

Winner, Girl Meets GodI happened to enjoy Girl Meets God more than just about any other book I’ve read in the last five years, so this blurb both helped to sell me on Weber’s book and set me up to expect a similar kind of memoir. To a point, the resemblance is there. Beyond the theme of conversion, both authors employ the structure of calendars largely unfamiliar to most 21st century Americans: Weber using Oxford’s academic calendar; Winner the liturgical calendars of Judaism and Christianity. But while Weber’s story is (so far) told in mostly linear fashion, like a relentlessly unfolding argument for faith, Winner (a historian) intersperses elements of her story from different points in her life in service of devotional or theological reflections. Weber’s memoir is indeed in the vein of Lewis’; Winner’s reminded me more of the writing of Kathleen Norris.

Neither approach is inherently better, as far as I’m concerned, but it took me about 50-60 pages to realize that I was chafing at Weber’s method because I was expecting Winner’s.

2. The methodology of memoir

The other thing that I got hung up on was the nature of the dialogue. Not that I’d expect conversations about truth and faith among Oxford literature scholars to be anything but wordy. Erudite, funny, penetrating, and wordy.

And it draws you in. But here’s the thing: does a memoirist truly remember such lengthy exchanges? Surely not verbatim… Right?

Granted, literature scholars, as a rule, are generally smarter than me and certainly more accustomed to memorizing substantial pieces of text. But years and years later, how does anyone recall not just words, but sentences, entire lines of argument?

I’m going to assume that Weber does not possess photographic (phonographic?) memory or hyperthymesia, that there’s a kind of license granted memoirists to recreate moments of conversation as they may have taken place. (If so, the license was issued thousands of years ago; Augustine certainly employed it in Confessions.) Being a member of a discipline that aspires to present the past “as it actually was,” I’m curious to know what conventions govern this kind of writing.

3. Christmas at High Table: Faith and Science, Life and Death

And I certainly hope that Weber’s memory — however much or little embellished — serves her well at the end of the Michaelmas part of her memoir, since she presents a remarkable conversation overheard during a particularly opulent Christmas dinner.

Sitting at High Table (“a table on a raised platform, where the most important people at a formal dinner sit to eat,” according to this Oxford dictionary) by invitation of the Oriel provost, Weber listens in as a world-renowned physicist named Sterling answers this question from the provost’s wife, “…do you believe in God?”

Egged on by two skeptical philosophers and the seemingly inebriated (?) wife of a visiting American politician, Dr. Sterling tries to explain, to his mind, why one can be a scientist and a theist:

“Let’s be frank, shall we?… The more I discovered of the scientific world, the more it convinced me of the amazing interconnectedness and brilliancy of God’s design. People tend to think of science as being at odds with faith, but nothing could be further from the truth. The one only confirms the other; the one only illuminates its echo, and yet its limitations and dependence in the face of the other….

“While they are connected, there is a difference between fear and awe… We shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the awe. All of my work has only proven to me that the imprint of the Divine lies on the natural world. So why wouldn’t the same be the case for science?” (pp. 121-22)

The physicist then put another guest, a heart surgeon named Inchbald (I’m guessing that another convention of memoirs is to make up mildly clever pseudonyms), on the spot: “In many circles, and especially among your astonished parents and their grateful families, you are a god…. What say you?… How do you reconcile God and science?”

Blushing, Dr. Inchbald does his best to answer, eventually coming to this conclusion:

“…that God is sovereign, even over science, and that I cannot pretend to fully know His ways. They really are mysterious, as the saying goes. And they are not of the mind of men, no matter how hard we try to wrap our minds about these ways. I can marvel at the intricacies of the human body, which really are pretty miraculous to behold. In fact, I don’t know how one can go to medical school and not be in greater awe of a Creator than ever before. The original, in both senses of the term, pings into the banal; the heavenly pokes in, pokes through.”

Several guests nodded, a few looked confused, one or two took a hard swig of the liquors now circulating.

“But to cut to the chase,” Dr. Inchbald stated, no doubt seeing the same reactions I saw as he glanced around the table, “when I see death, I know it is wrong.”

“Obviously.” Dr. Rieland [one of the philosophers] snickered.

“But really, really wrong. In-my-gut wrong,” Dr. Inchbald almost pleaded. “It was not meant to be. It was not meant for us. We were not built for it. Everything in my body, at a cellular level, let alone a metaphysical one, twists against it. Not just my death, but the death of every living thing.” (pp. 125-26)

Without exaggeration, I started to weep the moment I read this, a familiar snippet of Scripture immediately coming to mind: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). And I realized, yet again, that much of my life as a professional student of the 20th century deals with death and dying. Niall Ferguson estimates that 167-188 million people died as the result of organized violence in the 20th century; and that number is conservative, not taking into account those who died as the result of neglect by the powerful.

As noble a historical ambition as it is to tell of the 20th century “as it actually was,” always in the back of my mind is a second phrase: “As it was meant to be.” Because not one of those 167-188 million individuals, each bearing the image of God, was meant for the gas chambers, or killing fields, or Gulags, or battlefields.

After Dr. Inchbald finished his discourse, Dr. Sterling added a parting thought: “For me God’s love is so great that it can attract even the farthest, most lost, most seemingly random cell to Him. That we desire to respond, to have right relationship with Him, is the secret. To set it all right. For everything to be all right” (p. 127).

And in the space between “as it actually was” and “as it was meant to be,” I pray that my students find themselves drawn to a God so loving and being equipped to join in His mission “To set it all right.”

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