Today I’ll wrap up my series on Carolyn Weber’s lovely memoir, Surprised by Oxford, with a relatively short post (short, at least, in terms of material I’ll cover from the book itself).
Now, when I last I blogged about this memoir, I went on at some length about the story of Weber’s conversion to Christianity (detailed in the chapter “The Ultimate Valentine”), but noted that the conversion comes with something like 170 pages left in the book. So please don’t let the fact that I’m concluding the series without lots of excerpts from those pages lead you to think the closing parts of the memoir (“Eastertide,” “Trinity Term,” “Summer Sunrise,” and an epilogue) should be breezed through or dispensed with.
Some of the most insightful observations, most heartwarming and heartwrenching conversations, and most poetic language in the book come in its final third. (Much of it dedicated to the challenges that await a recent convert to Christianity.) And those who have read this series since the first post will enjoy how Weber circles back to that encounter with an evangelical poetry professor.
But I was most struck by one relatively brief passage in a chapter that finds Weber sitting alone one night in St. Mary’s Church, wrestling with her anxieties and insecurities by the flickering light of prayer candles (hers on the lowest rung of the holder: “Somehow the lowest rung seemed to be where I belonged,” p. 370). At this point in the story, Weber’s sometime mentor/confidant and possible object of affection, the American theology student she calls “Tall, Dark, and Handsome” (TDH) has been seeing another Yank, a former beauty pageant contestant Weber calls simply “Miss Georgia.” A seemingly perfect woman “whose loaded presence threw my perceived inadequacies in my face” (p. 372).
Among other things, Weber finds herself envying the other woman for having been a Christian her whole life:
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, and 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 this gift of faith from your childhood, to lean into it and grow into it… to even have the luxury to rebel against it.
Mourning came in like a wave I did not know how to surf. Mourning for a lifetime lost in not having had a faith. Mourning for all the things that wounded, for all the things that I thought I deserved. (pp. 372-73)
Reading what for Weber had been a source of envy, insecurity, and perhaps resentment became for me a source of joy. (A major theme of this section of the memoir!)
As I wrote last time, I have no great conversion story: I grew up as a Christian in a Christian home, have always attended church, now teach at a Christian college, and even married a pastor’s daughter. I had the gift of faith from childhood, leaned and grew into it, and (to a minor extent) rebelled against it. So my jealousy is of Christians like Carolyn Weber, who have epiphanies to share, who never have to worry that their faith is an accident of birth (if I’d been born in a Muslim or Hindu country, or as the son of Richard Dawkins instead of Richard Gehrz, would I still be a Christian?), who know Christ with all the passion and thrill of new love instead of as a too easily forgotten familiarity.
I’m grateful to her, then, for holding up a mirror that shows me again the rich blessings of having come to faith as I did, over a life spent in the nurture of parents, grandparents, pastors, and many, many others.
It makes me grateful for my friends at Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut (some fellow grad students, others not) who modeled a life in which evangelical belief, humble service to others, and intellectual curiosity went hand in hand.
It reminds me that I haven’t called my friends Mark and Vicki in far too long. I met them — Mark a Baptist music minister and Vicki a music teacher — as a young college student plagued by doubts about Christianity but habituated to attending church. A shared love of Star Trek became the basis for a friendship that was the closest of my undergraduate years. They later put me up in their home for several months in grad school (providentially, they were called to a church within walking distance of the main American archive in which I did research for my dissertation), and Mark officiated when my wife and I were married.
And, more than anything, Weber’s yearning for a childhood of prayer and table graces evokes my own upbringing, during which my parents loved me into the faith.
As it happened, I read this chapter just before my mother arrived for a brief visit. (My parents moved to southwestern Virginia the same year I started college; they still live there, while my brother, my sister, and I all ended up back in the Twin Cities.) We gathered last Sunday after church for lunch, and as we sang the table grace we always sing at get-togethers on my mom’s side of the family, I found myself thinking more than usual about the words:
Be present at our table, Lord
Be here and everywhere adored
These mercies bless and grant that we
May strengthened for thy service be
Ever present, even in a split-level in suburban St. Paul, God blessed me with devoted, devout parents who adored Him and strengthened me for His service. We don’t use the word “mercies” often enough in our culture or our churches, but these were mercies indeed.
So while I come to the end of Carolyn Weber’s memoir rejoicing again how God surprises people in unlikely places and at unlikely times in their lives, I’m reminded of the joy prevailing in my own, utterly unremarkable story. And because I know that my parents read this blog (and my mother has even read Surprised by Oxford as a result of it and shared a terrific comment on an earlier post), I can thank them in a semi-public forum for giving me “the precious and effective armor” of a faith as old as my childhood.