From the beginning to the end of her memoir Surprised by Oxford, Caro (aka Carolyn) explores her journey into the Christian faith. Yet she also invites us on her exploration of God’s love and her discovery of the joy which accompanies faith in Christ.
Caro’s memoir does not serve as an invitation for you to explore God’s love by yourself. Her memoir captivates you to embark on a journey of experiencing fellowship with God in community with others. As her Christian friends drew near to her in fellowship, she experienced the touch of Christ’s love upon her life. God began to seem far less distant and much closer than she had ever imagined.
The joy present within their lives created this paradox which ultimately won her attention. While they took their faith in Christ very seriously, they did not take themselves too seriously. Indeed their charm and humor served as a witness that Christ does not alienate you from the world nor does it cripple you from making a positive impact on people in the world. And their intellect demonstrated that reason and faith do not oppose each other—but rather each informs the experience and application of the other.
We should not underestimate the power of the priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10). As we live out the light of Christ, we captivate our neighbors to walk out of darkness, turn towards Christ, and enter into fellowship with Him. Moreover, we encourage each other to remain in fellowship with God as temptation and trials press us to turn away from Him.
Most importantly, we represent Christ. As we open ourselves up in a spirit of vulnerability and hospitality to our neighbor, we demonstrate the vulnerability and hospitality of Christ. While we stood banished from His kingdom, He entered our world to be cursed on a tree outside of the walls of Jerusalem so that we could celebrate eternal life with Him in the New Jerusalem.
Mystery and Pain
Caro did not arrive at this conclusion without first struggling with the questions which seemed to haunt her past and present. As she lived out those questions, she trusted that God would answer them in his own time. With that as the main thrust of the book, this line seems to summarize her journey as illustrated in her memoir:
“A question mark is a good metaphor for the Christian life. Trusting even when it’s hard. Appreciating the mystery and being surprised by the joy” (Weber, 420).
This runs full circle from the beginning of the memoir’s prologue. Caro asked her professor Dr. Deveaux for his opinion on her final presentation of her senior year in undergrad. His response ended with this remark:
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 (quoted by Weber, 3)
As she left Canada for England, Caro submitted to nobody. As she tried to make sense of her world, she referred to herself as her ultimate reference point for understanding.
Caro might have appealed to literary works, but even her interpretation of those works began and ended with her own categories of truth, goodness, and beauty. Those same categories composed what she considered to be desirable and rational. As she attempted to make sense of both the good and the bad times from her past, Caro appealed to what she reasoned to be logical and what she felt to be right. Throughout her journey of faith, she began to understand the foundation for all the pain afflicting her and the rest of the world.
This foundation pertains to our reference point for understanding reality. We use this standard to verify claims of fulfillment as we search to define our meaning and purpose. We use this guide to answer these key questions: “What is true? And what is false? What is good and beautiful about this world? And what is bad and ugly about it?”
When mankind began to understand reality according to its own understanding apart from God, death entered into the world. Now we strive to answer these key questions: “If pain and suffering feel so wrong, why do they exist within this world? And what is the solution for this dilemma?” As Caro discovers, the Gospel stands as the only remedy for the dilemma of death.
Caro uses a cherry tree as an analogy for her childhood which also serves as an analogy for the rest of mankind. In the memoir, she recalled many sweet memories with her father as a child. As her childhood transitioned from the definition of sweetness to bitterness, Caro remembered how she and her father picked cherries from a tree during the evening time. As they spat the pits into the grass, they enjoyed sweet fellowship while they relaxed in their lawn chairs.
One night during the middle of winter, Caro woke up to the loud strike of lightning. She looked outside to see her beloved cherry tree split into two halves. As she beheld this tragic sight, she heard the snow hissing from the lightning bolt. Soon after that event, her relationship with her father and the stability of her household collapsed.
Seen in the gospel story, as soon as man chose to turn from God, we could no longer eat from the fruit of fellowship with God. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Since then, we’ve lived in the aftermath of being banished from the presence of God.
Yet, Christ came into the world to bring us back into the presence of God. Jesus called Himself the Truth, the One through whom we could know God and understand ourselves. As Caro considered Christ who entered her pain and conquered death, she began to look to Him as the ultimate reference point for her life.
Unlike Caro, we did not lose access to the Tree of Life by what would appear to be coincidence. We chose to pursue knowledge on our own apart from God by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Discontent with being created in the likeness of God, we lusted after the position of being equal with God, if not greater than Him.
To paraphrase John Bunyan, we committed the greatest act of treason. We challenged His justice. We violated His mercy. We mocked His patience. We insulted His power. And lastly, we betrayed His love.
Unlike Caro’s father, God would have not been guilty for abandoning mankind. Yet He chose the opposite reaction. Instead of distancing Himself within Heaven from all of humanity on earth, God took on flesh to draw near to us. Jesus stepped out of paradise. He descended into misery. Jesus gave up the praise of angelic worship for the mockery of His own people. This sacrifice of love freed Caro to believe.
Caro endured the absence of a father; yet she could enjoy the presence of a greater Father forever. The Gospel proved to Caro “that a happy ending makes up for not only a lot, but for everything. And then some” (Weber, 428).
Caro ended her first year at Oxford with the conclusion that her decision to serve God actually freed her to live in sincerity with others. This decision freed her to live a life of contentment, even if she had to momentarily suffice with mere crumbs from the table. Indeed as she began to pack up for her to travel back to Canada, she noted this in a letter:
I presumed that somehow having faith would alienate me from the world or doom me to a life of social hypocrisy. I never realized how, instead, it would require me to deal with the real. Or to love more deeply. Even when I wasn’t in the mood (Weber, 428).
As Caro finished her first year at Oxford, she confessed Christ as her Lord and Savior. And she did not stop there. Caro also confessed how her struggle with doubt led her to this profession:
For now I see that being a thoughtful Christian has never been easy, nor has it been in vogue. I mean “thoughtful” in terms of both owning a compassionate faith that acts in consideration of others, and a faith that has been “examined” – that is, it has been both studied and tested. Made strong by seeing its wants. Tried and not found wanting. (Weber, 428-429)
As Caro begins to land the plane for her memoir, I can’t keep myself from returning to the beginning of her journey where she quotes these lines from Alexander Pope:
I am his Highness’ Dog at Kew
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
To which Caro responded with great reflection:
Granted, the dog image is not as elegant or politically correct, as some might prefer, but it does effectively beg the question: just who is your master? For we all have one. No individual, by the very state of existence, can avoid life as a form of servitude; it only remains for us to decide, deny, or remain oblivious to, whom, or what we serve. (Weber, 5, emphasis mine)
Caro no longer served herself. She served God. This memoir serves as a beautiful invitation for us all to (re)enter into the same freedom of submission to Christ.