For those who love C.S. Lewis, Carolyn Weber’s conversion story sounds familiar: Like the Chronicles of Narnia author, she was a skeptical Oxford scholar who didn’t see faith as compatible with intellect — until she discovered Christ as the only solution to the “inconsolable longing” every human experience.
“I was very skeptical myself; [Lewis] calls himself ‘the most reluctant convert,’ kicking and screaming,” the award-winning author told The Christian Post. “I really recognized and resonated with that twofold. On one hand, I came from a background of really assuming that intellectualism can’t go hand in hand with faith, and also emotionally from a background in which my earthly father was not dependable, so there was no way I was going to trust in an eternal one.
“There were a lot of metaphysical questions as well as very pragmatic ones. But as I was introduced to the faith and to Christians, and I read the Bible for myself, I was able to sit with those questions and ideas instead of being so distracted: ‘What am I longing for?’ And ultimately the answer to the question, ‘Who do you say I am?’”
It was Lewis' exploration of joy, longing, and the quest for truth, outlined in his book Surprised by Joy, that deeply resonated with Weber, who today serves as a professor at New College Franklin in Franklin, Tennessee. Her memoir, Surprised by Oxford— the title a nod to Lewis’ book — recounts how, as a young agnostic, she came to faith during her first year at Oxford while studying the Romantic poets and authors.
“I love Lewis, but at the time, I was like many other people in North America. I only knew Louis through the Narnia Chronicles, maybe as a child. I had no idea he wrote on the breadth of topics he did, and so I really wanted to evoke the title Surprised by Joy. It’s actually a line from a Wordsworth poem, and I was a Romanticist. I love the notion of longing and how all joy reminds... I was really struck by that as I read more of Lewis, and I wanted to evoke that title in my own memoir by being Surprised by Oxford, going there to study, and never anticipating becoming a Christian.”
Weber’s memoir is now a major motion picture of the same name starring Rose Reid, Ruairi O’Connor, Phyllis Logan (“Downton Abbey”), Simon Callow and Mark Williams ("Father Brown"). Written and directed by Ryan Whitaker, the film was shot on location in Oxford and features some of its most notable sites, including Blackwell’s Bookshop and the University Church of St. Mary.
The drama opens with the troubled home life of Caro Drake. She sees books and intellect as a way to escape from the turbulence at home and eventually makes her way to Oxford, where she seeks to earn her Ph.D. But her troubles seem to follow her as she grapples with bitterness from her upbringing and struggles with questions of the faith, both challenged and supported by her colleagues along the way.
“It was really beautiful and profound and powerful,” Weber said of watching her story play out on the big screen. “I'm very grateful because, at this point, there are other people in my life in that film who have since come to become Christians themselves. So that was really powerful. It’s emotional, very surreal. It's also an adaptation, so some things are truncated or changed and there's some artistic or poetic license, but overall, it was really personally powerful and something I never would have anticipated happening.”
It was at Oxford that Weber met her now-husband, Kent, who was the first person to introduce her to the Gospel. The film captures their love story and how Kent pursued Weber despite her initial reluctance, walking alongside her in her pursuit of the truth.
“I think we assume that people know the Gospel in North America, but we don't,” she said. “I was a perfect example of someone who's gone through public school and never cracked open a Bible, who has their notion of Jesus through the media or television. Kent articulated clearly the Gospel, and that just sat with me. It was actually very inconvenient. But we were friends for a long time, and one thing that spoke to me was his kindness, his humility, the fact that he was open to questions; he asked me a lot of questions.”
Weber, who has since served as faculty at Oxford University, Seattle University, University of San Francisco, Westmont College, Brescia University College and Heritage College and Seminary, said Romantic literature and the teachings of C.S. Lewis continue to influence her and point her to the “glory of God.”
“I love literature; I love teaching literature because I feel it's a conduit; it's an open doorway. It's like a Narnia wardrobe, into other worlds, to be able to actually examine other worlds so we can know our own better,” she said. “I think that's also why Jesus told stories … stories allow us to compassionately enter other people's ideas and morals, but it also encourages us to think through who we are in the greater story of things … I haven't read anything that hasn't directed me to the glory of God.”
She credited Lewis' enduring appeal to his accessible and intimate writing style, describing him as a “delightful companion in the pages.”
"He's able to move from all these different topics ... but you always feel like you're having a cup of tea with him," Weber added.
Reflecting on rising skepticism among young people — something she is familiar with — Weber echoed Lewis' sentiment that many avoid faith because they don't perceive it as relevant.
“I would just encourage, particularly students, our God's not a fragile God,” she said. “Any question is fine from within the faith or without it, from outside or inside. All those questions are important; all of them bring us closer to Him. Every thought we have can bring us closer or further, and even the ones that are filled with doubt or we're walking through what we might think would be skepticism can draw us closer."
Think about what matters, the great questions that really matter, because everything else is empty," she added. "And it can sound trite to say that but it is, and it really does release us to live. Especially in North America, we’re hesitant to give up the good for the best because we associate good with comfort or distraction. But, knowing that God is with us, Emmanuel, makes all the difference.”
Through her story, whether accessed through her book or the film, Weber said she hopes people are challenged to “sit with the larger questions, with the things that matter between themselves and their souls.”
“I hope that it would have a gentle effect of snow falling and that silence that deep snow has, where you have a chance to sit with yourself and think of the answer that you would have to, ‘Who am I?’ and, ‘Who am I to you?’ as Jesus poses to us, and to really give that some thought, some space in your heart and in your mind, as opposed to just dismissing it or being afraid of it. Perfect love drives out fear, and to extend that love to yourself as well.”
Though family-friendly, “Surprised by Oxford” is not a faith-based film; it includes several misuses of the Lord’s name and some profanity. The film will be in theaters for a two-night theatrical event on Sept. 27 and Oct 1.
Watch the exclusive "behind the story" below:
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org