Carolyn Weber Shares Journey to Faith in New Movie, SURPRISED BY OXFORD
By Cooper Dowd, Movieguide Staff
Award-winning author, professor and speaker Dr. Carolyn Weber recently reflected on the upcoming movie SURPRISED BY OXFORD, based on her memoir of the same name.
The former Oxford University graduate and faculty member revealed that writing a memoir came as a surprise in itself.
“I never anticipated writing a memoir as an academic,” Weber told Movieguide® in a recent interview. “I never anticipated it becoming a film. So that’s been really surreal.”
In the memoir, which was adapted for the screen by director and writer Ryan Whitaker, Weber recounts her journey to faith in God and the many spiritual and intellectual battles along the way.
“It was a story that was very important to me and I wanted to treat it with integrity and be careful,” she explained. “So when Ryan first approached me probably five or six years ago, I was really impressed by his integrity for the project and his care and his wanting it to be sort of invitational and speak to both audiences; people who have faith and people who don’t. That’s the world that I live in and operate with one foot in each, and is precious to my own heart, so getting to know him and his own character, his own love for God, his own creativity, but also this kind of cultural savviness, I was really excited to work with him and then eventually with his team.”
In both the movie and the memoir, Weber’s childhood reveals little connection to faith or Christianity. Growing up in a broken home led Weber to form a self-sufficient attitude to her life that neglected a need for God.
“I grew up in a broken home and an unbelieving home, I really didn’t have much of a notion of faith,” she said. “By the time I was a teenager, I was fairly self-sufficient. I would have called myself an agnostic, not an atheist, because I couldn’t disprove God. But I hadn’t really interacted with Christians other than the larger cultural concept of it.”
However, after learning more about the subject during her time at Oxford, Weber said that she felt called to share her story.
“When I became a Christian at Oxford, as a result of looking into the faith–being invited warmly by Christians to the table, by examining the questions behind it–it started to be something that was percolating, for me, sharing the story more widely,” she added. “I had been encouraged to do so. But I hadn’t thought of doing it. I’d always been an academic writer. So when I really did finally sit down to write it, I wrote it more on the sabbatical kind of between me and God; kind of for really my unbelieving friends and family in a way. That’s where it grew out of was a love for that sphere.”
As its title suggests, Weber said that C.S. Lewis had a profound impact on her perspective on faith, joy, God and Christianity. Weber said that her memoir’s title, “Surprised by Oxford,” is an inside joke referencing Lewis’ work, “Surprised by Joy.”
“Like many people, I knew Lewis as a mainstream writer. I knew him through the Narnia stories as a child and that sort of thing. I didn’t really know him as a Christian writer,” she said. “As I began to delve into him, I really appreciated his accessibility and that kind of welcoming voice that you feel like you’re sitting, having a large cup of tea with him talking about these theological issues, but they’re not off-putting.”
“It was after I started reading more into the intellectual tradition behind Christianity, things that I knew of here and there as a student of literature, but I didn’t realize this long history and how Lewis’ own intellectual wrangling with it, being the most reluctant convert in England. It really spoke to me because I really had battled it against myself,” she continued. “But to find a kindred spirit, later on that road, was really powerful. I wanted the title to reflect that.”
As far as how Weber reacted to Rose Reid’s portrayal of her on screen, she called it “surreal.”
“I still try to wrap my head around it. It was very surreal,” she said. “It’s not just, I hope, an intellectual film. I think it’s also just a film about our own ticker tape with God, our own thoughts with God, which really, to me, is proof enough of grace; that only he and I know my thoughts. The questions that we’re thinking about: who we are, why we’re here, are we significant, do we matter? All those questions that we all ask, at some point, wanting to be loved and known and seen in various ways, she’s able to portray [me] processing that.”
While the movie certainly explores Weber’s journey to faith, it is also a well-crafted love story. For Ryan and Weber, it was important to stay true to her story and, at the same time, tell an entertaining story for all audiences.
“I hope that in the film, people are able to leave the theater with the questions,” she said. “Whether that’s between them and God, they already have a faith, or they’re questioning their faith or their questioning idea of faith, or whether they don’t have any at all, those questions are able to kind of spark or kindle what they wouldn’t normally sit with, which are really the ones that matter. The big questions on which everything else matters.”
“We were hoping it would be a film that people of faith could bring to people who were questioning or not sure, and vice versa,” she added. “[We hope] people of all stripes could go and feel comfortable and feel welcome. And again, that it would have that kind of gentleness to it. We’re really hoping that that would be the case. That it wouldn’t be heavy handed proselytizing, but just reminding rather than teaching. As Lewis said, people need to be reminded more than taught of God’s steadfast law.”
A portion of Movieguide®’s review for SURPRISED BY OXFORD reads:
SURPRISED BY OXFORD is the true story of Carolyn Weber. Carolyn, better known by her classmates as Caro, discovers her greatest love is reading. She flies through undergrad studies and receives an academic scholarship to attend Oxford University. At Oxford, Carolyn embarks on a journey to achieve her doctoral degree. However, through professors and peers, Carolyn comes face to face with her greatest fears, insecurities and misconceptions about life. She must decide what to believe about friendship, truth, God, and morality. Will fear cause her to push those who love her away? Or, will Carolyn learn to surrender herself to a greater truth?
SURPRISED BY OXFORD is a refreshing faith-based romance that stresses story, character and quality. The movie’s strong moral and faith themes are subtle, and never preachy. The production values and acting masterfully succeed in painting a compelling portrait of conversion and enlightenment to absolute morality, God and true joy. Flawlessly intermingled with Caro’s conversion to spiritual truth is a heartfelt love story. However, SURPRISED BY OXFORD has some foul language, drunkenness and adult conversations. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises caution for older children.
SURPRISED BY OXFORD releases on Sept. 27 in select theaters.
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