If there’s one thing Caroline “Caro” Drake knows, it’s that knowledge is power.
Of course, Caro obviously knows more than that one thing. In fact, she knows a whole lot—so much so that her insatiable appetite for knowledge has propelled her through her undergraduate studies on a full ride. She’s such a notable student that she wins another full-ride scholarship to the University of Oxford for her postgraduate studies.
That’s all well and good for Caro, since her ultimate goal in life is to earn her masters and doctorate degrees in Romantic-era literature. But what Caro doesn’t find to be well with her soul is … well … her soul.
Not long after Caro begins her studies at Oxford, she bumps into Kent Weber. He’s a fellow student who’s taken a romantic interest in her. Kent is a devout Protestant, and Caro, who dismissed her mother’s Catholic faith at a young age, just cannot understand how he can believe in such nonsense.
“How does someone who believes in talking snakes get into Oxford?” Caro ponders.
Well, Caro has no time for silly myths like religion—or true love, for that matter. She came to Oxford to continue her pursuit of knowledge, and that’s what she’s going to do.
But if it’s knowledge Caro wants, then she’ll eventually have to grapple with Kent’s Christianity to get it. After all, as it says in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
Kent (and others) slowly help Caro to realize that she’s skeptical of the unknown—religion, relationships and more. They also help Caro to consider the source of that distrust.
When Caro was younger, we learn, she had a good relationship with her father. But her life was changed when FBI agents suddenly appeared and arrested him on multiple felony charges. The incident not only left the young girl feeling betrayed but also uncertain about what the future held. With the help of Kent, friend Hannah and Provost Regina, Caro slowly overcomes this fear.
Caro has a good relationship with her mother. She recognizes that her mother works hard to provide for her, and Caro chooses to help pitch in financially, too. Her mother rejoices with her when she gets her Oxford scholarship, and she is excited to hear from her daughter about how her transition to life at Oxford has been.
Despite being treated quite poorly by her, Kent continues to show kindness to Caro. Additionally, her female friends, Linnea and Hannah, give guidance to Caro when she’s in a tough spot. Likewise, Regina takes Caro under her wing, helping to guide and restore her when Caro makes a couple mistakes. Regina also teaches Caro about Christianity, and she helps Caro learn to ask for help when she needs it rather than suffering in silence.
Caro’s mother is Catholic, and we see her praying the Rosary, which Caro calls a “childish thing.”
Over a pint, Kent tells Caro that he grew up Protestant (prompting Caro to quip, “So, less incense and more Jerry Falwell”). Caro says that half the people you meet in the U.S. are Protestant, prompting Kent to point out that not everyone who claims to be a Christian actually is one: “Fifty percent of Americans consider themselves generous, and they’re not all volunteering at the Salvation Army,” he responds.
Kent’s Christian convictions make him take chastity seriously, and he wants to save sex for marriage. Caro believes that this conviction, as well as many other religious rituals and virtues, makes life joyless. But Kent explains that just because he actively practices what he believes doesn’t make his life any less joyful.
Caro starts to wonder about how Christian pleasure and worldly pleasure might be different. She is moved by Chariots of Fire character Eric Liddell’s famous quote that he feels God’s pleasure when he runs. In fact, it makes her reconsider what it means to feel pleasure. Up to that point, she had equated pleasure with simple happiness or with physical sensations.
Kent recommends C.S. Lewis’ spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy to her; and after she reads it, it’s evident that book has made an impact on her. She is touched by Lewis’ ability to describe things which defy describing, and she begins reconsidering the merit of Christianity following her reading of the book.
The story also explores other classic literature dealing with the divine. A couple of comments are made regarding John Milton’s reasoning for writing Paradise Lost.
She also describes John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 (Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God) as a “classic subversion by the dominant patriarchy, whether it be the church or the male construction of God, of the threat posed by maternal power or the feminine spiritus.” In context, the poem describes a man’s desire for God to use whatever force necessary in order to free him from what he describes as a marriage to Satan, so that he can praise God without sin as he so desperately wants. A professor notes something similar, explaining that “anything without eternal significance is doomed to futility.” That same professor also quotes Ecclesiastes 1:18: “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Regina tells Caro about Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien’s role in leading C.S. Lewis to faith. Several songs reference Christianity. A benediction in Latin refers to each member of the Trinity. Students recite the Nicene Creed. When Caro begins to accept the merits of Christianity, she points out the flaws in the argument of a speaker who believes that all truth is relative. She later admits that she’s been attending a Catholic church.
Elsewhere, a Catholic priest asks a student where he stands on Christianity and its connection to abundant, everlasting life after death. A professor says that whether we are conscious of it or not, we all ultimately bow to something greater than ourselves.
At one point, the university hosts a prominent scientist named Dr. Sterling. He’s asked if he believes in any sort of higher consciousness that exists outside of time, and Dr. Sterling affirms his convictions by citing evidence of design in nature that seems unlikely to have appeared by mere chance.
As Caro struggles with a fear of the unknown, Regina tells her about the loss of her husband. She says her faith is what kept her strong—“a faith that says it’s somehow going to be alright in the end. Doesn’t take away the pain, but it does make it more bearable.”
Caro and her friends go to a Catholic church to look at painter William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. The painting depicts Jesus knocking on a home’s door with no handle to open it. While the others think the painter made a mistake, Caro notes that it is meant to show that the door can only be opened by the person who lives inside the home. The painting is a visual depiction of Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
One teacher, Professor Rutledge, is described as “superstitious and a spiritualist.” Caro believes a student from long ago is haunting her classroom. We hear comments about having a “higher calling” and being “given a gift.”
One student, Edward, laments his inability to bring a girl back to his dorm room, and he quotes Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Edward believes that religion isn’t required to find true meaning.
A student also eats a communion wafer at a Catholic church, either unaware of the bread’s significance or uncaring.
Caro wears a low-cut shirt while working at a pizza restaurant. She asks one table of men if she can get them anything else, and her coworker accidentally bumps her, providing one man with a view of her chest. “A couple things come to mind,” he says.
We see two different couples passionately kissing. One of the couples does so in a stairwell, while the other climbs onto a bed, implying that they plan to go further. Edward flirts with a few women. When he meets Caro, he’s passing by down the hall in just a towel hoping to complain about his shower’s water, and he accidentally exposes himself to Caro. Later, Edward proudly shouts that he’s had sex with Linnea, and Linnea comments on Edward’s performance.
We hear other references to sex. Caro assumes Kent is trying to have sex with her when she reads a text on his phone: “Got a girl for you to meet. Super devout, super hot, super still a virgin.” However, Kent clarifies he isn’t “on some mission to bed godly virgins.” Instead, because of his Christian convictions regarding sex, he says he’d like to find a woman who shares the same values. Caro frequently teases him for being sexually inexperienced. And in trying to open up to Caro, Kent admits that chastity isn’t his favorite Christian virtue, and it’s difficult for him to keep—especially, he notes, when Caro looks very nice at a fancy venue. Caro insults Kent, and he takes the insult in a sexual manner.
Hannah asks Caro and Linnea what the problem is with being a virgin, and Linnea responds “nothing—unless you are one.” Linnea also admits that she finds a priest attractive, and she tells her friends that she desires to sleep with him.
Caro takes a bath, though nothing is seen.
Caro’s father smacks an object in anger.
Various characters occasionally use profanity. We hear the s-word 10 times. We also hear “d–n,” “a–” and “b–ch.” We also hear “bloody h—” a few times. God’s name is used in vain more than 10 times.
Characters drink in various scenes, usually on the side of a meal or at a celebration. In one scene, Caro is visibly intoxicated, slurring her speech.
Caro mentions that a drink looks like urine. Professor Rutledge treats a male student poorly simply because he is a man.
Testimonies are messy. And Surprised by Oxford, which tells the testimony of Carolyn Weber, is no different.
With that in mind, I want to first get some of the more unsavory parts of this film out of the way. Characters, Christians included, use quite a bit of foul language. And we hear plenty of talk surrounding sex—seeking it out, fantasizing about it or otherwise discussing the Christian ethic regarding it. It’s those elements that, at the very least, will likely bump this movie out of consideration for families who want to bring young children.
That said, there’s also an argument to be made that these realistic depictions of people’s choices make the power of this testimony even stronger. Because when I watch Surprised by Oxford, I see my own past reflected there, where I engaged similarly with those cultural issues prior to my college conversion. While I cannot and will not praise such elements in their own right, they do bring to mind Paul’s words in Colossians 3:7 about my life before Christ: “In these [ways] you too once walked, when you were living in them.”
Surprised by Oxford also depicts an intellectual pursuit of Christ—the one study where genuine knowledge will eventually explode into complete joy, regardless of our circumstances. The story takes us on that journey, and it perfectly balances between saying too little about Christ and pushing Christian messages in places where they’d feel forced.
That last point is major: to say it bluntly, I’ve sat through many a Christian film that’s only connection to Christ is one character’s prayer or two. I’ve likewise sat through Christian movies that are so drenched in Christian morals that they forsake plot for a message equating to little more than “Christian good, atheist bad.”
This movie masterfully avoids both extremes, providing a deep look into the Christian faith without drowning its viewer in out-of-place references to it. Surprised by Oxford—based on Carolyn Weber’s autobiographical memoir of the same name—tells a genuine story about Christian conversion, one that feels more realistic than perhaps any Christian film I’ve seen before.
To close out, I will remind once more that this aspect of realism carries some content issues to navigate, too—some that’ll need consideration before viewing. But just as Surprised by Oxford is realistic about the worldly desires we struggle against, it’s likewise realistic about the beauty of the gospel—the one thing that can ever bring us the joy for which our souls so desperately crave.
Kennedy Unthank studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics. He doesn’t think the ending of Lost was “that bad.”