If Oxford brings to mind cobblestones, study rooms at the top of winding stone stairs, and kettles at the ready, then Carolyn Weber’s memoir, Sex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and Longing, will bear out every thought you’ve had about the place. Following up on her 2013 memoir, Surprised by Oxford, Weber returns to the beloved school where she received her PhD in literature and met her husband, identified only as TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome).
She writes of her years as a young adult, turning over events like the stones she has walked on to reveal some of the crud, yes, but ultimately the rich soil beneath them. While including sex in the title is a bit misleading (there’s certainly nothing how-to in the book), it is a recurring theme, however vague, as Weber makes the point that physical sex foreshadows our ultimate union with Christ. As Augustine put it, “The sexual intercourse of man and woman, then, is in the case of mortals a kind of seed-bed of the [heavenly] city.”
Weber’s story begins with an emotionally and physically complicated scene involving an ex-boyfriend. She’s home from Oxford for her birthday. It’s stormy out, and they are in her family’s run-down spare vacation cabin. She has just become a Christian. There is a bed. They are on the bed. She knows the bed should be off limits. There is a knock on the door. It is her father (or, ahem, the Holy Spirit). She quickly buttons up her blouse. Thus, Weber sets the stage for the account of her dating years at Oxford and her journey toward a mature faith, a story shaped by many literary works that influenced her at the time.
One of the enjoyable things about a book written by a PhD in literature is that poetry is often tucked into the pages. Literature PhDs know their Keats and their Plath, and well-chosen bits of verse often enrich their books like marbling through meat. After describing a dreamlike Advent party in a quintessential twinkle-lit Oxford hall, holly and ivy and TDH included, Weber recalls some famous lines from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
This is the same night she locks eyes with her future husband and he walks across the room to gently brush her hair away from her eyes and scoop her up in a bear hug. It’s a magical evening. Almost too magical. As the poem’s lines imply, even while delighting in the most exquisite moments on earth, Weber remains aware that they will ultimately “flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
But her description of that night shouldn’t tempt you to begin whisper-wailing that you didn’t meet your Tall, Dark, and Handsome while getting your doctorate at Oxford. Even marriages that begin with cobblestones, turrets, and winding stone steps are vulnerable to the human condition, and even TDH will have an argument with his wife every now and then. In fact, near the end of the book, Weber, long married and just having finished an argument with TDH, very unexpectedly comes face to face with a temptation to be unfaithful to her husband. And God—very expectedly—supernaturally intervenes in a moment hearkening back to her father’s knock on the cabin door years earlier.
Throughout the book, Weber lends credibility to her story by including passages on the nuts and bolts of walking with God. She makes clear that growth can come about slowly. “It took a bit more maturing in my faith,” she writes, “to realize that being ‘good’ has nothing to do with receiving grace, and thank God it doesn’t.” The authenticity of her faith shines through when she discusses the ultimate heavenly city.
At times, however, I sensed too great a disconnect between her personal narrative and her passages on spiritual growth. The account of meeting her husband and the sections on maturing in Christ and learning from Augustine’s City of God weren’t as integrated as I would have liked. Oxford and TDH can glow to the point of losing touch with reality, and in these instances, I think Weber could have better served her readers by using events and scenes from her story to show her spiritual progress rather than simply report on it in separate frames.
But where TDH and Oxford can hover untouchable, the author, as in any good memoir, remains the primary protagonist. I trusted Weber from start to finish, especially as she quoted literary giants. Almost all of her chapters begin with an apt epigraph from Augustine. “An epigraph,” she writes, “remains one of my favorite literary devices, perhaps because of how it so strategically yet subtly sets the context for the entire story. It plants a seed.”
Weber nurtures each seed until, like a blazing flower in midsummer, it fans to flame on the page. Her chapters are rich with the beauty of Christ, the eros-flame of ultimate consummation and the eternal glory of a city never ending.
Katherine James is a novelist living in Westchester, Pennsylvania. She is the author of A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love.
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