I had the pleasure of watching the film ‘Surprised by Oxford’ recently.
A story about an emotionally guarded young woman who arrives in Oxford with the singular goal of attaining her PhD - but through a turbulent friendship with a charming young man, begins to open herself up to faith, vulnerability, and love.
Firstly, I love seeing a strong female lead in a movie. If you are a fan of: CS Lewis, British cinema, strong female characters and big life questions - this film is for you.
Even if Caro is a tad unlikable, we find out at the start of the movie what in her life has made her that way.
We see enough about her childhood to know that she’s created a path of ‘achievement’ that will hopefully protect her from any future vulnerability.
As an American who has had the experience of living in the UK and of visiting the sacred Oxford University, it had all the nostalgia feels.
But, the beautiful scenery and stellar cast is only one of the film’s true gifts.
The best part about this film is one that seems to confuse both mainstream media and Christian media outlets... because it explores the idea of God without speaking too much about Him.
The director uses references to C.S Lewis, famous philosophers and a young woman’s response to early life disruption as the backdrop to explore the concept of faith without preaching too much to the audience.
I appreciated the subtle and somewhat British approach to asking life’s big questions without bringing out the church choir at poignant moments.
Where challenges are referenced to, but not spelled out completely.
Where the questions are big, but the answers are more nuanced.
The audience has to work for the story a little, but it’s done in a relatable and empathetic way.
'Surprised By Oxford' provides a perfect opportunity to invite anyone in your life to see a film with a heart-warming story and just maybe… start a conversation about life, faith and what this ‘God’ thing might be about.
I love a good faith film.
‘War Room’ is on my viewing rotation when I need some good motivation for this faith journey I’m on and remind me about getting into my prayer room each day.
But ‘Surprised by Oxford’ isn’t like ‘War Room’ - and it's not trying to be.
It doesn’t have a strong call to action for Christians and it’s not there to preach to the choir of already committed Christians.
This is a story that will plant a seed.
It’s a ‘faith starter' film and I would recommend Christians watch it just for the sake of seeing different ways to talk about life and faith – especially to the ‘unchurched’ people in your life.
Some Christian media outlets are criticising the film for ‘leaving God’ out of the dialogue.
Then you have mainstream journalists who find the story ‘too Christian’ – even though apparently the word ‘God’ isn’t even mentioned in the script.
What a conundrum.
To be too Christian for the world, but too worldly for the Christians…
I wonder if that’s similar to what Jesus faced?
Where people don’t know how to label you, and it’s just too different from what most of us are used to seeing on the screen about a person’s faith journey?
Producer of 'Surprised by Oxford' Ken Carpenter recently told Eternity News in an interview:
“There’s plenty of room and a need for films and stories that serve a seed-planting purpose, and those I think are even trickier to handle responsibly. I believe that if we build the right team and if we bring a high commitment to God-honouring artistic excellence, we may have the privilege of doing a piece of work wherein the aroma of Christ might invite people to deeper explorations. That’s the hope, that’s the intent. And that’s not easy, but I am of the persuasion and of the conviction that there’s a real need for that".
It’s easy to criticise a story that leaves questions and room for curiosity and we aren’t used to that form of story or film, particularly in the faith space.
Do we really believe that God is that powerful?
Can His truth really speak through a story when the film isn’t wholly focused on Him and one 'conversion' moment?
Of course He can.
Real faith starts with a genuine curiosity about life, the world and our place in it.
Matthew 7.7 says: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
When someone genuinely seeks to find truth, God will reveal Himself in the most unique and real way and the film is honouring to the heart of the story: a woman who is seeking truth and peace in a world that promises you those things if you 'do' enough or 'achieve' enough.
This film may not win any Christian disruptor awards, but for me it’s done something much more important. It has opened up a space where I can invite people in my life to have a real conversation about where they are at in life.
Isn’t that just what Jesus did?
In War Room, Miss Clara said “People are always trying to leave Jesus out. that's why we are in the mess we are in" – but that’s not the case with 'Surprised by Oxford'.
The film is actually inviting people to have a conversation.
The real treasure in this film lies in the questions the film provokes without giving the answers we are so used to being fed by other films - and that are rarely talked about in the mainstream media.
If we really want to see more faith-affirming content on our screens, whether on the big screen or live streaming at home, we need to show up for the ones that are willing to explore these concepts, even if they are doing it in ways we aren't used to seeing.
Perhaps if more Christians support films like ‘Surprised by Oxford’ that offer a different way of introducing the faith conversation to new audiences, Hollywood will start to take notice too.
Now that would be a nice surprise.
'Surprised by Oxford' opens in cinemas around the world on 27 September.
For tickets and local listings go to https://www.surprisedbyoxford.movie/ .
Want more content around: faith, media and business? Sign up to my newsletter here.