WARREN SMITH, GUEST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with the author of two powerful memoirs—Sex and the City of God and Surprised by Oxford—Carolyn Weber.
Carolyn Weber’s 2014 memoir, Surprised by Oxford was an account of her conversion to Christianity while a student at Oxford. It has been called one of the great spiritual memoirs of our time, and has even been compared to such all-time greats as Lewis’s Surprised By Joy and St. Augustine’s Confessions.
She’s back with a new memoir that – in some ways – takes up where her award-winning first book left off.
The very title of her new book—Sex and the City of God—reflects the tension, the difficult cultural moment, in which Christians live. We live with one foot in the world depicted in the book and TV series “Sex and the City,” and yet the Christian’s heart longs for the world St. Augustine helped us see in his book The City of God.
Carolyn Weber herself calls her new book a “memoir of love and longing.”
After completing her D.Phil. from Oxford, she became the first female dean of St. Peter’s College, Oxford. She has been an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, Seattle University, and Westmont College. She now teaches at her undergraduate alma mater, The University of Western Ontario, as well as at Heritage College and Seminary.
Due to COVID restrictions, Carolyn Weber and I had this conversation thanks to a bit of digital magic. I was in my home office in Charlotte, NC, and she was calling in from Ontario, Canada.
I wanted to start actually with Surprised by Oxford because there are, I guess it’s impossible to read that title and not think of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. And it’s maybe an obvious question, but was the illusion intentional?
CAROLYN WEBER, GUEST: Obvious questions are the best kind. The illusion was intentional. Later when I was writing the book, I was working with Thomas Nelson and we had a couple of different titles in mind. But that was definitely a title with a nod to Lewis. I was really shaped by his theology and by his own personal walk. I hadn’t read Surprised by Joy before I was a believer. I actually wasn’t aware of his own conversion in Oxford until many years later. So it was really a wonderful book to revisit. And one that I felt then in retrospect, really in God’s sense of humor, was very much parallel to the situation I had gone through. So it was definitely a nod to him by no means the same caliber, but hopefully a hat tip.
SMITH: Yeah, well, it was definitely a hat tip and a number of other hat tips in your book and also in Sex and the City of God. But I want to start, again, with Surprised by Oxford and just ask you to tell me a little bit of the story that you spend, you know, well over 400 pages telling in Surprised by Oxford. So, we won’t tell the whole story, but your upbringing and your conversion experience. Can you briefly walk us through that?
WEBER: Yeah, sure, Warren. I grew up, I would describe a family that was loving, but as I described it in the book, loving enough to get by, but not really deserving of God’s attention. I kind of grew up like many in an average home in North America. Not really much religion, certainly no idea of faith or even of knowing Jesus. My home was a broken home. My parents were divorced later in life. They actually stayed together for a long time, but my father was in and out of our lives and he was an absentee father. He had actually been a man who had established his own business. He had brought himself up by his bootstraps, Warren, and had been a successful businessman. But he actually lost all of that in a really tragic turn of events. And he ended up having a breakdown. So he was in and out of our family life, oftentimes with a lot of violence as well, anger, aggression. And my mom was a single mom raising us and she was a wonderful mother, just an amazing mother, very loving. She also dealt with alcoholism, you know, to manage her stress. So I was very close to my siblings. Love my parents, but also was marked by brokenness. Certainly wasn’t going to trust fathers, let alone any eternal father. But I think, like so many people as well, having this longing in my heart for something more than what I could put my finger on in life, but I was really determined to make my own way, to provide for myself, to be self-sufficient. And I was an excellent student. I loved my studies. Reading was a place of refuge for me as well.
And I think really by the time I had won a scholarship to Oxford, it was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. It was an amazing opportunity. I was studying literature at the time. I was very, very excited to go and very, very homesick. And I can really see how in many ways God had sort of prepared my heart at that time to be laid open. And when I arrived at Oxford, I wasn’t looking for God. I wasn’t asking huge theological questions, but I was starting to study world religions for my master’s at the time. And I was really starting to look at Christianity and not only academically and asking all of these questions, but really starting to meet Christians in a way that I hadn’t known of them before. And I was interested in how they were living their lives, interested in their walk and, and as much as they irritated me, I also couldn’t help but realize and recognize sort of this sincerity in them. By no means perfect, but they were trying. Not trying in the worst sense of the word, but trying at least in a way that I didn’t see others trying. And I met some pretty influential Christians whose model really spoke to me. So that door started to just slowly be opened. And eventually after studying there for almost a year, I became a Christian myself. Reluctant, much like C.S. Lewis, but actually I really couldn’t deny who my Savior was at that point. And it’s been an adventure ever since.
SMITH: I want to pause you there just for a moment and back up to a couple things that you said. And I certainly don’t want to reduce your story to a cliche, but coming from a broken home—and you alluded to this yourself and go into it in somewhat more detail in the book—the absentee father did create something of a longing in you. And also the brokenness of your home. You mentioned, again briefly, that you turned to books as kind of a refuge from that. Can you say more about that period in your life? I mean, do you think that God was preparing you for an encounter with the heavenly father because of your kind of up close and personal experience with a very broken father here in the world?
WEBER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, God knows all of our Achilles heels, you know, our gifts as well as our weaknesses and the things that we all long for. And, you know, Warren, as I think I said in my book, I would have traded anything actually for a loving relationship with my father. And even when we kick against that, I think that’s what we would all want. And I think our fathers are tremendously important as are our mothers, but are we’re commanded to honor them for a reason. And, you know, there’s a reason why Darth Vader says I am your father. You know, it’s at the root of all of the epics, of all of the big stories. We all seek to know our father and I think in many ways our earthly father is very symbolic of that with our eternal father. And so there was this great wounding I had because I desperately loved my father and I knew he loved me, but of course I was too young to understand his own brokenness as well. And there was just a lot of pain in that relationship and a lot of anger and resentment I carried, especially then seeing my mother struggling to raise us often so much alone. And I think that the Lord does work through our wounds. Obviously, I mean, that’s the great story of the resurrected body, too. But he does work through our wounds to bring us to him. And that was a place for me of great significance was knowing my father.
SMITH: I want to come back now to the actual moment of your conversion. You mentioned C.S. Lewis who famously said that he was the most reluctant convert in all of England. As I read your book, I got the idea that maybe you weren’t quite as reluctant as C.S. Lewis, but you were nonetheless kind of surprised by it. And especially kind of given the trajectory that you were on as a top flight student and heading towards a career in academia. Can you say more about that time in your life?
WEBER: Absolutely. I mean, obviously there was a deep longing in me. A sun soaked, as he says, that I think we all have, that makes us so human of wanting to know our eternal father, of this homesickness for heaven. But, you know, Warren, I had made my own way and I was only going to depend on myself and I had chosen a life in academia. And particularly with feminism. I did not know the Bible. I’m a perfect example of someone who could go through 20 years of the public school system and never crack open a Bible. I was studying 18th and 19th century literature, and I knew bits and pieces here and there, but it really wasn’t until I was starting my graduate studies where I thought, you know what, I better actually read the Bible cover to cover because it’s formed just intellectually and historically so much of Western civilization. But secondly, because I thought, well, you know, these Christians are really, really getting under my skin and I think I better just read what they believe and see if I can poke holes in it. And so I actually start reading the Bible really quite cynically at first and just as fodder and as a trained reader entirely expecting it, especially as a woman, to be off-putting, you know, with this male savior and these male disciples in this whole patriarchal history. And I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. I remember reading Genesis and thinking, wow, the fallen world makes sense. And wow, this moves from Genesis through Revelation, through all the prophecy, everything else you couldn’t make up the stuff, if you tried. It was so incredibly intricate and symbolic in so many ways that you could never get to the bottom of. And I was floored. I didn’t expect that. So that was a bit of a game changer.
SMITH: Yeah. I’m wondering, Carolyn, if your literary training in some ways might have amplified that impact. In other words, you weren’t reading the Bible—in some ways you had the advantage of not reading the Bible the way many church people have been brought up in it, which is kind of one verse at a time. You came to it with a literary mind, reading it as a story as a narrative, as kind of this tale of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration rather than these disjointed books verses and chapters along the way. Is there anything to that idea?
WEBER: You know, Warren, that’s actually a very beautiful insight and it just proves again, I believe, again, what C.S. Lewis says, when we look back over our lives, we can see the handiwork of God, you know, we can almost plot it out. And it is, again, an example of something that was a gift for me, or a joy for me, or something that I enjoyed that only pointed me more to him again. Because it’s interesting, once I became a believer, I actually had a great wave of grief for all the things I’ve missed. I thought, Oh, I don’t have the verses memorized. I didn’t say grace before meals. All of you Christians have been so lucky. All these things that you’ve enjoyed for so long. And I remember not being able to find my place in the Bible, you know, in church and everybody’s whipping through it so easily and I’m not. And yet, you’re right. There isn’t a tremendous gift. And he uses our gifts to bring us to him. Just like you said earlier, he uses our wounds. Everything is used by him. Nothing’s wasted and it’s all made new. And you’re right. I had this profound respect as well as just amazement at how powerful the Bible was. Not only in its individual verses and the ways that it posited these, as Tolkien says, these truths that lie too deep for frost, these truths that bear repeating and they are always relevant. But the overall story was incredible and it made sense. It was logical, but it was also profound and mysterious at the same time. Unlike anything else I’ve ever read and everything I have read before then and since has only pointed more towards the glory of God.
SMITH: Well Carolyn, before we move on, I would like for you to say just a word or two, maybe a minute or two about the conversion experience itself. How was that for you?
WEBER: Well, I think that was one that I was kicking against and reluctant for some time, especially at the beginning, maybe not as badly as Lewis towards the end, but certainly I really resisted it intellectually for a long time. My stereotypes of Christians, Warren, were people that take your money on television shows, people that just have swirls for eyes saying scripture is rote answers to things. I mean, really my only understanding of Jesus was through the media. And this is some time ago, but even still, right, that’s not really a very representative notion of having a personal relationship. Something like a personal relationship with Jesus was incredibly alien to me. And yet as I grew to know more of these Christians, as I was involved in these vibrant groups, as I was reading the Bible for myself, and thinking about prayer and that sort of thing, eventually it was more of a melting into the reality of the truth. I think when I first heard the gospel and the gospel is so powerful. Once you hear it, you can never unhear it. And I’ve still never heard anything like it that lays a line in the sand, like for anything else as it does for anything else. I mean, people are either angry or they kick against it or they embrace it or it’s planted. It’s something that’s planted. I remember the first time I heard it, it felt like a little combination lock clicked in my heart of something that seemed true, but I couldn’t quite allow it to be true because it would change everything for me in a way that I was terrified of. But actually I got to a point where thinking through all the big questions is great and it’s important, and those are necessary. God wants our questions, but you get to a point where the intellect will only take you so far. And it was then both sort of a head and a heart journey when I finally did give my life to Christ. And it was, as Sheldon Vanauken said, it was not just so much the leap forward as looking at the gap behind me if I were to reject him. And I think both the rejecting and the accepting was part of the conversion
SMITH: Welcome back I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my interview with Carolyn Weber. Her new book is Sex and the City of God. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Carolyn, I’d like to pivot in our conversation and talk a little bit more about your newest book Sex and the City of God. And once again you are sort of name checking a couple of previous works. In some ways you go from kind of the ridiculous to the sublime in just a few words. Sex and the City, of course, is a popular, famous television program and the City of God of course calls up illusions of Saint Augustan as well. And so again, I can’t believe that that wasn’t intentional.
WEBER: Yeah, in some ways my editor and I, we had fun with it before. I had thrown it out as kind of a playful title, but actually as we really thought about it, I was trying to bring together what happens when we really think about, I mean, these kinds of questions about sex and relationships, and that were always coming up to me, particularly, Warren, teaching the college age students I teach both at Christian colleges and secular colleges, much of my life as a professor. And now it was coming to me from my children and a lot of women’s events and things like that. All these questions about relationships and intimacy. And yet in our larger culture, we tend to leave out—regardless of how we define relationship—also, God. So Sex and the City is such sort of a common concept of the HBO show that people throw around, you know, the notions that the media or larger culture have of this kind of laissez faire, you know, relationships with no ties, all this sort of thing that becomes kind of a bit of a cliche. But I thought, what happens if we add “and God” to that as we should have really everything but particularly the relationships that we tend not to. There is another way. There is another way. And I didn’t mean to explore it in a heavy-handed way, so I wanted to keep it light, but I also wanted to have a side to it that did have this gravitas, that did actually make us think what are the consequences of our decisions? What are the consequences and realities of obedience, and of taking all of our decisions to Christ first. Whether we’re married or single, if we’re Christians, we are married to Christ first. And that organizes all of our decisions and orders our loves. And so that’s where the title really grew from.
SMITH: Well, you mentioned orders our loves, and of course that’s a concept that comes, I guess, very directly from Saint Augustine. And he talks about loving the right things in the right way. And I think that’s probably what you and he meant by this idea of ordered love. Is that a fair summary?
WEBER: Exactly, exactly. Ordering our loves, which really is basically ordered on the 10 Commandments as well. I mean, you have to have that first commandment and then how Jesus builds on that as well. Loving others as we love ourselves and loving God first. And if we have that platform first of loving God first, our other loves do fall into place.
SMITH: Well, there are some characters in the Sex and the City of God that first showed up in Surprised by Oxford, not least of which is your father. You talk about your father in both books. You talk about TDH in both books. Can you tell everyone who TDH is?
WEBER: Well, TDH—tall, dark, and handsome—how my friends and I joked about him was a tall, dark and handsome theology student. One of the first Christians I ever met, actually the first person to really clearly articulate the gospel to me as a friend at Oriel College when we were living in the same building there together as graduate students, after I arrived at Oxford. And so I went back to writing about kind of the fun memories, but also my growth and my faith with his friendship, as well as more of the world of faith that he introduced me to and that I also started to explore more, even after he left. And I stayed on at Oxford. He’s now more in TBH—or tall, bald, and handsome—because I did end up marrying him.
SMITH: By the way, I very much related to that. As somebody who, I don’t know if I was ever tall, dark and handsome, but I’m definitely tall and bald now. So, that was nice and everywhere. For bald men everywhere, thank you very much.
WEBER: And he’s always mortified that I used that acronym. But it was my girlfriends. It was meant in fun. But yeah, it’s a lot of fun. So I am very blessed to be married to him. I didn’t see that coming either. And so I wanted to go back and look at those questions of courtship and dating and relationships that I would often have questions about when I was talking with women or in Bible studies or with many students to go back and look at, you know, people would ask me, what was it like then becoming a Christian and then entering the dating world or the dating scene by a whole new different set of rules. And I just really wanted to maybe then explore what happens when we start to think about ordering our loves, when we think about our relationship to relationship. And it was really my father. It was my father’s death that precipitated this book, Warren. Later in my life, we came back home to London, Ontario to my family here, and to spend time with my parents and my father, and I enjoyed a great reconciliation. My father came to know the Lord. We really had a beautiful few years with him before we lost him, but I had the privilege of caring for him in his last days and he’d had a brain bleed. And then I was with him in the ICU for several weeks after that as well. And, you know, it just hit me sitting there, especially, wow. You know, who we share our deathbed with is really dictated to most times by who we share our marriage bed with, or our intimate beds with. What are the repercussions of our decisions? And also the repercussions of the ways that we honor people in our various relationships, or we think about our lives of faith. And again, not in a heavy-handed way or in this heavy discussion of purity and whatnot, but really looking at actually what, you know, the relevance of reverence, the relevance of these decisions that sometimes we have to make in the dark based entirely on faith. And sitting there with my father and the fruits that we were really blessed with in that relationship, really shine a light on thinking about, you know, the city of God as opposed to the city of man. And which citizenship do you hold? Are you a citizen of the temporal? Are you a citizen of the fast fix? Are you a citizen in which you don’t think beyond the commandments that might be in place to actually help you and to give you not just a good life, but a better one? Oftentimes good is an enemy of best. Or are you a citizen of the eternal city? And if you’re a citizen of the eternal city, you know, they’re both called to live in peace, but they’re both called to very different ends. And sitting there with my father dying really shed more light on which city I belong to, wanted to belong to. And in which there’s all the meaning.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, that part of your story, the story of your father, which you were very plain-spoken, shall we say, in talking about your father’s brokenness, the brokenness of your family, the brokenness of that relationship, but then coming full circle and the reconciliation there was a beautiful part of your story. And in some ways I guess there was also kind of a beautiful, since you were an 18th century person, there was a beautiful, terrible symmetry to that as well. There’ll be an illusion to Blake there, William Blake, for some of you that might know. I think in a properly ordered family, it’s the father that directs the family, the children towards God. The father is, you know, maybe a shadow of, maybe in fact, certainly a shadow of an imperfect representation of God. But nonetheless, someone in the family who can point the children towards God. And in your case it was almost just the opposite of that. It was the longing that was created by your father and his brokenness that directed you towards God. And then it was God who allowed you guys to have that ultimate reconciliation there that we learn about later in the book. Am I sort of capturing that?
WEBER: Absolutely. Because, you know, I was really blessed to have that sort of icing on the cake. You know, we don’t know what we’re going to have on this side of heaven and whether we’re going to have her conciliation or not. Actually most of our faith walk is dependent on trusting regardless. But that was a tremendous gift for me. I think growing up in a broken home where my father was not the spiritual head of the home, Warren, really highlighted for me the collateral damage that happens as a result to a family. I carried a lot of anger at my father for the consequences on particularly my mother and that’s not to absolve her of her own personal decisions in that, too. But a lot of pain comes from that sort of brokenness when there is a failure to lead or when there is a failure to lead with love. And yet as I got older and grew my own faith to recognize how broken we all are, we’re all sinners and we’re all broken. And to have more compassion for the tools and limitations that my father didn’t have as well as myself, too, my own lack of understanding in that. And so I think coming to my father with forgiveness, as well as asking his forgiveness for the things I couldn’t understand, I didn’t have any kind of expectation at all. I actually thought my father might not be able to even read the book, that he would not be mentally able to read it because of the state at the time, but it just broke them open and he wanted a relationship. He said to my husband I want to know the God that you know. I want to know your God. And how much he respected my husband for his love in our home and leadership in our home. And him as a father, which my father never had. So these cycles of pain really do play out on each other. And this is where I’m always amazed at the Bible. You know, the Bible says the sins of the father are going to play it. Well, of course they do. We see that these cycles of pain get inherited and with them repeated brokenness and Jesus is our only savior to pull us out of that. And I’m just grateful that in my lifetime, he allowed me to taste that witness in that particular relationship. But you know, we’re ultimately all promised that with him ourselves. But, for me, that was yeah, it was a very powerful thing. And it got me really to thinking about our relationship to relationships.
SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in on my interview with Carolyn Weber, as we discuss her books, Surprised by Oxford and Sex and the City of God. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Carolyn, I want to pivot just a little bit in our conversation and talk about sort of the process of writing a memoir like the ones that you have written. Not just Sex and the City of God, but also Surprised by Oxford, which in some ways they’re of a piece of. I don’t know whether you intended them to be that way or not, but I could almost see them as part one and part two of your story. And, you know, Surprised by Oxford we’ve already identified has a very direct allusion to Lewis’ memoir of his conversion Surprised by Joy. The City of God by Saint Augustine is probably, I think, many people will talk about Saint Augustine as having written the single greatest spiritual memoir of all time. And that is his Confessions. And you mentioned Sheldon Vanauken in this interview, and you mentioned him a couple of times in your book. Those of my generation, perhaps more than a younger generation, remember his book A Severe Mercy, which was kind of a touchstone for a lot of evangelicals in the 1970s and eighties. And so given all of these allusions which again are, I’m sure must be intentional, what did that do to you as a memoirist? I mean, standing on those guys’ shoulders must have been a great responsibility. You must have had some fear that what you wrote would measure up to these great memoirs. And yet, let me just say from my point of view, they absolutely do, but what was the process for you in terms of writing them? Did you have that fear, that concern or not?
WEBER: That’s a great question. And, you know, when you cited Blake earlier, I’ll give you another romantic writer, John Keats, and he says the same thing of John Milton. He says, you know, how can we ever write in the wake of someone like Milton? We’re always going to have this anxiety of influence. And I think every author labors beneath that, for sure. And yet there’s hope in trying not to compare and in a sense not to covet. It’s another commandment, but to actually think about you know, what have I learned here that I would like to still prayerfully share with brothers and sisters, but also think about how to come before God with it. And so, I mean, I think there always is that anxiety of influence and that pressure of production when you’re entering into a conversation. But also remembering that all of these writers want the conversation. They would have wanted the conversation, and we’re all entering into this conversation to the glory of God and to explore those things together. And so, you know, I was really moved. A Severe Mercy was a very influential text to me. I first read it, Warren, when I was not a believer and it was another one that really sucker punched me. I didn’t see it coming. And I actually wasn’t thinking about it until later, again. I was actually teaching it to some students more recently, but, I mean, it really does look again at how even a great love can become an idol. And it goes back to the ordering of our loves, where even our marriages, our children, this is also in The Great Divorce, you know, that Lewis explores as well. Anything can be an idol. Even something incredibly well-intentioned. Even a form of love. And that ordering of our loves is not only honoring God and putting those loves in the correct order, but it’s showing us how best to love, which I also really experienced in that situation with my father, for instance. And so I think, you know, marriage can become, just like anything else, an idol where you expect the other person to be everything, you expect the other person to be God for you. And, you know, Lewis writes actually in a letter that he wrote to Vanauken where he says the secret of all happy couples is the fact that they’ve understood this little death. All these ways that we have to die to ourselves all the time in order to be reborn in Christ. And one of them is actually allowing the marriage in a sense to die. Not always physically, not always the loss of the spouse in a physical way, but in that sense of allowing the idol to die so that God can take its place. And then actually the marriage becomes a healthier place because you’re not expecting that person to be your savior, to be everything to you.
It’s a hard tightrope walk on this side of heaven, again. But I think that so jumped out to me when he wrote that to Sheldon, to Van. But years later, after, you know, almost a quarter of a century of marriage, I can see how that’s really the case. And that’s also what I wanted to explore was that, you know, all those love stories are not the love story. The perfect one in God, for us, regardless of our relational status is that love and him first and his love for us first that dictates everything and removing any other idols from that even the most well-intentioned.
SMITH: Carolyn, first of all, that was a beautiful answer. Thank you so much for that. It was really great. I hope you will allow me to go from that mountain top to a couple of rather mundane questions here as we sort of wrap up here.
WEBER: I am much more comfortable in the valley. Trust me, Warren.
SMITH: Well, a couple of quick questions—kind of lightning round questions, maybe you could say but did you know Sheldon Vanauken? It occurs to me that he was at Lynchburg College for a number of years and he died what, 20 years ago or so, but did you ever run into him? Did you ever meet him?
WEBER: I did not meet him personally. I got to meet his son-in-laws and actually sort of a close family friend of his when I was at Oxford through the C.S. Lewis society, some really gracious people. My husband, though, did meet him. My husband actually had a longstanding correspondence with him. And then my husband went out, he was working in D.C. at the time and going to Wheaton. So he was on the East Coast and he actually went and visited and stayed with Van in Lynchburg. So he has met him personally, and we’re blessed with actually some signed copies of A Severe Mercy. And he does remember him as obviously a very thoughtful and amazing and beautiful person and also quite an eccentric person. He had this old car that he drove and he didn’t like to have his picture taken. And he was apparently quite the character, but quite the gentlemen.
SMITH: Yeah, well, I had a very brief correspondence with him before he died and he would send me notes on postcards that were typed on a manual typewriter from edge to edge. I bet he would get three or 400 words on a regular sized postcard. I mean, I got a couple of regular letters from him as well, but yeah, it was just one of a number of eccentricities. The other question that I wanted to ask you about, Carolyn, kind of in our leave taking here is when you’re writing a memoir what process do you go through mentally, emotionally, or maybe even with the other people involved in figuring out which part of this story is your story to tell—the story that you really have permission to tell—and the story that might be, you know, kind of fall into the TMI category, the too much information, or maybe would be revealing or betraying even the confidence of another. Because you know, you’ve got stories in here by your father. You’ve got stories in here about your husband. What sort of vetting process, what sort of final edit approval did you give at least your husband, I guess your father had passed away by the time at least the second book had come out, but was that a part of your thought process at all?
WEBER: Oh, absolutely. And it was a very large thought process with Surprised by Oxford, Warren. I had never written a memoir before. I never would have guessed I would have. I had always been an academic writer. And I really labored over that and prayed over it and wanted to be careful. And I really learned to apply the Golden Rule. Don’t say anything about others that you wouldn’t want to have said about you. I remember corresponding with a famous author at the time who had done a memoir and I asked her, you know, what would be a recommendation? And she said, you know, write a copy that’s true to you. And then make sure, you know, that you’ve edited down, share it with those that you can, another one was like, said something like, well, write like as though your parents are dead, which I couldn’t do that. And another close friend said, you know, write up a cathartic piece and then put it in, you know, a golden chest that you’ll never share with anyone else. And then, you know, polish and tidy that up. So I always try to think about how I’m presenting people in a way that I would like to be presented. If it’s a problematic person I always change, you know, identifying details or if you can’t get permission, but otherwise, especially with memoirs written more recently, you know, very much seeking permission of anybody who is identified or discussed. Otherwise changing the identifying details. So there’s that, but with my father, what was interesting was, my father actually, after he became a Christian, he said to me, I want to write a book with you. And I had, you know, four kids under six, so that wasn’t going to happen. I was just trying to get showered, Warren. I was just like trying to get dressed each day in something that didn’t have baby spit-up on it. But you know, after we lost him, it really resonated with me. And that was another thing that really shaped the book. And that’s actually why I also closed it with going back to his death and back to the voicemail that we found after he passed, which was amazing. You know, which I literally picked up later. So I think just trying to be alert. My husband and I always talk about what I’m writing. My close friends, if they’re involved or mentioned, you know my siblings, that sort of thing. I think just having communication and just being respectful of the Golden Rule.
SMITH: Well, since you mentioned it, and I don’t know if you’ve got it in front of you, Carolyn, if you do, I would love for you to read it, but do you mind reading that voicemail from—do you have it in front of you that voicemail from your father?
WEBER: I have a copy of the book here. I’ll just see if I can,
SMITH: It’s on page 204, by the way.
WEBER: Yeah, here it is. Yeah. I remember it was about a month after my dad passed away and I was picking up messages on my cell phone, Warren. And my phone doesn’t always click as to which messages I’d heard. And I don’t know why I didn’t hear this one, but as I write here, “Here’s the message my father left. Clear as a bell in mind and voice, and the message said, “Hi, honey. I just wanted to tell you I’m doing fine. And I love you very much. I hope you have a good trip. Tell that wonderful husband of yours that I love him. Thank him for teaching me about Jesus. I know that I am loved and that God is with me. He has always been with me. Thank your husband for helping me learn what it is to be a good dad. Goodbye, sweetheart.” And that was particularly powerful for me because not only did I pick it up after he had passed, but my father had explained to my husband and I how when we came back and had a lot of reconciliation, how he had felt so alone for most of his life. His father had left him when he was little. And he’d always felt a presence of God, or he’d always felt that God was there, but he was raised sort of loosely Catholic. And his mother was really busy surviving as well. And he was an immigrant child and very poor. And he said he didn’t know what it was to be a dad. And he said it self-reflectively. And said, I don’t mean that to be an excuse. I just didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t know how to not be afraid. And I had always felt alone. And I think that’s what’s wonderful about the Christian faith for all the ways that we’re all fallen and we all make our mistakes or whatever else Christians are not. But with Christians, you can have such reality—reality with a capital R. You can talk about the things, you know, you can go to the hilltops and you can go to the valleys. You can talk about the muck and you can talk about the wonderful stuff, but you can talk about the really real in a safe place that only Jesus creates for us. And it was the most real time with my father ever. And that voicemail for him was real and it was clear and it was well-spoken. In the past he had really dealt with not actually at times, Warren, even being able to formulate sentences sometimes because of his mental condition. And it just sang to me so much of the resurrected life for us, and it was interesting that it came after his death. So, so many of the gifts that we see, I think there’s so many things done on our behalf by God that we are not even aware of.
SMITH: Well, that was a powerful moment for you, you said, but it was also a very powerful moment for me as I read it and a powerful close to the book. And we’re going to have to make that, Carolyn, a close to our conversation as well. Thank you so much for being on with me today. It’s just been a real pleasure and I’ve loved your books. My whole family loves Surprised by Oxford and your most recent book Sex and the City of God. I hope you’ve got many more coming.
WEBER: Thank you so much, Warren. That’s very kind of easy to say. And it’s just a blessing to get to meet you here.