Why Faith-Based Films Like ‘Surprised By Oxford’ Struggle With Romance

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(REVIEW) “Surprised By Oxford” takes another swing at the faith-based romance but ends up combining the worst parts of these genres rather than the best parts.

It seems weird that faith-based films haven’t really yet nailed the faith-based romance. After all, there’s a lot of overlap between the two audiences. Mothers over 30 love Christian films and love romances, particularly ones made by Hallmark. Both involve similar plot formulas, with a hyper-independent protagonist (often a woman) who’s obsessed with achievement and closed off to relationships until an encounter occurs (either a love interest or God) who challenges her worldview. 

That the scripts for religious faith in America and your average romance are so similar is one reason David Murrow suggested in “Why Men Hate Going To Church” that modern Christianity appeals more to women than men.

READ: ‘A Haunting In Venice’ An Entertaining Film, But Also A Missed Opportunity

Obviously, there have been attempts to make successful faith-based romance — from the “Princess Cut” movies to “The Farmer and The Belle,” “Redeeming Love,” “Christian Mingle” and the recent “Devine Influencer” — yet these films rarely break out with the faith-based audience in the way their counterparts that are dramas do. 

Perhaps it’s really difficult to make a faith-based romance movie work because in such a film the most important relationship for the protagonist is with the love interest. In a faith-based film, the most important relationship is with God, so the two genres end up competing with one another. 

For this reason, many faith-based romances end up being between s Christian and non-Christian. That way, the nonbeliever’s initial resistance to the other person romantically can also simultaneously be their resistance to God. “Christian Mingle,” “A Week Away,” “Redeeming Love,” “The Farmer and The Belle,” and “Old Fashioned” (one of the best faith-based romances I’ve seen) all use this formula. Typically, these movies are cringy and largely (most of the time, anyway) inoffensive in much the same way most Hallmark or faith-based films are. 

The problem might be, of course, that most Christians don’t find their spouses that way. Most people marry within their religious denomination, so faith-based films can’t tap into that shared experience to make their movies resonate. 

The Erwin Brothers have come closest to cracking the faith-based romance with their dramas “I Can Only Imagine,” “I Still Believe,” “American Underdog,” and “Jesus Revolution.” None of these films are traditionally thought of as faith-based romances, but all of them heavily feature romance as — at least in large part — the emotional core of the film. 

In them, the male protagonist is a Christian but has deep emotional barriers (lack of forgiveness toward his father, obsession with his football dream, fear of people leaving him) that are harming his relationships with God and others. The climax of these films almost always involves the guy apologizing to his wife or girlfriend as the ultimate sign he has truly repented. This storyline is far more likely to actually resonate with the experiences and fantasies of the Christian mom audienc, and might be a big part of the genre’s success.

That brings us to “Surprised By Oxford.” The movie is a fictionalized adaptation of the memoir of Carolyn Webber by the same name. It follows brilliant, but emotionally guarded, Caro Drake as she arrives in Oxford with the singular goal of attaining her doctorate. Through a turbulent friendship with a charming young man, she begins to open herself up to love and God.

The film really seems like it should work on paper as a blend of Hallmark and faith-based romance genres: It has a hyper-independent workaholic female protagonist (check) who has been disappointed by men (check), who meets a man who she initially doesn’t like (check) but who opens her up to relationships (check), then helps her see the world in a way that she initially didn’t think possible (check). The fact that the man is a Christian and parts of her worldview that need to be challenged are her rejection of God perfectly fit the two formulas in a way that seems almost too perfect. For those who love the formula enough, it will be.

What sets this apart from other attempts at faith-based romance is its attempts to combine a love story with Christian apologetics — for example, the arguments for the intellectual reasonableness of Christianity. Don’t get me wrong. I love apologetics. They’re partly why I’m a Christian. Any attempt to combine two things I love — romance movies and Christian apologetics — I’m going to be excited about.

Unfortunately, in this case, in blending these genres, the worst — rather than the best — of the two genres come out. The first problem with “Surprised By Oxford” is there is very little romance. Most of the courtship between Drake and her beau mostly involves him lecturing her about everything she’s wrong about concerning men, God and relationships. The film spends very little time allowing the viewer to get to know them as people and enjoy their chemistry.

I have not read the memoir, but I highly suspect that the film does not reflect the book. More than likely, the dumbing down of thoughtful intellectual discourse is a reflection on the difficulty of adapting thoughtful intellectual discourse of any kind into an entertaining film without boring the audience. I definitely appreciate and deeply sympathize with that difficulty. I can only, as a critic, say whether or not the film succeeded in making a good movie out of it. In this case, it did not.

Everything in “Surprised By Oxford” feels thoughtlessly dull and drab. It doesn’t feel dull and drab in an aesthetically intentional way, but emotionally. This is insane given that the setting is Oxford, England. The surroundings are perfect to represent Drake’s inner life — both when she sees nothing but books and knowledge and when she starts to see the grandeur of God’s presence. Yet, no feeling of any kind is evoked.

What the movie retains of the romance genre are cardboard characters and formula. And what it retains from faith-based movies isn’t the good stuff, either, such as the inspirational values or authentic religious representation, but the self-righteous preachiness and shallow theology.

Looking back on my earlier reviews of faith-based romance films, I am surprised how consistently I remark that these films combine the worst aspects of their two genres rather than the best of them. I’m fairly confident that faith-based films will figure out how to solve the romance formula one day. I hope it’s sooner rather than later.





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