Where there is engagement with objections to Christian faith, it quite often takes the form of an apologia, a rational defence. The etymology of the word itself suggests engagement in logos, reasoning, and the content of such apologetic presentations is often logical and cool.
But is there a ‘hot’, emotional case for Christian faith that takes a different approach? Francis Spufford thinks so, and makes such a case in his fascinating book Unapologetic. He deliberately deploys the word in both senses: this is not a rational apologia; and he certainly makes no apologies for the faith he presents. I have come to this book rather late; it was first published in 2012, and made quite a splash at the time. And I came to it from meeting Francis at General Synod. In our mid-sized groups as part of the (dreaded) Shared Conversations, we had to spend some time in discussion groups of three, and when the time came to split up, Francis made a bee-line for me for some reason. I was glad he did, as he proved to be a fascinating conversation partner, intensely attuned to his own emotional life and that of others, and constantly aware of his surroundings and what is happening in those around him. Immediately after our meeting, I bought three of his books including this one.
Spufford teaches writing at Goldsmiths College, and is a prize-winning author himself, and from the first page you get a sense that you are in the company of an accomplished wordsmith. If you pause for a moment and observe what you are reading, you can see the vividness of the imagery, the alliteration, the use of variety and punch, with long drawn-out sentences following by short jabs. But most of the time this feels quite artless, as if you are simply in conversation with a passionate person putting his case. And with good reason. Spufford explains that this has not been a book which was carefully researched and planned; instead, he sat in a coffee shop in Cambridge and simply wrote. If this is stream of consiousness, it is a beautifully expressed stream of a disciplined consciousness, which reveals a keen awareness of some major issues in theological debate offered with a light touch.
Spufford begins by making a case for the unreasonableness of faith, in the sense that it is not the obvious conclusion to come to on rational grounds. And yet there is a compelling appeal which operates on another level. From the beginning, he offers a freshness of insight which turns common assumptions upside down—but once offered, these new perspectives seem undeniable.
Belief appears to be a kind of anxious pretending, a kind of continual, nervous resistance to reality. It looks as if, to a believer, things can never be allowed just to be what they are…The funny thing is that to me it’s exactly the other way around. In my experience, it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual fluffy pretending. (pp 6–7)
There then follows the most wonderful rant about the ‘atheist bus’ slogan: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
I’m sorry—enjoy your life? Enjoy your life?…Only sometimes, when you are being lucky, will you stand in relationship to what; happening to you where you’ll gaze at it with warm, approving satisfaction. The rest of the time you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest. (p 8)
Not for the last time, Spufford offers a critique that no-one else spotted, that is full of emotional—and that feels completely right.
The next chapter, the first of his main ‘argument’ (if that is what it is) looks four-square at the human condition. Spufford notes that the language of sin has lost its power, since ‘sin’ in our culture always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something, to ‘enjoyable naughtiness’. But the phenomenon of sin is unavoidable. In a move into what you might call rather more direct language, he characterises this as ‘the human propensity to f*** things up’ or HPtFtU. (I was warned about the ‘fruity’ language in the book, but it is hardly more fruity than anything you might find in a rowing club changing room or a TV comedy show after 9 pm.) But there are some striking things about the approach here.
The first is that this is the starting point at all. The idea that ‘we need to tell people the bad news (about themselves) before we can show how good the good news is’ is an evangelical argument of the most conservative kind. Yet here we are presented with just this case, and with full emotional force.
Secondly, Spufford is clear that the experience of HPtFtU is universal and of a piece amongst all people.
But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight…it feels like the whole truth about you. (p 35)
Thirdly, he rightly notes that Christian understanding of the problem of sin/HPtFtU is treated in quite a different way from other religious traditions.
This is the crucial [pun intended] point at which Christianity parts company with the other two monotheisms. Unlike the oldest (Judaism) and the youngest (Islam) of one-God religions, the middle sibling isn’t interested in coming up with a set of sustainable rules for living by. (p 44)
Spufford does not move directly to resolving this issue, but leaves it hanging as he addresses the question of God and the world. This includes am extraordinary lyrical articulation of how belief in God transforms your vision of the physical world:
…out and out, the streets of the town unreeling faster and faster into the particular pattern of the fields beyond; the viridian tie-dye of those fields seen from above, and receding, higher and higher; the island, seen whole in mottled greens and browns; the limb of the planet, shining in electric blue; the ash-coloured moon; the boiling chemical clouds of the gas giants; the shining pin-prick of our start; the radiant drift of the Western spiral arm…The instant at which I sit is as narrow as a slice of the reality of the whole as a hairline crack would be in a pavement that reaches to the stars…now it gets indescribable…(pp 60–61)
This is not about proof—Spufford rejects the idea (perhaps too quickly?) of a God who intervenes in the world and thus demonstrates his presence—but it is about the intriguing possibility of belief, and the possibilities that belief offers. (A page-length footnote on pp 68–69 offers a briliiant and succinct demolishing of Dawkins’ approach if you are interested in one.)
Chapter 4 explores the problem of suffering in the world, and after a masterly dismissal of the classic rational explanations of the question comes a description of how Christian faith equips us in the face of suffering.
The high point of the book is chapter 5, entitled simply ‘Yeshua.’ It sets out such a fresh, engaging, scripturally rooted and historically nuanced short portrait of Jesus’ life and impact that I am seriously tempted to make a spiritual discipline of re-reading this each year.
Into this setting comes Yeshua, with the love song to all that is ringing continually in him, and he says: don’t be careful. He certainly isn’t careful himself…When the crowds gather, he sits them down in the sheep pasture, and he says: behave as if you never had to be afraid of consequences. Behave as if nothing you gave away could ever make you poorer, because you can never run out of what you give. Behave as if this one day we’re in now were the whole of time, and you didn’t have to hold anything back, or to plot and scheme about tomorrow. Don’t try to grip your life with tight, anxious fingers.
Summaries of his teaching about the kingdom, and a recounting of the stories of the lost son and the lavish, forgiving father lead to a vivid account of Jesus trial and death. But along the way there is a robust rebuttal of the main theories suggesting that this was all a creation of the early church.
Chapter 6 draws many of the earlier themes together. He dislikes C S Lewis conundrum, that Jesus was either mad or bad or God—but he has no hesitation in defending the canonical gospels as reliable (or as reliable as we could expect) and the other so-called gospels as implausible and inauthentic. Here Spufford displays a fascinating strategy. Where earnest evanglicals might push back against an objection to faith, Spufford seems to say ‘Oh, is that what you think? Well, let’s go with it and see where we get to’ which can often be a far more persuasive approach when we get to the inevitable dead end.
He does something similar with the argument that the gospels just rehash ‘dying god rises’ myths. Instead of being defensive, he simply notes the emphasis on history and dates found in the Christian tradition and absent from these others, and that this makes all the difference. And the ordinariness of Jesus’ death is what sets it apart.
Jesus dies like a migrant worker who suffocates in a freight container, like a garbage-picker caught in a slide, like a child with an infected finger, like a beggar the bus runs over…[it is] a declaration by the maker of the world, in solidarity and pain, that to him the measure of the waste of history is not the occasional tragedies of kings but the routine losses of everyday life…(p 163)
I felt that the last main chapter, 7, was the most mixed. There is a customarily creative engagement with the notion that religion is the source of evil and suffering (it is people who are the cause, and if people are religious, then religious people are the cause) but the second half has more about sexuality than it needs to, and I think here Spufford’s approach does not cohere with what he has said earlier and so effectively. The problem with the Church’s attitude to women and homosexuals is that it is slow catching up with culture and needs to get with the programme. But, as he has so eloquently expressed earlier, these two concerns featured nowhere on Jesus’ agenda (and Jesus talked about sex a good deal more than Spufford allows) so surely a church trying to follow this Jesus should be similarly unconcerned.
Spufford’s final appeal brings us full circle: we cannot know whether there is a God or not—no-one can say one way or another—but acting as if there is make emotional sense and all the difference in life.
It makes emotional sense…but not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or censorious sense. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. The sense…that says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.
Apart from feeling gripped and inspired, and jealous of a writing style which I will never be able to emulate, I was left with two things. The first was a fresh and refreshing take on some important ‘apologetic’ questions which too often have stale and sterile answers. Spufford doesn’t just offer alternative answers; he stands back and questions the assumptions that produced the question in the first place. And his alternative approaches, time and again, make wonderful emotional sense. The second was more a question of method. Are evangelicals too dull, two rehearsed and too anxious in the answers that we offer? And because we feel these answers need to be well-rehearsed, does that make us too timid? Can we not also be unapologetic in saying what we believe whilst realising that we might not be able to give the convincing rational answer to every question. After all, people don’t make the most important decisions in life on the basis of reason.
(If you have been reading the letters in the Church Times this last week, you will have learnt that I look for guarantors of truth rather than thinking for myself, and seek to exclude people with other views rather than engaging with them. If you would like to believe that, please disregard all the above, and instead simply take away ‘Spufford is a no-good liberal.’)
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