Unapologetic

Francis Spufford tells why, despite everything, Christianity can make surprising emotional sense.
And why he isn’t sorry for saying so.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber £12.99 (Hardback)

 

What Unapologetic actually says should not be particularly surprising to anyone with a knowledge of Christianity. But the way it says it is surprising – and refreshing at a time when essays about Christianity seem often to be framed as “defences against Dawkins”. Spufford does not attempt to meet the new atheists on their own ground of supposedly rational debate (although he does point out, in passing, that their knock-down arguments are often based on inaccurate and incomplete versions of what Christians actually believe). Instead he gives an account of the Christian faith from an emotional rather than analytical point of view. This allows him to give space and weight to the faint and intuitive – yet also persistent and persuasive – feelings that God exists as a loving presence behind/beneath/beside the world that most of us regard as everyday reality. Such feelings are hard to deny completely in spite of the impossibility of proving their validity and in spite of the ensuing paradoxes and unsolved puzzles like the well-known “problem of pain”. Unless we are Mr Spock, most of our life is conducted at both an emotional and a rational level and probably displays logical inconsistencies. Why should any spiritual/religious component be required to be different? (An assumption that people are predominantly rational comes close to the free-market ‘Econ’ model of human behaviour discussed and dissected by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow (also reviewed on London Grip).)

In keeping with his focus on feelings, Spufford mostly writes in an easy conversational style. And he does not omit the kind of expletives and colourful imagery that might occur in an informal conversation where one speaker has strong feelings which are hard to express. Hence he makes the graphic claim that Christianity offers the only hope of counteracting HPtFtU – which is his convenient acronym for the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up.

One of Spufford’s most telling reminders is that Christianity – unlike Judaism and Islam – is not a rule-based religion and does not give a set of just-about-manageable principles for leading a Good Life. Christianity stretches JudaIsm’s Ten Commandments to the point of impossibility: to thou shalt not kill is added the warning that being angry can amount to mental murder; and thou shalt not commit adultery becomes more complicated when we hear that lustful thoughts can be adultery of the heart. The teachings of Jesus (or Yeshua as Spufford chooses to call him in his vivid re-telling of the gospel story) knowingly set the bar of conduct far too high and so Christians should all perceive themselves as religious failures. Two consequences flow – or should flow – from this: Christians need consciously to depend (but not in a self-hating way) upon the daily grace and renewal of God rather than their own efforts; and they ought to be well aware they have no room to lord it over anyone else and should instead be aiming for empathy and compassion. Spufford is frank about the frequency with which both the church and its members miss their aim (or even shoot in the wrong direction!); but he points out that they are not always completely off-target. And, anyway, the important thing is to confess the fault or failure and ask for forgiveness and the grace to try again.

Because he is not trying to pin down, justify or interpret all the core beliefs of Christianity, Spufford can be honest about the vast open-endedness of the key command to love one another. Love can take so many forms in different circumstances: for instance, it can let people off the consequences of their actions or it can stand alongside in support while consequences take their course. Which is the truly loving thing to do? And is the answer always the same? Addressing Christians, Spufford points out that, minute by minute you will have the freedom – or to put it another way the unending responsibility – of working out which way you’re supposed to make your imperfect attempt at the impossible task. Of course, this may sound very much like the standard situation of any well-meaning autonomous modern individual – and to this observation Spufford bluntly responds no shit, Sherlock. He argues that most of his readers, possibly without realising it, live in a very, very Christian culture – one whose historically Christian foundations still underpin large portions of modern thinking about liberty.

To judge by my own experience, this book will be both enjoyable and useful for many Christians. This is not so much because it says anything startlingly new; but because it rephrases and freshens much of what we are supposed to know already. In places, its mix of confidence and uncertainty reads like a 21st century prose version of the Psalms. Elsewhere I was surprised to find it giving a reasonable description of my own undramatic “conversion experience”. It has stimulated my thinking about faith and I shall want to read it again.

But how might it strike a non-believer – assuming that any such are curious enough to want to open it? The chatty, sometimes earthy, style will probably come as a surprise and may initially disarm some negative preconceptions about faith being complex and / or dogmatic. By documenting his own experience of belief as something that can be puzzling even to the believer, Spufford may actually succeed in making belief seem more accessible. By refusing to present “certainties” to rival the “certainties” of new atheism, he holds out a hope to the many people who say they would like to believe but have never been able to subscribe to any of the complete doctrinal packages that seem to be on offer. Belief is not something that is achieved once and for all by application and effort, in the way a mountain is climbed or an examination is passed. It is more like a journey that we decide to begin without knowing where it will take us; and Spufford has produced a lively and helpful travel guide. It is based mainly his own experience, which includes the fact that Christians are not expected to travel alone but in a rough-and-tumble but usually supportive company of fellow-believers.

Through this book, Frances Spufford can become one more such companion.  Entertaining, eloquent and wise, he seeks to convey to his readers (and perhaps also to remind himself) that, in this mightily troubled world, it really matters that the Christian gospel holds out a hope of repair and restoration of what is damaged or lost.  But, to hear and be moved by that hope, we need to listen with our emotions and instincts as well as (not instead of!) our rational minds.

                                                                                                                                    Michael Bartholomew-Biggs