June 10, 2013

UnApoplexic About UnApologetic

There are a couple of things about this book that mean that I shouldn’t like it, but what the heck, I do anyway! Spufford, a writer who happens to be Christian, as opposed to being a Christian writer, has written this little sparkler that, for me and for a good number of others, does what all the Mr Shouty Apologists have failed to do; prick Richard Dawkins’ bubble.  And not with blinding rhetoric either.  Not even with a full-scale historical assault on Tricky Dicky’s airily expansive, inaccurate balderdash.  No, this is to Dawkins and the new atheists what the German navy was to the French Maginot line – a sideways attack that renders obsolete the gleaming armaments and sturdy casements designed to thwart the enemy. Spufford merely raises an eyebrow, one simple withering gesture accompanied by a weak smile, and the evolutionary process is reversed as Dawkins scurries under a rock. I mean any guy who can say this in a footnote – a footnote no less – whilst discussing the Church of England’s burdensome financial commitment to a pastoral parish system for the whole country is two geniuses rolled into one great big fat genius:

Everywhere in England is in a parish.  Everyone in England has a priest they can go to. In the unlikely event that a heartbroken Richard Dawkins wants help with his HPtFtU, there will be somebody tired but willing in North Oxford whose responsibility it is to offer him an inexpensive digestive biscuit and a cup of milky tea, and to listen to him for as long as it takes.

In the hands of a lesser writer (or a much lesser writer such as yourself – Ed) that would have been a 24 point bold subheading, but such is the confidence – and the brilliance – of the man, a sotto voce stiletto to the heart in the manner of Nathan the Prophet before King David after the Bathsheba Affair, does the trick. Dawkins sniffing back a little tear?  I can’t get it out of my mind.

And what of HPtFtU? What on earth does that mean?  The Human Propensity to Foul things Up. Only he doesn’t use the word “F-oul” (ooh-err –  scandalised Ed).  Yes folks – Sin!  That’s what Spufford is talking about.  Ginormous juicy sin and its progeny; little sins, graceless sins, self-righteous sins. Sins that are low-burn, long term white noise.  Sins that are so horrific they make you worry about the future of the human race.   HPtFtU gets more a mention in this book than in any number of weighty theological books I could care to mention (sorry NT Wright, you’re a star, but you fouled that one up too many times for my liking). Spufford is an Anglican from the Broad Church tradition (the domain of most Anglicans I suspect), and as he says at the outset, he signs off on all of the credal truths, including the deity of Jesus, the Trinity and, wait for it,  the actual resurrection.

“So what?” you say.  Lots of Christian writers, and apologists make a fist at showing the truths of these things.  What sets Spufford apart?  Well, take a look at that book sleeve again.  Go on, take a look.  A long, rambling subtitle, a folksy typeface and slightly scruffy art design. Why, it practically screams those digestive biscuits and milky tea. Where are the one word titles, the brilliant graphics, the subtle wordplays of the Premier League Christian writers, with sleeve designs destined for the CMOMA, or Christian Museum of Modern Art (like the MOMA only not as good – Ed)? In the Christian bookshops, that’s where. Safely tucked away where only Christians will ever read them, where only Christians will ever debate them, and where only Christians will ever think that their average non-Christian friend is rehearsing the debate in his head as he shaves before work in the morning. Spufford, on the other hand, gets rave reviews from The Guardian – a newspaper whose journalists were bottle-fed on atheism’s sour milk. Lad-lit superstar Nick Hornby says Spufford has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature. Oh, and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature – the real Premier League of writing. Let’s face it folks, despite all those funky NOOMA dvds, despite those Nirvana-lite bands that take the stage in Seattle’s Mars Hill each weekend, Spufford has reach, gravitas and influence that sub-culture Christianity can only ever dream of.

Spufford is not interesting in making Christianity cool.  He knows it isn’t.  And guess, oh gloriously, guess what?  He doesn’t care!  He’s not worried about what everyone thinks,  hence the title.  What about this gem:

Ladies and gentlemen! A spectacle never before attempted on any stage.  Before your very eyes, I shall build up from first principles the simple and unsurprising structure of faith.  Nothing up my left sleeve, nothing up my right sleeve, except the entire  material of everyday existence. No tricks, no traps, ladies and gentlemen; no misdirection and no cheap rhetoric. You can easily look up what Christians believe in.  You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn’t giving an ‘apologia’, the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I’m not sorry.

See how it slips that last line in there? Christian sub-culture is screaming it from the rooftops, while Spufford lets it sigh out as he shifts on the couch, trying to find a comfy spot. There is a confidence to him that I envy.

And now for the serious stuff. Spufford builds a compelling case for an emotionally-solid Christian faith.  He does so brilliantly, with a psychological maturity that is both convincing and convicting. Unapologetic is like a Terrance Malik film, like a Tolstoy novel.  It exposes not simply what you think, but the very process of thinking.  Tolstoy can tell you what a dog is thinking and you just know that it is so. But that is not to say that he is simply offering a mysticism for 21st century post-rationalists, as if there was nothing material about Christian faith. Far from it.  In fact, he takes aim at proud science and its fatal Icarusian overreach:

The world believes that it has science on its side. Indeed, by an act of oblivious metaphorical digestion, it tends to believe that it IS science. It thinks that what it sees around it is the bare, disenchanted, unmediated, uncoloured truth delivered by the scientific method. Look, no gods! Also no fairies, no unicorns, no griffins, no leprechauns. A quick consult of the local fauna confirms it: case solved. But this perceptual world ISN’T science. It is a cultural artefact created by one version of the cultural influence of science, specific to the last two centuries in Europe and North America…It scarcely touches on what the world is like apart from us. It doesn’t acknowledge the radical strangeness of quantum mechanics, down in reality’s basement..

There is so much to like in this book, including a graceful and grace-full overview of the gospel story with Jesus both central and amazing, that I can overlook what I don’t agree with in the book. Well almost.  On a number of points Spufford’s strength – his wide-eyed innocence and numerous degrees of separation from theological study – can also be his weakness.  A first-timer to Christianity may feel exactly the way Spufford feels about the theodicy question, but get little light on what the Bible might actually be saying about why we suffer. And his view on two subjects that Christian super-star Rob Bell has been vocal on recently – hell and same-sex-marriage – are pretty much the opposite of where I land.  For a writer who weaves deft logic into his arguments, he plays all over the top of one that he should have kept out.  His defence of the truth of the Christian story centres on the fact that the Pauline corpus is much earlier than the Gospels. He gives no room to those who would have the church create a Jesus who becomes more divine the further away from the event we travel.  No.  Paul and the apostles wrote the bald, hard theology that demonstrated conclusively that Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son well before the stories of his life were collated. Yet in his defence of same-sex-marriage and sexuality issues in general, he cites Jesus’ lack of interest in talking about sex as proof that the church has stuffed this one up.  Well Paul and the others have a lot to say about sex, and if they wrote first, well…well what?  Well the answer is more likely that in a strict Jewish setting, as opposed to the licentious Graeco-Roman world of the Gentile mission, it wasn’t a primary issue.  Occam’s razor may have something to say here.

 So what’s his saving grace? Well, grace for a start.  Grace infuses this book as if the man who wrote it realises that he has been shown a lot of grace. He certainly gives more than a hint at the start the he needs it, and has acted poorly enough in the past for grace to be most unexpected.  The Jesus he paints is repellently attractive, precisely because grace itself is repellently attractive.  We so want it to be true, but if it is true, then what does it say about my goodness? My best works? My rightness?  It says HPtFtU – that’s what it says.  God’s grace is the only solution.

Grace defines this book, grace and a naivety on topics such as sex and hell that come from being what he claims to be – a common garden variety Anglican lay person living life in a complex, sneer-filled 21st century Western city in which buses display slogans telling you to lighten up because there probably isn’t a God. His final sentence, a question actually, demonstrates exactly what sets him apart from the searing intellects of the Bells and Pipers, the searing wit of the Driscolls, and the searing arrogance of the Dawkins. Quite simply, Spufford doesn’t do “sear”. He concludes:

I don’t need to point out that I am not any kind of spokesman for the Church of England, do I?

No Francis, you don’t, and we love you all the more for it.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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