Francis Spufford is a talented novelist. He has won prizes for his non-fiction. So I was interested to read his “non-defense” of Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there and one chapter (“Yeshua,” for those with the table of contents in front of them), it was, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “not great.”
The problem, as I see it, is that Spufford is trying to have it both ways. He both does and does not want to defend his Christianity to other smart Brits. He does, because he doesn’t like being mocked by them (understandably so). He doesn’t, because he doesn’t really like formal apologiae, defenses of Christian belief. They are, he would say, not true to the actual experience of being a Christian. The question he wants to answer is “what does it feel like to be a Christian?” He’s going for “emotional sense.” Does he manage it? Sort of.
The book is laid out in a definite order, if not quite an argument. Spufford starts with what he calls the “human propensity to f*** things up” (HPtFtU, for short), which he assumes we will all recognize. Given that HPtFtU, especially as it applies to one’s own personal life, it makes sense that the next emotional (not logical) step is to peer into every corner of the universe in search of help. Many people find no help at all. Some people, Spufford among them, find, somewhere at the back of things, a kind of intuitive sense of all-powerful goodness. He sits in a quiet church, closes his eyes, and lets his thoughts roam freely. His insignificance washes over him. His utter helplessness. His wish to make things right. And, Descartes-like, he realizes that his very wish for goodness is a sign that goodness must be out there, somewhere. Despite his crookedness, he remains alive, though small beyond comprehension. Something larger and better than him consciously keeps him going. Throwing himself on the mercy of that large, good thing seemed like the best course of action. As an acquaintance of mine likes to say, “Why is there something rather than nothing? Looks like it’s time to worship!”
From there, Spufford reaches the problem of pain. (If there’s some all-powerful goodness at the back of things, why do I hurt?) His answer to the problem of pain is to throw up his hands and say, “No idea. All the explanations are bollocks. Christians just move on.” Okay… Moving on is part of it, so let’s do that now. Next up, a man in ancient Israel, a man who is that all-powerful goodness and yet fragile and time-bound and utterly human. Spufford’s description of Jesus’s ministry and death is the strongest part of the book by far. Nearly all of the “emotional sense” of the book is contained in this one chapter. The resurrection passes in a blink, then there’s a sort of muddle while he goes through all of the bad things Christians have supposedly done. His treatment of tradition is pretty poor, as is his understanding of the Bible. He has very odd ideas about morality, especially sexual. But he stalwartly declares his union in the body of Christ with undesirables such as Sarah Palin, whom he personally finds horrifying, so I have to admit that, yes, Francis Spufford is a brother in Christ. Christ, check. Church, check. Grace and peace, brother.
I may have mis-remembered bits and pieces of the book in my summary since I don’t have it in front of me. That’s entirely appropriate, since Spufford did no research for his writing, either. I did admire his willingness to admit that he could be wrong about things, but he was far too willing to distance himself from uncool intellectual positions. “Not all Christians believe thus-and-such” was his favorite line.
More than anything, the book affirmed my belief that, when Christians waffle on Scripture, they waffle on everything. Spufford pegs the early chapters of Genesis as a quaint myth. The Old Testament testifies to the Hebrews’ slow understanding of monotheism. The gospels were assembled decades after Christ’s ministry. (Yeah, right. These were Jews, Francis. They wrote down everything.) I may be one of the “really stubborn Americans” he mentions several times in the book, but I’m convinced that we have to treat the Bible as God’s Word, no matter what uncomfortable situations that may put us in (including defending creatio ex nihilo). There is no defense, emotional or otherwise, of Christianity that is not grounded in Scripture.
So does the book defend Christianity’s emotional sense? It defends a shaky truce between Christianity and acceptable British intellectual culture. But who says British intellectuals have their emotions in order?