Those who followed the Theopolis conversation re: Christians, psychology, and Zen Buddhism (plus the good ole cenobites) might be interested in this recent post. I haven’t read any Merton, so I can’t comment on it with any authority.
Category Archives: Christianity
A Man Considers the Church as Medium
John Durham Peters writes on media and theology:
Any theology of revelation is necessarily also a theory of media. Theophany is a media problem. God needs to assume a sensory shape or work sensible effects to reach humans the classic theological issue of the Word made flesh. Any revelation is, in a way, a short-term incarnation. A burning bush, clouds of smoke and pillar of fire, thunder, voice, writing, and a highly selective glimpse of God as he departs are some of the various modes of theophany surrounding the revelation on Sinai. The mountain itself is a kind of medium, which is declared holy ground and off-limits to the footsteps of the children
I don’t have time to develop this at the moment, but I think we ought to consider the church as a kind of medium, communicating Christ to the world.
A Man Offers an Example of Evil
In Perelandra, the Unman is most of all a petty, spiteful child. Even when he acts eloquent or crafty, he’s spoiled, prone to throwing fits when things don’t go his way. Evil turns us all into nasty, immature beings. In that sense, Count Olaf is one of the best villains on TV in recent memory.
A Man Follows Up on a Previous Post
My take on Spufford’s book Unapologetic got me thinking. I don’t deny the value of an emotional defense of Christianity. (See Nate Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl for a great one.) But Spufford specifically says that he wants to explain what it feels like to be a Christian, and there’s something curiously lacking from his explanation. For most Christians, being a Christian is primarily about interacting with other Christians. Another Christian raises you, befriends you, challenges you, teaches you, extends you grace, or all of the above. No one—and I mean no one—becomes (or stays) a Christian by themselves.
The more I think about it, the odder this absence is. What about Spufford’s relationships? How did he find his way back to the faith after a long absence? His book may have been stronger if it had been more autobiographical, in the vein of Surprised by Joy.
A Man Passes on Some Straightforward Expectations
A Man Makes No Emotional Sense
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?
A Man Arises Today Through a Mighty Strength
Reciting the prose version of St. Patrick’s Lorica in an acoustically alive room with a hundred other Christians will put a fire in your belly.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.