Francis Spufford’s Brilliant & Frustrating “Unapologetic”

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unapologeticHere’s a book that’s been receiving rave reviews from a variety of sources. It’s called Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, and it’s written by Francis Spufford, a professor in London.

This is a unique apologetic for Christianity. Unique because Spufford’s context is post-Christian England, and he is fully aware that he espouses an outside-the-mainstream point of view. If the United States continues its trend of secularization, we will probably be in similar situations – a church with no significant clout and Christians who are the oddballs of society. That’s why it’s interesting to watch Spufford walk uphill and choose a rather unambitious goal for his book:

The most that Unapologetic is trying for is to persuade people that Christianity as such, in any variety, should be seen as something not axiomatically contemptible, something emotionally comprehensible even if not shared; something that provides one good-enough solution to a set of fundamental human needs.

Note what is good about this goal: “Let me convince you that Christianity is not reprehensible” (my paraphrase). Note also what is missing: any attempt to persuade people that Christianity might be true.

To be clear, Spufford believes in the basic truthfulness of the events at the heart of the Christian faith. He writes:

For the record, I am not pulling the ultra-liberal, Anglican-going-on-atheist trick of saying that it’s all a beautiful and interesting metaphor, snore bore yawn, and that religious terms mean whatever I want them to mean… I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. No dancing about; no moving target, I promise.

So why not make a defense of Christianity as truth? Because Spufford believes it’s the emotional resonance of Christianity that matters:

But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

For Spufford, what makes Christianity real is that his beliefs are “built up from” and “sustained by” emotions. Perhaps that’s why Unapologetic is a good title for this book. It is not a defense of Christianity’s truthfulness, but a plea for people to consider the emotional benefits of Christianity’s ability to fulfill human needs.

Brilliant

The reason I label this book as “brilliant” is because I find beginning with emotional resonance to be a powerful starting point in pre-evangelism. It’s no surprise that evangelistic strategies in recent years have begun with the experience of “living in a broken and fallen world.” Something about that truth resonates with people. It makes emotional sense.

Spufford is doing something similar in this book. He works through basic components of a Christian view of the world in irreverent and untraditional ways (and with a peppering of curse words for good measure). He rightly notes the connection between sinful choices and human significance:

Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than just being a flurry of events.

He also recognizes Jesus’ ramping up of the Law’s demands – right down to the heart of the matter:

Christianity does something different. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow.

These principles do not amount to a sustainable program. They deliberately ignore the question of how they could possibly be maintained. They ask you to manifest in your ordinary life a drastically uncalculating, unprotected generosity.

And that’s not all. Christianity also makes what you mean by your behavior all-important. You could pauperize yourself, get slapped silly without fighting back, care for lepers and laugh all day long in the face of futures markets, and it still wouldn’t count, if you did it for the wrong reasons. Not only is Christianity insanely perfectionist in its few positive recommendations, it’s also insanely perfectionist about motive. It won’t accept generosity performed for the sake of self-interest as generosity. It says that unless altruism is altruism all the way down, it doesn’t count as altruism at all.

The brilliance of Unapologetic is in Francis Spufford’s writing style and the fresh approach he takes to creating space for Christianity to thrive in contemporary society. The section that describes Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and death is an especially powerful and poignant potrayal of various aspects of what Christ’s work achieved.

Frustrating

The frustrating part of Unapologetic is not that Spufford began with “emotional resonance,” but that he never went anywhere beyond that starting point. Emotions can be fickle – an unreliable source of truth and religious identity. And emotions can lead us to be selective about the parts of religious affiliation we choose to adhere to and the parts we choose to do away with.

As an example, consider Spufford’s view of sexuality. He reminds us again and again that Jesus was “weirdly unbothered about sex… he hardly has a thing to say about it… It is as if, shockingly, what we do in bed is not specially important to him.” Spufford thinks the church will slowly come to believe everything that people in Western culture are saying about homosexuality. We’ll catch up eventually, he thinks.

But this view of Jesus does not take into consideration His Jewishness. If Jesus’ first-century world was as sexually repressed and backward as Spufford thinks, then why didn’t Jesus blast the silly restrictions and narrowmindedness of His people? The “unbothered” argument works both ways. Just as you can’t picture Jesus as an anti-gay bigot, you also can’t make him a progressive Anglican ordaining gay bishops.

Interestingly enough, Spufford’s emotional foundation leads him to focus on what Jesus didn’t talk about while dismissing things He did talk about… often. Like hell. Spufford admits:

The majority of us have not believed in it for several generations. It isn’t because we’re wimpy modernizers who can’t stomach the more scaly and brimstone-rich aspects of our inheritance. It’s because, from the beginning, hell conflicted with much more basic aspects of the religion, and our collective understanding finally caught up with the fact.

I suppose that will be news to Jesus. He’ll be glad we finally got past his hellfire and brimstone preaching and evolved in our collective understanding. In all seriousness, I find it too convenient to make much of Jesus’ silence and make little of His actual words.

What we see here is a brilliant starting point (emotional resonance) grow like kudzu until it obscures the true vine of Christianity. Emotions become a substitute for truth rather than something that comes alongside of and flows from truth.

Good Beginning, But Insufficient

In all, I still recommend people read Unapologetic. It’s well-written (despite the distracting curse words throughout), and it provides unique avenues of considering and commending Christianity. I think Spufford is wise to begin with the “emotional resonance” of Christianity even if, unfortunately, he doesn’t go much further.

I’ll conclude this review with a paragraph near the end of Unapologetic, to give you a feel for Spufford’s writing style:

If, that is, there is a God. There may well not be. I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who 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.

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