2. Unapologetic. Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
Frances Spufford, London, Faber & Faber, 2012,
ISBN 978-0-571-22522-4 224 pp.
Wow! I said to my wife: I’ve read many, many books about Christianity, but not one quite like this. I suppose it’s particularly the … er … “contemporary” language, with occasionally a bar-stool-haranguing writing style (actually, it was written in a coffee shop, not a pub); I find myself imagining a future PhD: The Use of the F-Word in Early-21st Century Theological Discourse With Special Reference to Frances Spufford. (Actually, it’s a few commas I’d add, as with many contemporary books, not words I’d remove).
The book starts with pages which detail exactly how un-cool Christianity is among … well, in the present materialist-dominated Establishment/media culture. Such a start, the refusal to deny reality, is good; but this does mean that, for all his refusal to apologise (seen in the title), the book assumes a little of the materialist world-view/value system, and so is not quite as defence-free as it claims. Everyone inside Christianity can be situated somewhere on an unbroken spectrum that has, at one end, the most “liberal” or revisionist (they only have post-Christianity beyond them), and, at the other, the most “traditionalist” or (some would say “conservative”) Christianity. Where, exactly, is this book to be put? Several times, it strikes out with a very “liberal” position, then edges its way back slowly to something like Christian orthodoxy (as in criticisms of C. S. Lewis’s ideas, Lewis not being mentioned in the second (p. 154, 159). While the book does seem to be affecting with-it coolness, the author is definitely not one of those trendy I’m-one-of-you-really “liberal” types, whose books are rarely worth reviewing – yet he does uncritically accept some of the anti-theist’s most beloved nostrums, such as evolutionism, and the “obvious” wickedness of historical Christians (the – surely discredited – idea that the Crusades, and Inquisition, were purely-Christian, purely-evil; does anyone really still believe that the Holocaust can be explained simply as Christianity behaving badly – has he not read Weikart?). The materialists seem to have managed, so often, to force him to fight on ground that they have chosen; but at times he flies firmly in the face of “popular” (secular-materialist) ideas, deliciously describing John Lennon’s Imagineas the “My Little Pony of philosophical statements” (p. 12), and exposing the non-canonical “gospels” (much beloved by Christian revisionists) for the feeble stuff they are (p. 154-5). He is refreshingly explicit about the absence of God, and the normal, depressing, experience of God’s silence, but, as I’ve suggested, he majors on Christians’ moral failings, now and in the past (near the end of the book , he lists the different (bad) things different sectors of the Christian church do and don’t do, and it’s clear which side of the list he puts things in (funny, I thought that supporting the biggest cause of the destruction of human life in all history – the abortion industry – should certainly be among the badthings, if slavery and the Holocaust (small by comparison) are too).
Spufford says he is very much a this-worldly Christian (p. 165); several things can be meant here. I’ve suggested elsewhere that so much in Christianity depends on maintaining a balance between opposites, or seeming-opposites, keeping different things in tension. One is between a this-worldly concern, and a next-worldly concern; too much of either puts everything out of balance. A faith which is totally this worldly is effectively post-Christian (God, the Church, and the Bible are all purely-human constructions), as is that which is totally-other worldly (these polarities are seen in the concerns, or over-emphases, of Early Christian heresies). Here, the weight is on the former, but not, as far as one can see, disastrously so. This-worldy Christians have to say precisely how being a Christian will make real changes to one in the here-and-now (Christian preachers in the high street get few takers, and little interest, because passers-by suspect that if they did “join your religion”, they’d still have to face the daily grind, rising prices, unemployment, the same struggle, with no miraculous help (as Spufford has affirmed). Forgiveness? From what?). (Totally-other-worldly Christians face other questions, or should do).
The re-telling of Jesus’s life and death (I’ve avoided saying “story”; there’s too much use of the word “story” in religious writings, these days – it’s time it got rested, like “myth”) is very refreshing (Chapter 5), and his account of the Christian sacrament, the communion (pp. 199-201), is exceptionally good (and I’ve read a few). I’d love to argue with him about what might be called his “problem of pain” chapter (‘The Crack In Everything’, Ch. 2). Is it so difficult to recognise that the world/people/animals/nature that we have now is very much not that which God created, and that God may not cause all to happen/be, that happens/is? – and that there might be good reasons for God’s standing back, absenting himself ? Again, he seems to have allowed himself to be forced onto the militant atheist’s chosen ground. He distances himself somewhat from any idea of God’s judgement, and uses the “few nutters” argument, as I call it, to assure us that no one now believes in Hell (the tactic goes like this: select an aspect of orthodox Christianity which you think ought not to be true/real; say ‘today, only a few nutters believe xyz, the majority, we, do not’ (see p. 181-2)). He doesn’t use the normal term for this (universalism), but seems close to believing it. A brief examination shows that universalism is actually a very cruel doctrine. The thing about belief in objective truth is that society, the media, fashion, and power, are all irrelevant. If one person believes a truth – say, a traditional Christian idea – if it is indeed true, it makes no difference if every other Christian on earth doesn’t believe it in; billions count for nothing.
Towards the end of the book, he says he is a socialist (p. 216). Now, I’m no Conservative (or Lib/Dem), but I can’t see (despite the supposed Nonconformist origins of the British Labour Party) how anyone who believes in the ineluctable human tendency to do wrong (our Post-Lapsarian state, to use the theological term; Spufford uses another term; it does include the f- word), as this author clearly does, can become a socialist, though that is not a subject I claim any expertise regarding); however, he does say that a Christian can’t be a utopian (p. 219), which is good to hear. He notes, accurately, that the Church, historically, has a habit of ‘hovering up’ the ideas/science of particular times, as with the metaphysics of Aristotle and the cosmology of Ptolemy, in the Middle Ages (p. 194, note) – yes, and another excellent example, which he misses, is the Church’s rapid acceptance of evolutionism in the early-20th century. (Will we never learn? Will we never realise that authentic-Judeo/Christian ideas are necessary and sufficient?)..
It’s useful to read his distinction between Christianity and legalist religions (such as Judaism and Islam, orthodoxic as opposed to orthopraxic (p. 44-5)): but Christianity does not have no rules, shalt, shalt not; this error leads Spufford to use the Silence-of-The-New-Testament argument: ‘if Jesus never mentioned xyz, it must be OK to do it’ (carry on, folks, with whatever you were doing …)(p. 191). Perhaps that’s the lowest point of the book – but there are many highs., eg. the stylish debunking of Christopher Hitchens’s claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a genuine Christian (p. 191, note).
Actually, there’s one f- word that this author doesn’t use (unless I’ve missed it), a word beginning F U N D … , which also means virtually anything/nothing, now; all things considered, if I had to choose between the use of these two words, I’d follow Spufford.