Dr Stephanie Dowrick, author of Seeking the Sacred and Heaven on Earth, reviews British writer Francis Spufford's Unapologetic, and unapologetically sings its praises.
|Francis Spufford, author of Unapologetic|
Unapologetic is decidedly not an "apologetic" - a systematic defence of God - but a totally unapologetic book for those who've not entirely closed their minds to the possibility that Christian beliefs and experience could still have something of value to offer in 21st-century life, even to the passably intelligent. These readers may be curious enough to wonder who Jesus was and is; how Christianity (despite its countless failings) can still enrich lives; and - maybe - whether there is some version of Christian life and practice that could authentically support them.
Understanding all that and more, Spufford has chosen a very direct way to reach readers. His writing voice is deceptively casual. He's highly conversational and his book, perhaps like his company, is laced with a fair number of familiar profanities. The book feels very London, and I liked that. I liked him, too, from the get-go. With humour rather than contempt, he starts by parodying the new atheists (who are new only in the degree and promotion of their self-righteousness), enumerating all the reasons why people couldn't possibly hold onto any remnants of Christian belief unless they are "too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds [or, among many other reasons] think it's perfectly normal for middle-aged men to wear purple dresses." He leaves the best for last. Christians are "embarrassing", "inexplicable", "touting a solution without a problem", eager to "keep out the plain sound of the real world".
But if this sounds defensive or even offensive, then I have done Spufford a disservice because he absolutely takes it for granted, as do I, that religion is not and never will be meaningful to all. You need an appetite for it. You may even need a talent for it, much as you do to sing a high C reliably. It needs to suit or even fit some place far more inner than the inner ear.
For Spufford, though, and again for me, "Humanity glimmers with God's presence." Also for him, though this time not for me, the Church of England supports well enough his need for, longing for, that divine glimmering. (Spufford's CofE is, unsurprisingly, very different from that found in great swathes of Australian life.) In fact, for Spufford, "The church is not just another institution. It's a failing but never quite failed attempt, by limited people, to perpetuate the unlimited generosity of God in the world."
The Christian church - in its many guises, Eastern and Western - does this, he shows, in a very particular way. Without making any one-true-church claims, he shows that this is self-evidently because the Christian church celebrates (despite all its well-rehearsed idiocies, cruelties and tyrannies) the actual presence of God in the world in the person of Jesus Christ, a man equipped, quips Spufford, "with two arms and two legs and probably the beard and quite possibly the bad teeth" of any first-century Jew. The church exists, he says, "like Christ, in order to be a channel by which mending enters the world; a mending which…does not depend on the success of human virtue, individual or collective, but on what breathes and shines through us if we let it."
"Letting it" is, of course, the central challenge of spiritual life; it's the only challenge that counts in my view. Everything else is embroidery. Through us, mending can enter the world…"if we let it".
|Christianity offers "the impossible ideal of valuing other people as absolutely as you value yourself".|
As I read Spufford's book I thought a great deal about my own Christian formation and that uneasy mix familiar to many of fear, self-contempt and hope that shrouded my earliest efforts to discover who and what I am. It's clear that fear-driven religion is pretty much a curse, not least because it turns us against one another as well as against ourselves. In fact, it's worse than dangerous. So it's wonderful to read here of the possibility that somehow survives in Christianity - and certainly survives for those interested enough to think far, far more about what Jesus said and did than whatever his more rabid followers claim - that "there's room even in the darkest places…for the sudden and unpredictable and unpredicted leap toward the risk of love."
It may well be as difficult for an upper-class-sounding British writer to write about love as it is to write about religion. In fact, in British intellectual life you have permission to take virtually anything seriously except religion and love. Put the two together and you might as well claim the role of fool or pariah. But Spufford persists, brave man, and in two absolute stand-out chapters in his stand-out book he ventures to describe what cannot be described, what can barely be named and what is reduced, always, when named. "Churches are vessels of hush, as well as everything else they are," writes Spufford in his ironically named "Big Daddy" chapter. And I am reminded of Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God."
Such knowledge isn't linear. It isn't easily glimpsed unless you are reading or writing about Rilke or Rumi; isn't found in the fights and the shouting and the shrillness and the certainties; isn't available to be imposed; isn't…anything very familiar at all until you've felt it.
And yes, of course what you feel could simply be indigestion or a sorry delusion, but you suspect it's not. "I register something that precedes all this manifold immensity that is not-me and yet is real," writes Spufford. Then further on, "Beyond, behind, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity…and though the experience is grand beyond my powers to conveys, it's not impersonal." Reading him, reading that, I felt my own experiences articulated in the space and spaciousness where at least for some truth lives.
|Ancient icon, living truth|
Read it and rejoice.
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