Thursday, June 13, 2013

Francis Spufford's UNAPOLOGETIC revives Christianity's deepest meaning

 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
Frankly, I haven't enjoyed a book about Christianity - or, more accurately, about being Christian - so much since… Well, I am not quite sure when because Francis Spufford's Unaplogetic is in fact quite unlike any other book I've read on the experience of being Christian (despite the warnings). Popular writers like Anne Lamott (Traveling Mercies) have in recent decades used humour and self-deprecation well to describe their faith frolics, as well as the serious bits. With somewhat less humour, so have writers like Sara Miles (Jesus Freak), Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God; Still) and the more serious Marcus Borg. Then there are the major Christian writers like C.S. Lewis or Thomas Merton, or like former bishop, now agnostically-inclined Richard Holloway whose exceptional memoir I reviewed here some months ago. But Spufford is very much a writer for our times: intellectually well-trained and adroit, sharp as well as tender, and perfectly clear that he is writing for, and often in the voice of, the very people most eager to be appalled by religion in any of its forms.

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
The other chapter I truly loved, oh goodness me, is "Yeshua", a very short somewhat speculative but convincing biographical account of Jesus. This entire book costs little more than a few cups of coffee and if you buy it for no other reason then buy it for this chapter. Here is a man, Jesus, who is "never disgusted", who never says that "anyone is too lost to be found", who will not agree that "hope is gone beyond recall". Here is a man bringing "unlimited love to a world of limits". "This is love going where we go, all of us, when we end…". And then, after Friday has become Saturday and then Sunday, here is a dead man alive enough to say, "Don't be afraid…Far more can be mended than you know."

Read it and rejoice.

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  1. I too found Spufford's 'Unapologetic' to be a hugely engaging & intriguing volume.It's subject matter Faith, Religion & the Existence of God may always be contentious for many. However, Spufford's central proposition that we humans are essentially flawed with the propensity to contribute greatly to our own(& others),unhappiness, is patently true as history demonstrates. Spufford writes that peace, whilst possibly being innate, it is not generally our default state in these highly complex times; & probably 'never was'. It has to be chosen. Whilst exploring mercy & gratitude for their gifts it becomes evident that for Spufford it is through his own orthodox Christianity( C.of E.),that the possibility of Redemption is achieved. Again, for Spufford Christianity appeals to him as it is less about the 'externals' of compliance with the rituals & customs of many faiths, than of what lies within us. In a very brief retelling of aspects of the life of the historical Jesus in 'Yeshua',traditional texts are abandoned. We are given a fresh insight into the great audacity & courage of an obscure,lowly born man whose message of Universal Love has become so influential that it survives & 'speaks to us' still in these very altered times. No Hollywood depictions, nor religious art; nor iconography to influence us - just the simple & unadorned possibility of a man whose teachings, behaviours & sacrifice could well be 'Messianic', as Spufford & Christians believe. Nor does Spufford gloss over the various & many iniquities perpetrated by Christians & other faiths, often in the name of religion. Recalling humanity's propensity to contribute to our own misery, it is no surprise that religions, as institutionalised by man,are also complicit here. For Spufford the relevance of Christianity in today's world remains a constant 'work in progress',like ourselves. It is a reason for never giving up hope, & of holding onto the conviction that it will turn us towards grace. Christianity is the embodiment of Christ, here & now. By never losing hope, never turning away, 'His face' becomes every face you encounter. This means everyone you care for; but also for everyone you mistrust,remembering we ourselves could be 'either' of us these to others. Unlimited love & kindness are required of us who are willing to see this is the great gift & challenge. Unconditional love & inclusivity a challenge for all time.... Spufford's fine intellect & profoundly rigorous inquiry into world history is evident throughout the text. This frank, personal & often startling volume of Spufford's is a unique contribution to gaining a wider understanding of faith & Christianity in particular, in the twenty first century. It may even intrigue the skeptical; the curious & the convinced in equal measure. Maggie.

  2. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. Thanks all.

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  4. Good blog butI don’t think so. Otherwise spiritual achievement would be reserved for intellectuals. That’s actually what many Christian websites communicate. People read them and say, “Yes, I could be that spiritual, but only if I were smarter.” In other words, they regard depth as something that’s out of their league. Thanks
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