Unapologetic: A Review

Brokenness by col_adamson
Brokenness by col_adamson
I blogged the other week about Francis Spufford’s new book Unapologetic, somewhat like a kid clutching a bag of sweets gloating at all the other children, but having not, as yet, even tasted them to see whether they were worth bragging about!

Well I’ve now tasted, and I can tell you it’s good.

The first three things that immediately stand out when you read this book are as follows:

Spufford can write. I don’t mean in a Sam Seaborn “yes, I suppose, if we broaden the definition to those who can spell” kind of way. His writing is exceptional. The opening rant in chapter one about the absurdity of religion is brilliantly paced. You can barely catch your breath, which is quite painful, since there were so many times I wanted to laugh heartily, but had not the air with which to do so! I can’t remember the last time I read a book so well crafted and rhetorically pleasing.

Spufford can think. There are observations and arguments in here that I’ve simply not come across in more conventional apologetics books. His way of looking at the world and drawing conclusions about life, faith and emotions is really fresh. For all the bits I disagreed with or thought didn’t quite hit home, there were many more that just caused me to smile and think ‘why have I never seen it like that before?’

Spufford can swear. He really can. Often with great effect. His quite unpronounceable acronym HPtFtu (Human Propensity to F*** Things up) jars a little at first, since it’s not what you might expect in a book arguing for Christian faith, yet it gets to the heart of the matter effectively, and the strange combination of disgust and intrigue that it creates strangely parallels what Spufford sees at the heart of man: deep brokenness, which can only be redeemed o once we are brave enough to face up to it.

I mention the swearing so early on in the review for two reasons. If cussing is a deal-breaker for you, you won’t like this book. Malcom Tucker he ain’t quite, but neither is he Ned Flanders! You’ve been warned… But more importantly, the choice of language gives us an insight into the author’s agenda.

This is no straightforward apologetics book, laden with logical pleasantries and heart-warming witticisms. It’s pretty gritty. It looks at the world in all its ugliness and pain and argues that it is true Christianity, not the glossy ‘get rich, happy and escape all pain’ brand of faith, but the type that takes seriously the brokenness of the world, that can provide answers and give a sense of meaning in this painful world.

So in chapter one he deftly tears apart some of the underlying messages of the Atheistic mantras. Whether it’s “the teased and coiffed nylon monument that is ‘Imagine’: surely the My Little Pony of philosophical statements” (p. 12); or the hopelessly hopeless bus slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ which fails to account for any emotion other than ‘enjoyment’ and thus says to the suffering, the disease-ridden, the abused, the addicted, the abandoned and the lonely that if they’re not ‘enjoying themselves’ they’re alone in the universe (p. 11); he shows wittily, but incisively how vacuous these statements are, and how deeply they fail to account for our vast spectrum of human emotions.

Sin is, he argues, the misunderstood element common to all mankind that begins to make sense of pain. In our modern world it’s become a term bolted onto products when advertisers want to make them seem naughty but nice. It’s the language of sex and chocolate, of ‘yummy naughtiness.’ So when Christians talk about ‘sin’, it’s lost its full and horrific meaning. Hence Spufford opts for his own phrase, the Human Propensity to F*** Things up. And he works hard to establish the fact that all of us, in our different ways, are riddled with that propensity. I found his way of defining the universality of sin to be fresh:

What we have to rely on, to tell whether something is part of HPtFtu or not, is more like a family resemblance. We define it by our familiarity with examples, we name it as what the examples have in common, as if we were defining ‘yellowness’ as the thing that a JCB shares with a mustard pot. In the same way, we come to see, HPtFtu is what flying a plane into a skyscraper has in common with persecuting the fat kid with zits. It’s what doing crystal meth has in common with having an affair with someone you don’t even like […] Little, large, venial, deadly, in hot blood or in cold blood, done actively or allowed to happen through negligence – there’s a look the instances of HPtFtu have in common, elusive to summarise but unmistakeable when seen. (pp. 48-49).

His chapter-long retelling of the story of Jesus was masterful, with an especially interesting way of expressing how godness and humanity come together in the God-Man. I appreciated his portrayal of the daily Christian life with its combination of doubt, repetition, discipline and habit-building, which “curiously is not the enemy of spontaneity, but maybe even its enabler […] it somehow helps keep the door ajar though which He may come.” (p. 208)

There are some bits I wasn’t convinced by at all. His description of how he has encountered and experienced God was beautifully written, but so abstract that I ultimately felt it failed to hit the mark. Maybe others will feel differently. It is, after all, quite personal and thus hard to put into words in a manner that will ‘click’ for every reader.

Some of his throw-away lines about God not speaking and rarely intervening disappointed the charismatic part of me. His insistence in chapter one that God doesn’t micromanage (which would make Him an immoral scumbag) jarred with his later argument that “the God of everything must sustain tapeworms, necrotising bacteria that reduce flesh to a puddle of pus, and parasitic wasps as they eat their way out of their hosts. Any cell that divides in any organism must be doing so in the radiance of the universal attention” (p. 81) such that when he argues that God is “pretty damn remote, withdrawn from the whole thing as a condition of it existing at all – [but] He still bears a maker’s responsibility for what goes on inside it” (p. 88) I couldn’t help but wonder if his God is a little more deistic than Christian.

He disbelieves in an afterlife. Heaven is dismissed briefly, and hell sneeringly, condescendingly and with the air of someone who thinks he’s doing mankind a service through his pick and choose hermeneutics: “Crazy avant-gardists that we are, we went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago […] I promise this is really true. No more hell! It’s official!” (p. 181-182).

Those gripes aside, this book has caused me to look at tired arguments with fresh eyes, and also to rethink the place that doubting and pain have in leading people to a relationship with God that is not only rationally but emotionally satisfying. Some reviewers have bemoaned the lack of rational arguments, saying that Spufford rejects logic-based approaches to faith. In reality he doesn’t – though he is sceptical about the degree to which we can know certain things about God – that’s just not what he’s doing here. This is more about heart than head. He’s the Pascal to the Aquinas. This is a well-thought through attempt to bring God-talk into everyday language and to provide a model for speaking about what it feels like to believe in God, without sounding trite. And by and large I think he succeeds.

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