Francis Spufford doesn’t gladly suffer fools. At least, the particular garden variety of fool that tries his patience is the one who refuses to look reality in the eye, who prefers the vaporous consolation of illusion, and therefore doesn’t understand religious believers and misrepresents their faith. In particular, Spufford doesn’t like the New Atheists—Dawkins, Hitchens, and their ilk—and their veneer of rational sophistication. He thinks they get religion wrong. Partly in reaction, he wrote a book: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (2012). In answer to a question, “Did the biggest inspiration to write this book come from the outspoken atheism of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens?”, he answered, “They did piss me off…. I wanted to write something back that had equal polemical snap, crackle and pop, just in case anyone felt like buying the lazy assumption that the atheist side of the quarrel was the clever one.”
Reading Unapologetic thrilled me. Snap, crackle, and pop dazzles nearly every page. Spufford’s writing is electrifying. His fresh and creative recasting of the Christian faith is invigorating. And in particular, his formulation of a new word for ‘sin’, and the use he makes of it, is unforgettable. You don’t need to read through to the end of this review for my recommendation. Go and get yourself a copy of this book. It is that good. But this is a Christian apologetics site, so perhaps I should insert some disclaimers here. You likely won’t agree with everything Spufford puts forward. I didn’t. You may even think he gets some major things wrong. I think he does. But what he gets right he describes so powerfully that my misgivings paled in comparison. Plus, it is good to read authors who stretch your mind.
Spufford does not concern himself with rational or logical arguments proving the existence of God. He will engage your mind rationally, and logic makes an appearance more than once, but apologetics traditionally understood is not his concern. Rather, he presents an experiential, or existential, or emotional case for the truth of Christianity. Spufford thinks—and as he observes, “make note of that verb ‘think’”—that “the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love. I think that love keeps it in being…. That’s what I think. But it’s all secondary. It all comes limping along behind my emotional assurance that there was mercy, and I felt it.” Here is the crux of Spufford’s reason for being a Christian. He experienced ‘God’. That experience of ‘God’ changed his life. It made sense of, and fit consistently within, all of life as he knew it. Spufford is aware that feelings or emotions can be misleading, but, he argues, we’re human beings, and “emotions are our indispensable tool for navigating” much of reality.
After identifying himself for twenty years as an atheist, Spufford returned to the Church of England. He writes, “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.” But still, he wonders, is it assent to propositions that makes him a believer? No. “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.”
Perhaps an experience of the divine is illusory, but Spufford is willing to run with it, and to look foolish to outsiders as he does so. He is convinced that it is the Christian who views the world in honesty and frankness, and who gives “the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which [the Christian is] capable.” On the other hand, it is the atheist who prefers to live in a make-believe world, pretending and piling up illusion after illusion.
So what does the world look like to Spufford? In a word, ‘messy’. Christianity is not a religion that sanitizes or minimizes the sin and evil that confronts us all. Here our culture presents us with a problem: the word ‘sin’ today bears little similarity to its use in the Bible. And yet Spufford is convinced that a robust understanding of ‘sin’ is integral to seeing the world as it is and towards appreciating the place we occupy in this world. If he can’t use the word ‘sin’, he will coin a new one that can hold the meaning intended by the Bible’s authors. This is his word: the Human-Propensity-to-F*ck-things-Up (and perhaps now is a good time to note that Spufford liberally sprinkles profanities throughout his book; reader beware). Or, because that’s unwieldy, HPtFtU. The human tendency, he says, is not “to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big, fat scratch.” Everybody has the HPtFtU, Christians just as much as atheists.
He admits this is not good news. It is bad news and not welcome. Human beings are capable of much good as well; we are a mixed bag. But the HPtFtU has tendrils that work their way into every aspect of our lives, touching all that we are and do. Take note of the first person pronouns. Spufford will not let you place the blame exclusively on others. You yourself, I myself, are the problem. And we all experience this HPtFtU. It defines our lives.
There is a method to his madness so far, that he begins with the bad news, and fifty pages of it. It is not until the third chapter that Spufford talks about God. First, he must explicate the problem which we all experience, and then describe the solution to the problem. He writes, “I started a step further back than you may have been expecting, because when we got to this point I wanted us to be arriving at Him as people do in experience: not as a philosophical proposition, an abstract possibility, but as the answer to a need, something we might yearn toward for reasons of intelligible guilt or sorrow.” Spufford is a word smith. He writes fluently, poetically, exhilaratingly, but for the first time, as he attempts to describe his experience of God and his mercy, he stumbles for words. How to communicate his experience? How to share it? I can sympathize with his quandary, while admitting feeling unsatisfied with his attempt. His description of ‘God’ struck me as insubstantial. I wondered how that ‘God’, or that experience of God, changed his life to such an extent. Of course, that is the problem, to take what one has experienced inside, and persuasively communicate it to someone outside. But it did change him, and that I accept.
There follows a chapter on Spufford’s dissatisfaction with theodicies, explanations of evil. Evil cannot be explained away or softened. Evil and suffering are a part of our world and our experience. So “how do we deal with it? How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is that we don’t.” What is necessary, he thinks, is not a rational argument for evil, for that never satisfied the one suffering, but a friend to walk with you in the midst of your suffering. He concludes, “For a Christian, the most essential thing God does in time, in all of human history, is to be that [friend]; a man under arrest, and on his way to our common catastrophe.”
One of the most powerful chapters in Unapologetic is the chapter about that man, that friend: Yeshua. Spufford’s retelling of Jesus’ story is worth the price of the book. The emotional force of that story is compelling. God is at the very centre of that story, that very strange story in which he takes on a human nature. And as a reader you enter into the story and identify with it, with Yeshua himself. And in response to the problem of evil, “it promises, bizarrely enough, that love is stronger than death.” And it provides the solution to the HPtFtU, to free us from its enslavement. What God became, and who Yeshua was and is, become the basis for our mending and our healing. The HPtFtU will continue to follow us, but through Yeshua God forgives and offers us grace. Somehow, and Spufford again struggles for words, grace overwhelms the HPtFtU.
“A message of universal forgiveness? What could possibly go wrong?” With those words, Spufford begins his penultimate chapter on the church, the community of those who identify themselves as Christians. He does not shy away from the dirty laundry, from the atrocities committed by Christians. After all, the HPtFtU vies for centrality with God’s grace and forgiveness. And the church is almost as messy as the world. Not quite as messy, for Christians have been touched by God and are being mended by God. But very messy nonetheless. Christians assume many different identities and ways of expressing their religious faith. Spufford doesn’t sanction all that Christians do, but he does defend the overall unity of the community. In one beautiful honest passage he writes:
“What you can’t do, no matter how tempting, is to push wholly away from you those who do their Christianity very differently. You can’t say: no kin of mine. I can find Sarah Palin, for example, as politically ridiculous and terrifying as (perhaps) you do, but I can’t just shun her. No matter how strange, bizarre and repulsive the expressions of her faith may be to me, I have to believe that she’s got something right, that she’s a member like me of the body of Christ, in need like me of the grace of God, and as sure to receive it. She is, despite everything, a sister. I and have to recognize her as such, while being very glad that Alaska is a long, long way away; and to hope that, in the same way, she would recognize a brother in me, despicable gunless high-taxin’ Euro-weenie socialist that I am…. I disagree profoundly with [her]. But I can’t just disavow [her]. I share like [her] in the HPtFtU—and in the hope of its remedy. This is not very comfortable.”
It may not be very comfortable, but it is within that community of Christians, and only within that context, that the world makes sense, and that God connects with human beings, entering into a broken world, and offering his grace, forgiveness, and mending. Spufford may not have intended to offer an apologetic for the Christian faith, but his book is an apologetic nonetheless. And, in fact, a very effective one. Buy it. Read it. And pass your copy on to someone else.