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Nonfiction ‘Unapologetic’ gives an unconventional defense of Christianity

  • Published Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense” by Francis Spufford (HarperOne, 240 pages, $25.99)

There’s a long tradition of Christian literature called apologetics, which is an intellectual defense of Christianity, why it’s reasonable to believe it. British author Francis Spufford, in his witty, accessible and profane new book, takes a different approach. His is a defense of Christian emotions, “their grown-up dignity.” He writes: “The book is called ‘Unapologetic’ because it isn’t giving an ‘apologia,’ the technical term for a defense of the ideas. And also because I’m not sorry.”

Who will want to read this book? First, Christians will be drawn to it but will also find plenty they may disagree with. And his swearing will offend some.

Second, people who like to read good writing. Just take a few minutes to read his brief critique of the message New Atheists have put on British buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” His beef is with the phrase “enjoy your life.” What follows is prose that reads like a good novel.

Third, the curious. Whether or not you call yourself a Christian, take note of that word in the subtitle: “Surprising.” You will find something to surprise you, whether or not you agree with it.

While Spufford, who is an Anglican, claims not to be presenting an intellectual defense, he does make reasonable arguments in an attempt to clarify what Christianity is; he just tries to tie them to people’s experience. For example, he notes that people may view believers as “people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too, a really damp-palmed, wide-smiling, can’t-dance solution.” Then he argues that “it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable.”

Another part of the subtitle he keeps to throughout is “Emotional Sense.” While many claim that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer, Spufford writes that “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.”

Spufford develops his own terms as alternatives to standard theological ones. For example, his second chapter is called “The Crack in Everything,” in which he presents a way of addressing “sin” without using that word, which tends to refer to “the pleasurable consumption of something,” especially sex.

In “Big Daddy,” he addresses the experience of God, which he describes thus: “I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond. I am being read by what I am made of.” Then, in lovely prose, he goes into a long description of awareness. He notes that such an experience brings comfort but is not comfortable. “Starting to believe in God,” he writes, “is a lot like falling in love, and there is certainly a biochemical basis for that.”

Spufford reiterates the emotional sense of faith: “I’m only ever going to get to faith by some process quite separate from proof and disproof. … I’m only going to arrive at it because in some way that it is not in the power of evidence to rebut, it feels right.” He concludes that God “is as common as the air. He is the ordinary ground. And yet a presence. And yet a person.”

In “Hello, Cruel World,” Spufford considers the problem of evil, which he describes thus: “What sort of loving deity could have the priorities that the cruel world reveals, if the cruel world is an accurate record of His intentions, once you look beyond reality’s little gated communities of niceness?” He then dismisses several theodicies, or arguments to solve this problem, before concluding that “all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story.”

This leads to his chapter on Jesus, whom he calls “Yeshua,” where he retells the story of Jesus from the Gospels. Scholars will no doubt find it too cursory, but I found it well done and engaging.

Even though Spufford writes in his preface that he didn’t write the book to “engage in zero-sum competition with atheists,” he has those and other voices in mind at times as he confronts and names certain perspectives. In his chapter “Et Cetera,” he points out the view that somebody, “probably St. Paul, retrospectively glued Godhood onto poor Jesus,” who was really “a minor first-century religious reformer with a bit of a bee in his bonnet about gentleness. A well-intentioned and irrelevant person from the pre-Enlightenment ages of superstition.”

In “The International League of the Guilty, Part Two,” Spufford deals with the difficulty of balancing grace and justice. He writes, “We want God’s extra-niceness confined to deserving cases such as, for example, us, and a reliable process of judgment put in place which will ensure that the child-murderers are ripped apart with red-hot tongs.”

While parts of “Unapologetic” may tax one’s patience, most of it reads quickly. And while some of his points are hard-hitting, confronting Christians as much or more as others, the tone is mostly confessional. He’s giving us his experience, how he came to see how Christianity makes emotional sense.

This is likely a book I’ll return to more than once. And I imagine others will, too.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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