Because my last few years have been spent reading the same books over and over as I try to finish a dissertation, I often have to give a sheepish “no” to the question of whether or not I have read the latest “it” book. Usually, I can somewhat overcome the feelings of un-hipness these questions bring with a little inner-dialogue. “No, I haven’t. Have you read Truth and Method twenty times? How about Being and Time or Oneself as Another or The Rule of Metaphor? Yeah, I didn’t think so.” But I always feel a little that the world is passing me by.
But last year, the buzz around Francis Spufford’s book, Unapologetic, proved irresistible. Here’s what got me. Spufford, enthusiasts would say, is avoiding the temptations of theodicy (the problem of God and evil) and offering instead the gospel. So, I downloaded my Kindle version and read the book in a manner of a few days.
I could see why others loved the book. Spufford is a brilliant writer, a journalist who knows his way around a sentence. And he’s a thoughtful Christian in a place, England, where that phrase is considered an oxymoron. And he brilliantly exposes the vapidness of both Christian fundamentalism and the new atheists. His riff in John Lennon’s, Imgaine, is worth the book. So, read the book. By all means read the book.
But don’t count me as a proponent for where Spufford ultimately takes the reader. The sub-title of the book, Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Still Makes Surprising Emotional Sense, provides a reliable description of the direction the book hopes to take the reader. The phrase “emotional sense” is especially crucial for Spufford. He writes because of the “embarrassment” people in England feel when they encounter a truly believing Christian. He writes because, though the Christian history of England provides much of the scaffolding for contemporary British culture, the experience of being a practicing Christian for most is non-existent. And he wants them to know what the inner experience of being a Christian is like. What it’s like, from the inside, to be a Christian.
For Spufford, this inner experience is the result of grace, more directly, the experience of being forgiven. In opposition to the optimistic anthropology of the new atheists, Spufford insists that we are all tragically broken by sin, (I’ll let you figure out what his abbreviation for that throughout the book means, HPtFtU) and long for an experience of grace and forgiveness that comes from someplace or someone outside of ourselves. Spufford’s passages on grace, and by extension the nature of the church, are beautifully poetic and ennobling. For Spufford, the ongoing experience of mercy made available through the church creates en emotionally satisfying account of things, of life, of meaning, of purpose.
Given this central argument, the place where Spufford sends us in the direction of a conclusion is in the third chapter where he describes an experience of sitting alone in church and in the quietness of that moment having both his life and the world enlarged so that he is connected somehow to all of it. God is absent, missing, if you seek God in the answer to prayers or in some experience of the Spirit or the conditions of the world. Instead, God, if there is a God, is manifest for Spufford in moments like these.
In the final stanzas of the book, he writes about the church’s purpose as “offering the hush in which we can bear to find out what we’re like. Christ will still be looking across at us from the middle of an angry crowd. God will still be there, shining. If, that is, there is a God…It (the reality of God) not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that when I’m lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he’s there…”
While these lines possess a poetic beauty, to me they represent why the book falls short. I applaud Spufford’s attempt to do public theology, that is, to provide an account of the faith that would make sense or be compelling. And I applaud his avoidance of some of the pitfalls he avoids along the way, notably his refusal to dip into the waters of theodicy. I even say “Amen” to admitting to doubt around the reasonableness of the faith.
So, what’s my issue? He offers as public what is ultimately private: the inner life of the individual believer. In addressing the spirit of the age, he falls prey to the very heart of it, namely that the interior of the individual is where all the action takes place. While he successfully attacks the rationalist side of the individualist dogma, he offers in its place a romantic version of the same dogma. Ultimately, Spufford’s book reads like a very well-written sermon from Paul Tillich. I would put it on my shelf next to my Frederick Buechener books, books I’m glad that I read and would be happy to quote on occasion, but not books that point me ultimately in helpful directions.
I’m trying to imagine how my unbelieving friends would respond to Spufford’s book. While they would be happy to see the way he takes on homophobia, appreciate his less than Puritan use of language, and might even envy his emotional equanimity, or take to heart his critiques of the new atheists the way a Nick Hornby might, in the end I’m not sure they would be suitably impressed. I think they might say, “I’m glad he’s found a good place for himself inside of Christianity. I just think you can get to the same place in other ways. I’m glad it works for him. It just doesn’t work for me.”
And I think Spufford might be ok with that, for others to simply appreciate the emotionally complex inner life of believers like him, to get them not to think of his daughter as the unfortunate recipient of a harmful set of superstitions.
But I think there’s more to be accomplished than this and in ways that don’t succumb to a defensive rationalism or to cases of special pleading. And the more I think about it, the more pneumatology holds promise. Spufford quickly dusts off any possible association with the “charismatic.” And while I’m no holy roller and can’t embrace much of what passes for Spirit-filled, I do think that vivid experiences of the Spirit are crucial to a public theology in a scientific age.
This is why I’m happy to announce the theme for this year’s Streaming conference at Rochester College, October 8-10, “Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities.” Amos Yong, from Fuller Seminary will be our featured presenter.