One Quote Review: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

Man I wanted to love this book. I wanted to adore this book. I wanted to buy extra copies of this book and give them away to everyone who ever made eye contact with me again. I read the opening chapter and basically cursed God that this Spufford chap can write so well when all I can do is Powerpoint presentations that don’t need bullet point lists. But at the same time I thanked God for this Spufford chap because he wrestled words into a shape that looked like experiences I knew were true from my life. Yay Spufford!

And there is a chapter in there where he recapitulates the whole story of Jesus in such a way that actually made me cry, sitting at the breakfast table, right before I had to go to lectures. It is beautiful.

And throughout the book the prose has that kind of flowing cleverness that is enjoyable to simply sit with.

And! His tone is conversational without being glib. This is the way to talk about Christianity. He doesn’t pretend that he is walking to Vespers with C.S. Lewis. He writes like he sounds, by which I mean he sounds like an actual human man from 2012.

And there are many other things that can be endorsed in this book; the conviction at its heart is that reality is in some senses merciful, and that is a deep idea. His robust defence of original sin, cast as HPtFtU, is compelling. But fundamentally it failed to impress me. Perhaps by writing out why, I can figure out if my reaction is just a manky, biased response or whether it has merit.

I realise that every brief introduction to the faith is going to have to cut corners. But the edges that are polished off to describe what it means to follow Jesus really matter. The Jesus that is drawn here didn’t seem Jewish. He launches an audacious effort to set human depravity at the centre of the emotional satisfaction of Christianity but he fails to give Genesis 3 all that much credit.

He misrepresents C.S Lewis. Lewis’ Trilemma, from Mere Christianity, which has become a topic of fun in the contemporary world of letters. It is not a rock-solid argument but it isn’t meant to be either. In context, the Trilemma is a lovely illustration. But Spufford critiques it as a dilemma. This is unfair. And me and Jack will slag Francis over it in heaven.

But Francis seems a bit ashamed of heaven. And he seems positively dismissive of hell. And while he appears to believe in Catholic unity, “we’re all, collectively, the ecclesia, ‘the gathering together'”, that Catholicity of spirit isn’t extended to the apparently small group of old-fashioned conservatives within the church still believe in hell. Also, the same small group make a big deal of sexual ethics when there allegedly isn’t a Biblical support for their stances. Also, there is little love shared for Christians in Nigeria, Uganda or those wrong kind of Christians in the USA. Christian sexual ethics, by the way, are just liberal political free choice.

And then he seems to not realise that Christianity is non-violent. And he actively supports the establishment of the Church of England. And on and on my disagreements could go. It’s a phenomenally well written book but in the end, while it may account for the emotional satisfaction of Christianity as Spufford has experienced it, it is not an introduction to the strange particularity that the faith represents for all the people who aren’t Spufford.

Plus he never mentions Barth.

Still, let me end with a quote about the so-called Gnostic Gospels that is hilarious and which shows that this book has massive plus points standing in its credit:

The Jesus of the orthodox story treats people with deep attention even when angry. Their Jesus zaps people with his divine superpowers if they irritate him. Orthodox Jesus says that everyone needs the love of God, and God loves everyone. Their Jesus has an inner circle you can be admitted to if you collect enough crisp packets. Orthodox Jesus likes wine, parties, and grilled fish for breakfast. Their Jesus thinks that human flesh and its appetites are icky. Orthodox Jesus is disconcertingly unbothered about sexuality, and conducts his own sexual life, if he has one, off the page. Their Jesus can generate women to have sex with out of his own ribs, in a way that suggests the author had trouble talking to girls.

– Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, p. 155-156.

Maybe it is just that I am so immersed in studying theology right now that I can’t get out of the pedant’s stance of the know-nothing-who-has-learned-a-little?

Your Correspondent, Will not stand for a world free of sexual and religious intolerance

2 Replies to “One Quote Review: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford”

  1. Oh, the Trilemma thing is embarrassing. It’s a drawback of the report-what’s-in-my-head strategy I adopted to try and make the thing keep flowing conversationally. I only checked up on things I wasn’t sure I’d remembered right, and I was wrongly certain that I had this bit of CSL perfectly secure. I will do my best to get it altered in the paperback, if I can persuade my publisher to let me.

    And the rest of what disappointed you must, I think, be counted to my erring judgement as I tried to square one of the book’s many inevitable circles. In this case, how to speak plausibly and directly as myself, with my own particular liberal High Church C of E outlook, and my own experience as the quarry from which I could most easily mine faith-as-a-narrative, while at the same time speaking plausibly and in terms the maximum number of people could recognise for a Christianity far wider than my own small standpoint. Clearly we don’t agree about heaven, hell and sexual ethics; but I hoped that if I kept emphasising the areas of common ground and of mutual recognition, it would then be clear that when I opined about women, gay marriage, the historical failings of the Church as I see them, I was speaking for me. But the circle bulges back out of its right angles remorselessly. I’m sorry it alienated you.

  2. Thanks for the comment Francis, and thanks also for the book.

    I fear I made a mistake in this review – I critique points in it that aren’t really flaws but rather the necessary shape a book takes when it is written in a casual, conversational style. And I critiqued it in a casual style that doesn’t do the actual nitty gritty of the book justice.

    I think you are right – that the circle bulges back out of its right angles but that isn’t remorseless. It’s what should happen when someone offers a personal description of their own human experience. It is a strength.

    I had a sense that I had misjudged this review when I first published it and so went back in to write the final sentence, which I think should carry a lot of weight; I may simply have read this book at the wrong time, when I am immersed in academic theology and therefore prone to insufferable bouts of humourless attempts at precision.

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