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Exploring Christianity from the inside

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense - review.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £12.99

Jesus, like Jeremy Paxman, asked a lot of questions. Although it’s possible to construe this as the sign of an enquiring or humble mind, it has rather more to do with capturing the agenda. Paxman asks a minister why she’s failing to deliver; Jesus asks the Pharisees whose image is on the coin. The message is clear: we shall have this conversation on these terms.

The New Atheists – notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris – tend not to ask so many questions, preferring instead to tell us about theology and science, ethics and history. Nonetheless, they have successfully captured the God agenda. Thinking about this objectively, they said, freed from the instincts, emotions, hopes and all the other subjective sentiments that cloud the light of reason, what evidence have you that God exists? Most of the authors of the anti-anti-God polemics that followed in their wake took the bait and found themselves dancing to a tune they didn’t choose.

Francis Spufford’s short and witty book does not. Instead, it explores Christianity from the inside, recognising that as human beings are quite important to the religion, to discuss it without reference to the human is silly. It is a mistake, he writes early on, “to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary.”

This is courageous for at least three reasons. It is open to misinterpretation – specifically that prioritising feelings is the same as abdicating reason. (It isn’t, as Spufford insists, but that is how it will undoubtedly be read by some.) It is highly personal – not only is Spufford opening himself up in public but he is also leaving himself vulnerable to the accusation that his Christianity-from-the-inside is different from other people’s (something he would probably admit).

And it pushes at the boundaries of what can be said, necessitating metaphors that strain and crack under the pressure of what they are charged with doing or, alternatively, recourse to phrases such as “something makes itself felt from beyond”, which are sitting targets for the God-hunters.

None of this openness and courage should be taken to imply that Spufford is like some literary Christ, led meekly to Skull Hill without a word of protest. Billed as being “unhampered by niceness”, Unapologetic successfully skewers various atheist holy cows, including the embarrassingly anodyne, marketing-savvy advice offered by the British Humanist Association’s bus advertising campaign in 2009 or John Lennon’s dreadful “Imagine” (“the My Little Pony of philosophical statement”).

The book is not, however, particularly interested in sniping (Spufford is generally quite kind about Dawkins and Hitchens) and lacks the exuberant spite of the New Atheists. Rather, it is an attempt to communicate what Christianity is to a culture that is “smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling”. Spufford is insightful about that culture, now far more informed by goods than by God, in which “each moment is supposed to be the solvent of the one before”. He is alert to the cultural accretions that render certain Christian words all but redundant in modern English, translating sin, for example, as “the HPtFtU” (read the book for an explanation).

Spufford is scrupulously honest, not only about the suffering that litters history and the world but also the final inadequacy of all attempts to reconcile it happily with the Christian God. He recognises that awe, so often the emotion of first and last resort when it comes to religiosity, plays a much less significant role than desperation. He is perceptive and pleasantly sarcastic about Church history (“A message of personal forgiveness? What could possibly go wrong?”). He readily admits: “The life of faith has just as many he-doesn’t-exist-thebastard moments as the life of disbelief. Probably more.” And he understands that the Christian answer to this pain, both within the human heart and beyond it, must rest on Christ and, in particular, his death.

Accordingly, the centrepiece of the book is a superb retelling of the life of “Yeshua”. Lives of Jesus are notoriously difficult, plagued by the problem that the story is at once too fa - miliar and too strange. Yet it can be done. There were moments of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ that conveyed Christ and his teaching with freshness. Spufford’s retelling is, remarkably, creative, orthodox and moving, managing to convey the terrifying appeal of both the man and his message.

Unapologetic is unlikely to persuade anyone who thought The God Delusion was a good book. That Spufford gets in a thousand words of anti-Christian abuse within the first couple of pages suggests he knows this. However, in a literary field that is fast becoming overpopulated, it is an intelligent, sophisticated and much welcome addition.

Nick Spencer is research director at the think tank Theos and is currently writing a book on the history of atheism.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special