Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity
can still make surprising emotional
Faber and Faber £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code
THIS book has a brilliance that fully justified the placing of
an extract from it as the main article in The Guardian's
Saturday Review. This
is, first, because of its relentless honesty. Any quarrel that
you think you have with the Christian faith, and more, is stated
here with bitter force. No less, this honesty leads Francis
Spufford to be revealing about his own, sometimes painful,
experience, and the ways in which his faith does not give us what
we think we most want.
The second aspect of the brilliance is the vigour and sparkle of
the writing. Almost every sentence has a fresh image or analogy.
The tone that he adopts is very much that of someone arguing with a
belligerent mate in the pub, but, even if one does not naturally
respond to this vernacular style, he gets away with it because of
the skill of his writing.
A personal crisis brought Spufford to the point where he was
forced to acknowledge that he had thoroughly mucked up his life,
and was trapped in the mess. This human propensity to **** things
up, which he calls HPtFtU, is for him a fundamental insight, which
he sees as deeply embedded in all human behaviour, whether people
are Christian or not.
It is this that makes him so scornful of the atheist slogan
"There is probably no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life".
The idea that life offers easy enjoyment, reinforced by the stream
of advertisements that hit us daily, is, he argues, totally untrue
to the harsh facts of life.
The second fundamental insight that came at the low point in his
life was when he stumbled into the quiet of a church. A difficult
experience to describe, but this is a beautifully written chapter,
as is the next one on Jesus. Clearly well informed about the basic
outline of the life of Jesus, as set out by New Testament scholars,
he recreates a highly compelling portrait.
What is interesting is that, instead of relying on any of the
New Testament titles, whether used by or about Jesus, he offers a
Jesus whose self-knowledge is that of later Christian doctrine; but
he does so in a way that feels both possible and plausible. Much of
the rest of the book is taken up with vigorous refutations, first
of the idea that Paul imposed a Christian framework on the good man
Jesus, then of the various charges that can be levelled against the
As the title of the book makes clear, this is a book based on
what the author calls the emotional truth of the faith. He would
probably agree with Cardinal Newman, who said that "the whole man
moves; paper logic is but the record of it." But this is slightly
misleading; for our reasoning is part of the whole man that moves.
Spufford draws too sharp a line between our reasoning and our
He also fails to give proper weight to the fact that emotions
are not raw, but already interpreted as we experience them, and
this means that what we experience will reflect our own culture and
life history. He experienced forgiveness, but I suspect that a
Buddhist would have experienced something different. So the
question of evaluation is there from the beginning.
Allied to this, Spufford is too quick to abandon the word "know"
when it comes to faith. He repeats that he does not know if there
is a God, and neither does anyone else; nor does he know if it is
God who meets us in Jesus, even though that faith is now central to
his own life. The reality of God can indeed be neither be proved
nor disproved, but there are a number of truths that we can "know"
that likewise are not open to verification or falsification.
A scientist, for example, in the face of recent allegations
about a few scientists' simply making up the evidence that they
need, might want to reaffirm the quest for truth in science as
crucial for its own sake. This is something that he "knows", and he
knows it so strongly that he gives his whole life over to it. In
some similar way, a believer will seek to live his or her life on
the conviction that reason does not just unlock secrets within the
universe, but is a reflection of a rational purpose behind
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the author
of God Outside the Box: Why spiritual people object to
Christianity (SPCK, 2002).