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Art thou sweary?

04 October 2013

Mark Oakley on Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

IN HIS POEM “Missing God”, Dennis O'Driscoll reflects that:

though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished
a bearded hermit - to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.

He then goes on, in a lament to this resonant absence, to note the times when he misses God most, such as a civil wedding; when a shadow appears on the X-ray screen; and hearing a monastery bell on holiday. This captures something of many people’s sense of let-down about religious belief in the 21st-century West.

It is widely taken for granted that nothing can really be taken seriously today as “truth” if it is not science, or modelled on what is thought to be science’s method of experiment and reason. The four Apocalyptic Horsemen of the death of God - Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have strengthened this late intuition. If you still take religious faith seriously, they conclude, you are an unthinking fantasist who has not only built a castle in the air, but moved in to it as well.

Francis Spufford knows all the arguments against God’s existence and religion. His frustration and anger at the Church is passionately expressed throughout this book. As Graham Greene once commented of himself, however, he cannot quite believe his unbelief. Spufford argues that many dismiss the idea of God as being childish, but fail to see that their concept of the God they want to eradicate is itself based on thoughts that they had when they were children.

Instead of focusing on our thinking about God  which, he admits, can ultimately never prove or disprove the being of a God  he invites us to consider our emotional intelligence: “What I do know is that, when I am 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, to dare the conditionality.”

Spufford will reason with the best of them, but this is not his point. That way, God (literally) goes to our heads, and remains an object in polarised debate. Here, he dares us to take the temperature of our feelings, and be unashamed to adore the God who is not an object to kick around, but the Subject to whom we are invited, by grace, to relate to most deeply.

Although aware of Christianity’s turn-offs, he is alive to the possibility that survives in it, especially if we can rescue Yeshua (the pre-Latinised name of Jesus) and his message from two millennia of heavy accoutrements that have built up because the Church has tended to think it is more important to be right than to be loving.

This is a book about Christianity that takes human experience seriously, and, as such, is very much in the Anglican tradition of those late-20th-century spiritual writers such as Harry Williams, Bill Vanstone, Monica Furlong, and Michael Mayne  although perhaps a bit more in your face, and sweary.

This last point is worth noting. Some have said that they find the high-volume tone and raw language of the book distracting, even inappropriate. On the contrary, I find it refreshing to read a book about God that has passion, a sense of urgency, and a transparency about feelings.

This is a man, we quickly see, living through conflicts of mind and heart, intuitions and doubts, potential and failure. Ah, so he’s a bit like us, then? The Australian poet Les Murray was equally sharp in a poem, “The Last Hellos”, addressed to his father who had just died. The last stanza might have been penned by Spufford to sum up his thesis:

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.

Spufford is serious about sin, or, as he calls it, “the HPtFTu”. He is honest about his own mess, and sensitively recognises that the human soul cannot be healed from within itself, but only by another, from outside. We have to be loved back into life unconditionally.

At its heart, the Church celebrates the presence of God in the world in the person of a man “with two arms and two legs and probably the beard and quite possibly the bad teeth” of any first-century Jew. This man never says anyone is too lost to be found. Every hard full-stop in a life is capable of becoming a comma. He therefore brings “unlimited love to a world of limits”.

Instead of the bland leading the bland, the Church’s vocation is consequently very clear. It is, Spufford says, to be “like Christ, in order to be a channel by which mending enters the world; a mending which . . . does not depend on the success of human virtue, individual or collective, but on what breathes and shines through us if we let it”.

Spufford is a man who wants the Church to take large opportunities of being generous, instead of small opportunities of being mean. Whether his approach is too much built on the sands of volatile emotion has to be discussed, but, for this reader, he feels authentic, speaks honestly, instils urgency and humour alike into the search for God  and, as such, is to be celebrated by those who want Christianity to be loyal to the future.

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense by Francis Spufford is published by Faber at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-571-22522-4. Features, 7 September 2012; Books, 23 November.

 

UNAPOLOGETIC - SOME QUESTIONS

How effectively does Francis Spufford make his case for the emotional sense of Christianity? Do you agree with his analysis?

Do you recognise "the HPtFTu"? How else might this condition be described?

"It is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. 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" (p. 19). If you are a Christian, would you agree that it is your feelings that are more influential than ideas? If not, how do you respond to these sentences?

In the notes at the end, the author explains that he did no research, and wrote most of the book sitting in a coffee shop. If you were to write today about your faith, feelings, or beliefs, what message would you most hope to convey?

"The Church will always be clumsy and time-lagged and complicit in the corruption of its times" (p.196). Do you agree?

Spufford answers the question about how Christians cope with suffering with the short answer: "We don't" (p. 104). Is this an adequate response?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 November, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Toby's Room by Pat Barker. It is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20; 978-0-141-04220-6).

Book notes
In 1917, Toby is reported "Missing, believed killed" on the battlefields of France. His sister Elinor is an artist who helps doctors in the reconstruction of the faces of wounded soldiers. She is determined to find out what has happened to her brother. She turns to the last man to see him alive, Kit Neville, but he is seriously injured in hospital, and does not wish to relive his horrific experiences. So she enlists the assistance of a former lover, Paul Tarrant. What they discover is shocking. The characters in this novel previously appeared in Barker's Life Class (2007), although it is not a sequel in the usual sense.

Author notes
Pat Barker was born in 1943 in the North Riding of Yorkshire. From the age of seven, she lived with her grandparents, who owned a fish-and-chip shop. She studied international history at the LSE, and started writing in her mid-20s. Her first published novel was Union Street (1982). She is best known for her Regeneration trilogy, the third volume of which won the 1995 Booker Prize and the 2008 Best of Booker award. She is a widow with two adult children.

Books for the next two months:
December: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
January: The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

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