Unapologetic

UNAPOLOGETIC: Why, despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense

by Francis Spufford

Faber and Faber £12.99 ISBN 978-0-571-22521-7

Book cover of Unapologetic

Click on image to buy this book!

The author of Unapologetic isn’t a bit sorry for offering this entertaining polemic. He makes an impassioned case for Christianity making emotional sense, ‘despite everything’. He is withering in his criticism of vapid nonsense like John Lennon’s Imagine – ‘the My Little Pony of philosophical statements’ – and similar offerings that assume that peace and harmony would be the spontaneously arising natural order of things between all human beings if there was no such thing as religion. As the author opines; ‘Yeah, Right!’

Don’t expect to read one of those Josh McDowell-type Evidence that Requires a Verdict tomes that try to defend traditional Christian teachings in the face of modern criticism. Curious outsiders wondering what makes believers tick are much more likely to find an answer here than in a whole stack of theological books and strident critiques from Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling. Those readers who are stumbling along the pilgrim path are very likely to find a mirror into their souls, (or maybe that’s just me).

Spufford was inspired to write Unapologetic when he realised that his six-year-old daughter is soon going to discover that her parents are weird. Every Sunday morning the go out to church. As she grows up she will hear that Christians are a pretty bizarre bunch. According to those who care enough to object, these churchgoers are weird followers of some imaginary sky fairy, but for most people in Britain, church goers are just embarrassing. We’re ‘not weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable.’

In their eyes, ‘Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too…’ We just can’t allow things to be what they are; ‘They always have to be translated, moralised – given an unnecessary and rather sentimental extra meaning.’  We just can’t tell the difference between stuff that exists and stuff that is made up; ‘Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world’.

Yet, in fact; ‘It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires, continual, fluffy pretending.’ In examining this, he turns to the famous atheist bus slogan that raised a lot of controversy recently, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Does the implication stand that enjoyment would be the natural state of anyone who wasn’t being ‘worried by believers and their preaching’? ‘Take away the malignant threat of God talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? It buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing’ – the world of advertising and beautiful Gold Blend coffee-sipping people with good looks and plenty of cash – who can get all they want by going shopping.

Spufford argues persuasively that peace is not the norm, ‘the default state of human beings’, but that it is rare. So the atheist bus slogan might be fine for such improbable people but it is totally inappropriate for those many folk who don’t fit that definition. If the slogan is true then you’re on your own if for some reason you’re not enjoying yourself. ‘What the atheist bus slogan says is: There’s no help coming.’ There’s no hope, no consolation in this ‘cruel optimism’.

To Spufford, the notion is false that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from all other kinds of imagining, hoping and dreaming that we do; they are ‘deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.’  Spufford seeks in this work to decode the technical jargon and theological in-talk into plain (and often profane) basic English. Sin, for example is not a list of prohibited actions you can avoid or self-indulgence in sexual conduct or doing vaguely ‘wrong’ things like eating too much chocolate. To Spufford it’s simply the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up – the HPtFtU.

This distils in a short phrase the root of the problem with people; a problem ignored by humanists, atheists and sadly, many religious liberals too who have too rosy a view of human nature. Bad things don’t just happen to guaranteed 100% bad people. Christianity recognises the real truth; human beings are neither perfect nor perfectable, we’re all prone to fuck things up. We’re all bad people who need mercy. Spufford argues that this is a much more realistic starting points for us than awe at the stars and sunsets. You can’t live in a constant State of Awe. Recognition of the HPtFtU is the start of the way back, an admission of self-discovery that you really are guilty and in need of Grace and Mercy. Everyone fails. Nobody only means well. Nobody means well all the time.

For this reason, Spufford argues, the Church is not a cosy club of really good, holy people, or weird followers of a mythical sky-pixie but a ‘league of the guilty’. The International League of the Guilty has littered the landscape with useful buildings where people can find help to strip away self-delusion and comforting illusions; we call them churches.

This book gets off to a roaring start, so it’s slightly disappointing that it loses a bit of steam towards the last couple of chapters. Still, it really picks up again near the finish. That said, it’s still a cracking good read with a great message of hope from our ‘awkward sky fairy’ who says, ‘Don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid, for more can be mended that you can know.’ If you only read one ‘religious’ book this year, make it this one.

Reviewed By David Kerr

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