A non-review of Francis Spufford’s “Unapologetic”

You should read this book.
You should read this book.

I’ve been having trouble thinking of something to say about Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic other than “I really, really liked it.” It’s not like any other “religious” book I can remember reading. The closest analogue I can think of are the books of Anne Lamott, who similarly writes about the life of faith with brutal honesty and without pious cant.

The title has a double meaning: Spufford is unapologetic in the sense of not being ashamed of his belief, but he’s also not offering an “apology” in the sense of a reasoned defense of Christianity–the sort of thing you get from some of C. S. Lewis’s writings (not to mention those of many lesser lights). Spufford’s goal is to describe from the inside what being a Christian is like–specifically for an educated Englishman living in a “post-Christian” culture–and to show that it can be an emotionally authentic response to the human condition. He doesn’t shy away from the blots on Christianity’s historical record or from tough theological questions (he’s particularly unsparing of pat theological answers in his discussion of theodicy). But he is equally insistent that, at its best, it provides a compelling response to what he cheekily calls the “human propensity to fuck things up” (or “HPtFtU” as he abbreviates it).

Spufford is a more-or-less orthodox Christian, but he considers theological propositions as secondary to a the immediate emotional experience of faith (not unlike an earlier defender of religion against its cultured despisers). This is the experience of a graceful presence underlying the messy and ambiguous world of daily life–a presence we encounter most piercingly when we have screwed things up. Christians see this presence most fully manifested in Jesus, and Spufford’s retelling of the gospel story provides the theological heart of the book. He recognizes that his faith is a wager–he doesn’t know whether or not there is a God, but “neither does Richard bloody Dawkins.”

What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have paid 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 conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know. (p. 220)

Despite the intellectual bravado of some professional Christians, I think that this is far closer to how many of us–particularly those of us in the West–experience our faith. But nothing I can write will do justice to Spufford’s book; I encourage you to read it for yourself.

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