I STARTED to read this book with a sense of real optimism: Francis Spufford, the author of The Child That Books Built and Red Plenty, is an engaging, intelligent and stylish writer, and to see his defence of Christianity against the distortions and partialities of the “New Atheists” – Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris – promised to be intriguing.
Faber & Faber, £12.99
The title is, of course, a pun: this is not a work of apologetics in the traditional sense, and, as Spufford makes clear, he is “not sorry”. I ended it with a distinctly sour taste in my mouth, and the feeling that a work of traditional apologetics would have been far preferable.
After his polemical introduction, Spufford covers sin, divinity, theodicy (rather sketchily), the life of Jesus, grace, and the formation of the Church. There is one odd omission. Spufford barely discusses the Resurrection (a feature his work shares with both Selina O’Grady’s new book And Man Created God and Naomi Alderman’s fiction The Liars’ Gospel). Yet for the orthodox it is essential and the New Atheists lack a convincing counter-narrative. He stresses at the start that this will be an account of the “feeling” of religion, not the facts or the philosophies. This totters, as it so often does, into aesthetic rapture (the adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in this case) and “apophasis”, the idea that flawed human language and thought cannot grasp the ineffable otherness of God (or as Lao Tzu puts it “the Dao that can be described is not Dao”).
The problems start with the subtitle: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. It is that phrase “emotional sense” that irks. It plays into the therapeutic feel-goodery that Spufford brilliantly skewers in his introduction. Surely, what would be of value would be the unsurprising ethical and philosophical sense of religion, not some private fuzziness that fundamentally makes you feel better about yourself? (I admit, my Calvinism may be peeping through at this point.) There are writers taking up this challenge, and not necessarily from the Christian tradition – Zizek and Badiou find revolutionary meanings in Christianity; Simon Critchley finds a taxing moral philosophy in it, in Infinitely Demanding and The Faith Of The Faithless; Marilynne Robinson gives a sterling defence of some of the most contentious Biblical ideas in When I Was A Child I Read Books.
Nevertheless, a testament of faith might still have been a moving book. But Spufford’s tone derails his ambitions. Towards the end, he says of the “New Atheists”, “it would be nice if people weren’t quite so rude”. Can this be the same writer who, 100 pages previously, wrote “To anyone inclined the think, in a happy, wafty, muddly way, that nature is God, nature replies: have a cup of pus, Mystic Boy”? Or 100 before that: “New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact, they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because really, how the f*** would they know?” The sarcasm, the snarling and the snippy put-downs disengage the reader from Spufford’s faith. Rather than turn the other cheek, Spufford aims for a knockout punch.
That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful things in the book. He points out that those who think St Paul turned the Gospel’s human Jesus into the metaphysical Christ have their chronology backwards: the epistles of Paul predate the Gospels. It was always about God becoming Man. Spufford writes beautifully about the Christian duty to admit that even Sarah Palin is a sister. His sense of the pervasiveness and toxicity of sin is done well. But the caustic voice alienates – it reminded me of Aesop’s fable about the competition between the sun and the wind. In comparison with writers like G K Chesteron or C S Lewis, he lacks the warmth and wit that beguiles. «
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