AFTER a while, as is often the way with long-running conflicts, all but the antagonists lose interest.
Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense
by Francis Spufford Faber, 240pp, £12.99
The debate about God is going that way, with the Dawkinsite New Atheists dug in opposite the fundamentalist believers, each trying to annihilate the other with their own brand of logic. It’s bitter and entrenched, a dull argy-bargy which most people quickly learn to tune out.
Then, into the No Man’s Land between the trenches strides Francis Spufford, with no armour save a pair of wellies, no weapons but a water pistol. A believer, but no fundamentalist, he is in grave danger of antagonising both sides. He’s a rare beast, an Anglican who got angry, and sat down there and then and wrote down his response, like the respectable but briefly enraged citizen who drafts a spontaneous letter to a newspaper. His anger isn’t the cynical, waspish, Dawkinsite kind, it’s the anger of someone unaccustomed to being angry, the anger of someone who has simply had enough.
Spufford is no theologian. He has never written on religion before, and freely admits that, prior to going to church, he was an atheist for 20 years. He brings to this project his credibility as an acclaimed writer of non-fiction books such as Backroom Boys (about British boffins) and Red Plenty (about Khrushchev’s Russia). This is a different kind of book: articulate, personal, funny, raw, self-aware. It isn’t an apologia, a carefully arranged battery of arguments. And this, perhaps, is the point. It’s a book about the messiness of being human and the fact that there are no easy solutions, but proposing that poor, much-maligned Christianity might be the best way to live with the absence of solutions.
In his third chapter, Spufford does something which is risky, both intellectually and emotionally: he attempts to describe a religious experience. No thunderclaps or invisible hands writing on walls, just a common-or-garden moment in an empty church where something happens – “a shimmer of sensation” which is “tremblingly, only just there” – an intensity of awareness which becomes an awareness of presence. There is no certainty and no proof. Spufford is the first to admit it could just be brain chemistry. And yet …
He later writes that “there may well not” be a God. “I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It is not … a knowable item. 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.” Instead of the hard ammunition of assertion and argument, he foregrounds feelings. Attend, for a moment, to what rings true. Listen to your gut, and see what it tells you. We all f*** up (his ready recourse to expletives is quite refreshing). Shit happens, and sometimes we help it along. As Leonard Cohen once said: “There is a crack in everything”.
How do we understand a world where there is good but also suffering? Short answer: we don’t, but, more than an explanation, we need to find ways to live in it.
Mid-book, his “tour of religion’s recognisable emotions” runs hard up against the story of Jesus (he gives him his Hebrew name, Yeshua). Spufford retells it in his own way, and not everyone will agree with his choices, but he draws out beautifully the inherent strangeness of its hero, a man who wrong-footed his friends as much as his enemies, whose morality, generosity, humanity was unique, who was both radical and (despite how the Christian story ends) somehow tragic. His description of Jesus’ death is moving, and contains some of the finest writing in the book.
Perhaps its weakest parts are when he tries to defend arguments about the historical Jesus, as he does in the subsequent chapter. He doesn’t have the space to do this justice, and occupants in both trenches are likely to find it less than satisfying. Better is his defence of Christians, who, he says, stand accused of everything from being geneally uncool to being “the villains in history, on the wrong side of every struggle for human liberty”. He admits guilt where it is due – and it is due, of course, in some very serious cases. Yet this honesty adds power to his elbow when the guilt is misplaced. The Church has been a soft target for too long.
Spufford’s case rests on the idea that he is generally talking sense. That good is done as well as bad in the name of God. That we recognise our own shortcomings. That a thinking person is not automatically either an atheist or delusional. That the world is a complicated place and we all need a bit of help from time to time.
Being a “fairly orthodox Christian” is his response to this. Some will agree, others won’t. One man and his water pistol won’t stop the war. Unapologetic may be a comfort, a rallying cry or simply annoying. But it does add an important voice to the tumult: the overlooked voice of the man-in-the-pew, unequipped with banners of proof and certainty, yet convinced of something rather than nothing, the presence of the elusive “and yet …”
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South