Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a defence of the emotionality of Christianity. He’s not trying to convince you why Christianity is rational, but why it is beautiful. In line with his aim, Spufford’s writing is lyrical and a bit rambly. You might find yourself thinking ‘just get to the point’ if each chapter didn’t soar to emotional heights, peppered with self-deprecating humour and sarcastic footnotes. This is persuasion by emotion rather than logic.
Spufford starts by talking about sin, except he doesn’t call it sin. He calls it the the HPtFtU (Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up), saying, ‘It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s… The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people.’
With all the brokenness we see around us, Spufford says that even if we think God doesn’t exist, we end up wishing he did in order to intervene. And yet, he says with penetrating honesty, God rarely shows up. Feeling the absence of God is a part of every human being’s experience, whether Christian or not. But still, there’s a sense of something more, and Spufford takes us on an extended tour of experiencing awe in the world. Sure, he says, perhaps those feelings are just ‘hormones and neurotransmitters and nerve fibres,’ but that doesn’t mean the feelings don’t exist. And if God did exist, how could you experience him except in your physically determined bodily state?
Spufford comes straight out of his chapter on awe to say that if God does exist, as at times we want him to, ‘He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening.’ In other words, what about suffering? Spufford takes the classic theodicies of Christian theology and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each. In the end, he reckons, they all come up short. I loved this chapter for its frankness and compassion. Spufford offers no ‘answer’: ‘We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story’.
And that leads him exactly where it should: to Jesus. Spufford retells the entire story of Jesus, first setting a compelling historical scene and then recounting his life, death and resurrection, plus some of his teaching and a few parables. But these are more than bare facts, and the story is told in such a way as to heighten the emotional peaks and troughs, highlight the absurdities, revel in the glories, and increase our awareness of Jesus’ determination to die as a means of bringing healing to a broken world. This is followed by a defence of the validity of the Gospel accounts, but it is far from dry as Spufford lends his characteristic humour to more traditional apologetic material.
This takes us to three quarters of the way through the book, when unfortunately the bum falls out of it, both emotionally and theologically. It’s the idea of Hell that Spufford can’t stomach, and even though he’s just spent a fair bit of time defending the Gospels, at this point his argument has little to do with the Bible. He argues that today’s Christians needn’t bother with such a distasteful notion as eternal punishment, without reference to the generations of Christians who acknowledged some kind of judgement. It’s not that he’s a universalist; he just doesn’t have that much to say about the future.
What’s even more perplexing is that Spufford seems to have little conception of the new creation. Earlier he argues that he’s a ‘for now’ kind of Christian, and his diagnosis of the human condition is certainly compelling, along with his conviction that Jesus affects our lives now (though he makes no mention of the Holy Spirit.) But this is improvement with no goal in sight, and little to no expectation of the return of Christ. The world will go on ‘always failing, always hoping to fail better, because we know that it is through loving the resistant, muddled, tricky, intricate, fascinating, stained fabric of this world – this only world – that it begins to glint with the possibility of the kingdom.’ Spufford is offering some hope, but it’s hope without assurance of full restoration.
The upshot of all this is that the HPtFtU is primarily about what happens between humans. The mess makes Jesus’ entry into our world all the more dramatic, but it distances God. God is unrelational and unaffected because sin is not offensive to him. He is above, condescending to reach down and mend our broken world, but there’s little sense that by doing so, God is loving us as his enemies.
With his disdain of classical Christian beliefs such as Hell and judgement, Spufford’s claim to be a reasonably orthodox Christian comes across as presumptuous, and he is scathing of Christians who do hold such views, barely escaping lumping us all in with Westboro Baptist. It makes me hesitant to recommend this book to someone who’s not a believer.
However, there’s a great deal to like about the first three quarters. Spufford makes an exciting contribution to apologetic literature by taking this emotional angle. In the context of relationship and conversation with a friend, or perhaps as a companion to something more theologically comprehensive like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Unapologetic is a clarion call that there is more to faith than trying to logic your way in. This is apologetics for our postmodern world.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.