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Reviews

Unapologetic

Steve Tomkins

Why, despite everything, Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense
Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber, 223pp

RSpufford.jpgI  have a bizarre problem in talking about this book. I feel reluctant to say much about it in case I spoil it for you, and I'd rather you read it like I did, knowing nothing about it other than the title - and being utterly captivated. I say that's bizarre, because this is not a novel or even a spiritual memoir. There are no surprising narrative twists - the hero doesn't turn out to be any more of a villain than he was at the start, and we come to no definite conclusions about who done it. In fact, what Unapologetic does is nothing more original than unpacking the Christian faith, with chapters about sin, God, Jesus, suffering and - spoilers ahoy - the church. Not a breathlessly gripping book proposal. And yet this wonderful book is one of the freshest writings about religion I've ever read.

Stylistically it is unlike other theological books. It's the sweariest Christian writing ever, surpassing such masters as Martin Luther and St Thomas More. Spufford is the Malcolm Tucker of Christian spirituality. He's also its John Coltrane, seized by an idea then riffing on it for pages-long paragraphs. He starts the book, for example, considering how Christians look to most people in our society - and six pages later you feel like you've gone 12 rounds with the word heavyweight champion. The subtitle itself gives you a foretaste of this word-happiness.

More importantly, Spufford has no interest in proving any Christian doctrine. 'I don't know that any of it is true,' he says. 'I don't know if there's a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know.)'

Instead he approaches faith - as we all do when we're being believers (and unbelievers) rather than apologists - as an experience rather than a proposition. Belief follows feeling.

This experience, as Spufford says, is the least well understood aspect of religion, from the outside. How worship looks, for example, this obligation to constantly remind God how great he is, is a very different thing from how it feels. So the mission of Unapologetic is to clear aside these impressions, dump the religious language that has become helplessly weighed down by its baggage, and communicate the experience behind it.

This focus on emotion and experience makes it a very personal book, an account, not of The Christian Faith, but of a Christian faith. The story starts, after preliminary forays against the atheist bus and Lennon's 'Imagine', by dropping us into a shockingly intimate scene of a relationship in crisis, the aftermath of a betrayal. He then describes how that day he heard Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and it gave him a sense of ever-present mercy. 'It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet.'

Spufford then goes on to consider 'sin', a term he discards with its contemporary connotations of killjoyity and sexual repression, in favour of the compelling idea of 'the human propensity to fuck things up'. However, he has some kind of mercy on devout readers by shortening it to the unworkable acronym HPtFtU.

This eventually brings him to the subject of God, coming to him as we all do, not as a philosophical proposition or chapter 1 of a systematic theology, but through an obstacle course of messy experience - at the end of which there is nothing. What we do, he says, 'when we no longer make sense to ourselves, is to turn to the space  where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us who is not one of the parties to our endless, million-sided, multigenerational suit against each other… in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one'.

It's a strength of the book's unapologetics, that instead of making religious experience attractive it makes it real. Spufford is uncompromisingly and exhilaratingly blunt about the difficulties of Christian experience, the gaps and hollows and silences and failings. His argument, like our spiritual lives, is full of 'yes, but's, and undercut conclusions.

He applies the same approach to other subjects such as the Jesus story, which comes as fresh as a first hearing, and theodicy, which he pretty much demolishes. I won't try to summarise any more, just recommend it.

Like any book that does a good job of putting the case for Christianity, Unapologetic is an encouraging and refreshing read for believers, reminding them of the sense that the faith can make when looked at from a certain angle, when felt at a certain moment, among all the reminders that it also looks like 'a set of awkward and absurd attitudes which obtrude… in the way that some particularly styleless piece of dressing does'.

I think it also has the potential to move on the stale and stalled debate between atheism and Christianity in the West. So much of the new atheist polemic misses its target, not just because it often fails or refuses to address what Christians really believe, but because it addresses Christianity as if it were essentially a set of propositions people assent to, rather than a life people live. Unapologetic ought to improve their aim in both cases. I hope it comes into the hands of many unbelievers, not because it's above their criticism, but because it's worthy of it.

Stephen Tomkins