Francis Spufford – Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Faber and Faber, 2012)

Like Francis Spufford, I am rather tired of patronising atheists telling me my belief in God is an emotional crutch, coming from a fear of death and a fear of life. My reply has been that it, at least in recent years, has been a decision grounded on reasonable evidence. What I am perhaps more hesitant to confess is that has also been because of the emotional experience of faith. I give these experiences little weight when articulating, to myself or others, my reasons for faith, considering them too vague and subjective. Spufford, a former atheist, shows no such qualms in affirming that the emotional sense that Christianity makes of life is a perfectly justifiable grounds for faith.

As Spufford shows, the Christian message is emotionally liberating. Accepting that we are all crooked in nature, that ‘there’s some black in the colour-chart of my psyche’, frees us from denial and unrealistic expectations of perfection. And knowing there is a God whose love is not conditioned upon our virtue and whose people are ‘an international league of the guilty’ allows us to live with hope and grace.

The longest chapter of the book is a condensation of the gospels which highlights the scandal of Jesus in first-century Palestine. It peels back layers of tradition and cliché and captures Jesus’ compelling character and teaching and the context in which he lived. Despite the undue weight he gives to John 7:53ff (an episode of doubtful authenticity), it is something I would recommend to Christians and non-Christians alike.

However, I would not do the same for the rest of the book. Although Spufford identifies himself as ‘a fairly orthodox Christian’ who tries to believes ‘the whole of the Creed’, ultimately he makes his own emotional reaction to doctrines the basis for affirming or rejecting their validity. He has no meaningful belief in heaven and happily denies the existence of hell, of which he says, ‘[Christians] went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago. The majority of us have not believed in it for generations…except in miniscule enclaves’ (p. 181-2).

To his credit, Spufford is willing to speak plainly about his own doubts and forcibly about the failings of the church – something done too rarely by Christian apologists. He writes, ‘On one level it is utterly unsurprising that Christianity is shot through with miseries, like a blood-stained roll of fabric. Christian history is, because all history is. It’s the HPtFtU [‘human propensity to f*** things up’, i.e. sin] at work’ (p. 169). He is honest about the weaknesses of Christians, who are human after all. However, he does not appear to have any belief in the Holy Spirit or the hope that Christianity can improve people in any way other than inspiring them to continue pursuing goodness independent of results.

Irreverence is part of the spirit of our cynical age and Spufford embraces this in a way which shows the rawness of doctrine and emotion. But his coffee-shop tone turns accusatory when talking about God’s apparent absence in suffering. To me, this took him from the merely irreverent to the profane. And it is not just this, but the whole thrust of the book that dilutes the glory of God. He ignores God’s cosmic purposes and genuine power in the world, and makes him a kindly servant to our emotions who we are free to call upon, or ignore, as desired.