A Feature Review of
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
Reviewed by Kurt Armstrong
Before we get started, I’d better state my bias: I love this book. Spufford’s Unapologetic has tied Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss for my favourite book last year, something I suspect my co-workers will hate me for. I’ve been cornering staff members and waving Unapologetic two inches in front of their noses, insisting that they to drop whatever it is they might have planned for the evening and go out and buy a copy right now.
If you’re familiar with the curious Christian dialect “evangelicalese,” you’ll probably catch the wordplay in Francis Spufford’s title: “apologetics” is the rational, logical defense of Christian faith, and this is not that. “You can easily look up what Christians believe in,” he writes. “This book is called Unapologetic because it isn’t giving an ‘apologia,’ the technical term for a defense of the ideas. And also because I’m not sorry.”
I grew up with regular doses of apologetics to inoculate me against the evils of an unbelieving world, and inevitably found the arguments encouraging and compelling until I tried to recount or even remember what I’d just heard, at which point the entire intellectual structure seemed to crumble. Which is precisely where Spufford begins his book, that moment of hesitation where you suddenly feel how utterly weird it is to be a sincere, faithful Christian. He is feisty, pedantic, sincere, playful – and potty-mouthed. “Why do I swear so much,” he asks. “To suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience.”
Like Wiman did with his book, Spufford gives a compelling account of how to be a sincere Christian without going slushy on doctrine and without being a dogmatic asshole. While traditional Christian apologetics offer rational arguments for belief, Spufford’s book is all about the gut-feeling of belief. He’s crass, honest, confessional, realistic and mouthy, but he manages to talk all about the feeling of belief without opting for namby-pamby “I’m-OK-You’re-OK” bullshit to try to make core Christian doctrine more palatable. “I am not pulling the ultra-liberal, Anglican-going-on-atheist trick of saying that it’s all a beautiful and interesting metaphor, snore bore yawn, and that religious terms mean whatever I want them to mean,” he says. “No dancing about; no moving target, I promise.” Spufford’s balance of awkward feelings and genuine belief demonstrates that there’s room in Christianity for doubters like myself.
Spufford knows it’s weird to be Christian, but he also thinks the general anti-Christian sentiment of strident atheists like Richard Dawkins shows how ignorant they are about genuine Christian belief. Spufford says Christianity provides a powerful compelling narrative that makes good sense of human experience. He re-frames some of the terms for belief – i.e. he calls sin the “HPtFtU (human propensity to fuck things up),” the “undeniably gloomy shit” we all live with – and he argues that what makes Christianity work is that the Christian account of things gives all our gloomy shit and foibles somewhere to land. Christianity teaches that the HPtFtU makes us mysteries to ourselves: we are hurt, but we also hurt others, sometimes in great catastrophic ways, sometimes in tiny, almost unnoticeable ways, and what’s worse is that sometimes we smirk with satisfaction at what we’ve done. Belief begins when we get sick of screwing up, and reach out for help, and Christian belief is not simply about intellectual assent to doctrine but a particular state of being that transforms us through its practice.
Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is strong but not strident, playful but not clownish, traditional but not archaic, and flexible but not soft on everything that makes Christianity meaningful. It’s 220 pages of pissing in the punchbowl at the Sanctimonious Atheist Association rally, a mischievous and playful argument for genuine belief, largely out of step with so-called “common sense,” yet stubbornly unwillingly to cave into the peer pressure to dismiss traditional Christianity.
Did I mention I love this book? Please excuse the gushing.