Saturday, January 11, 2014

An American Fundamentalist Reviews Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

I don’t think it’s very imaginative on a reviewer’s part for every writer coming from England to get compared to C.S. Lewis—in fact, it’s a tad embarrassing. I must confess, as an example, that to these untrained eyes and ears, N.T. Wright just sounds like C.S. Lewis. And in many ways, so does Francis Spufford. Though you might say Spufford sounds like C.S. Lewis if Lewis needed a swear jar.

His Use of Language
I am quite self-aware that the criticisms I make of this book will no doubt reinforce the negative things Spufford already suspects about fundamentalist American Christianity. I realize it, and yet I move forward with much trepidation and almost as much embarrassment as he seems, himself, to have in commending Christianity (see his introduction, quoted below).

While I was reading Spufford’s book, I tried to imagine writing a review without making reference to Spufford’s very self-conscious use of profanity throughout. Alas, it felt irresponsible to review it without warning the queasy reader that this is a bit more Wolf of Wall Street than it is My Little Pony—at least in terms of the language. Spufford uses the f-word 17 times. The s-word appears 9 times. Other less offensive, more PG-language is peppered throughout. Spufford writes here as more author than pastor, more man-on-the-street than official spokesperson. He seems to recognize the impropriety of his language in the introduction when he attempts to offer an explanation for his manner of speaking:
Why do I swear so much in what you are about to read? To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness. But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony. I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m [f---ing] embarrassed. (Kindle, Loc 102)
I have no intention of stepping on the toes of people who consider language like this to be a deal-breaker. I recognize that for many it is, and that is why I mention the language here in my review. It is helpful to remember that Mr. Spufford is not a church leader or a theologian. He’s just an average Christian Englishman who is trying to tell people that Christianity makes sense. I really don't want to come down hard on him for the language. For my own part, I am not offended by crass language. But I do think there are places where I expect it and places where I do not. I like to keep my life neat and compartmentalized like that. In that sense I sympathize and agree that a little restraint might have helped some readers to be less distracted. My guess is that this book isn't really written for a "churchy" audience.

The Book's Purpose and Strengths
In Unapologetic, Spufford is concerned with demonstrating that Christianity (as its cover says) makes "emotional sense." The book is written from an existential angle. Spufford is not doing a Greg Bahnsen here. He is not doing a William Lane Craig or a James White. He is doing something closer to what you might see in the approach of an apologist like Ravi Zacharias.

Spufford’s book meanders a bit (much like a certain author seemed to do in Mere Christianity). But he is at his strongest when he is assaulting the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the New Atheism. Numberless authors, including Alister McGrath have done this before, but Spufford’s writing has a virility and bite that is missing from the writings of other, perhaps more gentlemanly authors. I’d like to pretend that his occasional colorful language is not part of that bite, but I do suspect that it is.

Spufford talks very clearly about the human need to recognize our own guilt. Too many people spend their lives "ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame" (Kindle, Loc 507). People should stop wasting their time on denial and admit "there's some black in the mixture." I'd be happy to quote this chapter in the future. He makes good points, and I appreciated his willingness to urge people to stop making excuses or justifying themselves.

At one point, Spufford addresses the now infamous atheist bus billboard that declares "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." But Spufford beautifully (and in a rather gritty, explicit, narrative way) asks how this is a comfort to those who aren’t beautiful and healthy and young and privileged. What of the broke person whose life is in the gutter? How is this message good  news for them? asks Spufford. It is no comfort, of course. But Spufford offers a counter-proposal:
A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied (Kindle, Loc 260).
In another place, Spufford speaks critically of naturalistic evolution. His words are welcome:
The moral scandal of evolution is not that it contradicts some sweet old myth about God knitting the coats for the little lambkins: it’s that it works by, works through, would not work without, continuous suffering. Suffering is not incidental to evolution. Suffering is the method. The world wobbles onward, you might say, on a trackway paved with little bones. But that understates the issue. There is no trackway—there’s just the way the world happens to go, lurching one way, lurching the other. The whole landscape is little bones (Kindle, Loc 1130).
It is moments like these when Spufford shines brightest. He is quite aware of and drives home the reality of human pain and wants Christians and atheists alike to take seriously the reality of human suffering. He isn’t saying anything brand new that you couldn’t find elsewhere, but his language has a flair that renders him extremely quotable. You could come to this book, look around for a couple minutes, and find some fantastically quotable one-liners.

Where Spufford is weakest, however, is in his positive theological case (which is pretty serious and composes a huge chunk of the book). If you read this book for his positive theological content, you’ll be horrified if you come from a conservative background like myself. Rather than Original Sin, Spufford speaks of (again, showing an unnecessarily crass hand) HPtFtU ("Human Propensity to [F&#$] things Up"). Much like Rob Bell did in Love Wins, Spufford neglects to mention any vertical aspect to sin (at least from what I could tell). This is a big omission, of course, since sin between persons stems from a deeper relational rift between man and his creator. Addressing the HPtFtU is just putting a band-aid on an infection unless the underlying condition at the base of it all is addressed.

Some other miscellaneous complaints (none of which are minor): Spufford appears to believe in theistic evolution. He also expresses what seem like pantheistic sentiments, and at times speaks like a deist ("No matter how remote you believe God is from the day-to-day management of the cosmos—and for me He’s pretty damn remote…" Loc. 1082) and even as a fideist. He says Christians need to move beyond worrying about sexual sin. "Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in lists of forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods" (Kindle, Loc 2215). In one place he says that the book of Genesis is "no good to us as history, as almost all Christians know (except for some really stubborn Americans)" (Loc 1243 and footnote).

Spufford also rejects the idea of hell. He is a universalist. In addition to holding to this highly aberrant theology, he has the temerity to think that his rather novel form of Christianity is in the majority or that he speaks for the average Christian. An example of his rhetoric:
Hell is still popular...but not with actual Christians, any more. Crazy avant-gardists that we are, we went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago. The majority of us have not believed in it for several generations. It isn’t because we’re wimpy modernizers who can’t stomach the more scaly and brimstone-rich aspects of our inheritance. It’s because, from the beginning, hell conflicted with much more basic aspects of the religion, and our collective understanding finally caught up with the fact. Those posters you occasionally see on buses and rail platforms threatening you with unquenchable fire come from a tiny faction of headbangers. We don’t like them either. (I myself would rather have the atheist bus any day.) I promise this is really true. No more hell! It’s official!
He speaks of hell as more a form of social control than a truth about God. Of course, I disagree with him quite strongly, and he gives no Scriptural support for his position except for some conveniently vague references to God's love. It is very tempting to interact with Spufford on this point. Time permitting, I may do that eventually.

Spufford’s mysticism and spirituality is off-putting to my own conservative Presbyterian sensibilities. At one point early in the book he goes on and on about meditating in the quiet of the church building and sensing one’s smallness in the scale of things. I found that part of the book about as exciting as listening to someone tell me about their dream they had last night. All this summary is to say, the book is not without its shortcomings, and the shortcomings aren’t insignificant.

After reading the first two chapters of the book, I had originally intended to write an extremely positive review with some cautions about language and about slightly unorthodox ways of speaking. I loved what he was doing. I even found a charm in his irreverence and found myself envying his freedom in speech and his way with words. He is funny where one should be funny, cutting where a good cut is needed, and deadly serious about the pains and sufferings in this life where many orthodox writers seem to gloss things over just a bit.

But Mr. Spufford began to lose me in the third and following chapters. The book seemed to veer from arguing that Christianity "makes emotional sense" contra the new atheists to arguing much like other contemporary authors that Christianity has evolved and transformed into something much more "stomache-able" now than it used to be. There is much to interact with in this book, and because a new semester of school is just around the corner, I haven't the time to interact with it in detail. I grew more and more disappointed with the book as it went on, from a theological perspective.

I had thought this would be a fresh, basically orthodox apologetic for the Christian faith. Instead, the book ends up being just another recurrence of the old liberalism with a very nice coat of paint. If this had been released four years ago it would fit in with other writings from the Emergent wing of evangelicalism, but at this point even that fad has faded into disinterest. I have no doubt that Mr. Spufford's writings may very well reflect the direction of postmodern British Anglicanism, but thankfully global Anglicanism appears to be pushing back the other way. My recommendation is, come for the first two chapters. Enjoy the meat, spit out the bones, but don't finish the book unless you just absolutely yearn for closure.

In the end, a discerning reader could find much here to appreciate. I really have my misgivings about this book as a positive apologetic or evangelistic tool, however. Mark Dever, in his book The Deliberate Church, speaking of evangelism, says that "what you win them with is what you win them to." In that sense, I have real misgivings about pastors recommending this book to their people. If we take the teachings of the Bible seriously, then we do not want the vision of Christianity that Spufford is presenting to win the day. Again, a massive amount of discernment and critical appraisal could go a long way to helping someone to benefit from Unapologetic, but for the most part, Christians and unbelievers alike would do well to stay away.

1 comment:

  1. I think you mischaracterize Spufford by calling him a 'universalist'. He doesn't believe in hell and makes that quite clear. But he is not saying that everyone is going to be saved (the definition of a universalist). He is just saying that he does not believe that God requires eternal conscious torment as punishment for not becoming a Christian. And while there are some overlaps in those two beliefs, my reading of this book is that Spufford is not one that overlaps them. I would say that all of his writing on the New Atheists here makes it clear that they are not just on their own path to salvation, but are instead quite wrong.


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