What could “Christianity” mean to you? A review of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic

Francis Spufford’s Unaplogetic is quite unlike any other book I’ve read on the contemporary experience of being Christian and I cannot recommend it too highly. Since reading it I have been pressing copies on a great variety of readers – with considerable success. At the very least it offers a dimension to Christian experience that would otherwise be opaque for so many, even unimaginable. And he is so much a writer for our times: intellectually well-trained and adroit, sharp as well as tender, and perfectly clear that he is writing for, and often in the voice of, the very people eager to be appalled by religion in any of its forms.

Unapologetic is decidedly not an “apologetic” – a systematic defence of God – but a totally unapologetic book for those who’ve not entirely closed their minds to the possibility that Christian beliefs and experience could still have something of value to offer in 21st-century life, even to the passably intelligent. Understanding all that and more, Spufford’s writing voice is deceptively casual. His book, perhaps like his company, is laced with a fair number of familiar profanities. With humour rather than contempt, he starts by parodying the new atheists, acknowledging that Christians are (in the eyes and minds of many) “embarrassing”, “inexplicable”, “touting a solution without a problem”, eager to “keep out the plain sound of the real world”.

But if this sounds defensive or even offensive, then I have done Spufford a disservice because he absolutely takes it for granted, as do I, that religion is not and never will be meaningful to all. You need an appetite for it. You may even need a talent for it, much as you do to sing a high C reliably.

For Spufford, though, and again for me, “Humanity glimmers with God’s presence.” Also for him, though this time not for me, the Church of England supports well enough his need for, longing for, that divine glimmering.  In fact, for Spufford, “The church is not just another institution. It’s a failing but never quite failed attempt, by limited people, to perpetuate the unlimited generosity of God in the world.” The Christian church – in its many guises, Eastern and Western – does this, he shows, in a very particular way. Without making any one-true-church claims, he shows that this is self-evidently because the Christian church celebrates (despite all its tyrannies) the actual presence of God in the world in the person of Jesus Christ, a man equipped, quips Spufford, “with two arms and two legs and probably the beard and quite possibly the bad teeth” of any first-century Jew. The church exists, he says, “like Christ, in order to be a channel by which mending enters the world; a mending which…does not depend on the success of human virtue, individual or collective, but on what breathes and shines through us if we let it.”

“Letting it” is, of course, the central challenge of spiritual life; it’s the only challenge that counts in my view. Everything else is embroidery. Through us, mending can enter the world…”if we let it”.

Christianity offers “the impossible ideal of valuing other people as absolutely as you value yourself”.

As I read Spufford’s book I thought a great deal about my own Christian formation and that uneasy mix familiar to many of fear, self-contempt and hope that shrouded my earliest efforts to discover who and what I am.  It’s clear that fear-driven religion is pretty much a curse, not least because it turns us against one another as well as against ourselves. So it’s wonderful to read here of the possibility that survives in Christianity – especially for those interested enough to think more about what Jesus said and did than whatever his more rabid followers claim for themselves – that “there’s room even in the darkest places…for the sudden and unpredictable and unpredicted leap toward the risk of love.”

In two absolute stand-out chapters this author ventures to describe what cannot be described: “Churches are vessels of hush, as well as everything else they are,” writes Spufford in his ironically named, quite extraordinary “Big Daddy” chapter. And I am reminded of Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Such knowledge isn’t linear. It isn’t easily glimpsed; isn’t available to be imposed; isn’t…anything very familiar at all until you’ve felt it. “I register something that precedes all this manifold immensity that is not-me and yet is real,” writes Spufford. Then further on, “Beyond, behind, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity…and though the experience is grand beyond my powers to conveys, it’s not impersonal.” Reading him, reading that, I felt my own experiences articulated in the space and spaciousness where at least for some truth lives.

Ancient icon, living truth

The other chapter I truly loved is “Yeshua”, a speculative, convincing biographical account of Jesus. If you buy this book for no other reason then buy it for this chapter. Here is a man, Jesus, who is “never disgusted”, who never says that “anyone is too lost to be found”, who will not agree that “hope is gone beyond recall”. Here is a man bringing “unlimited love to a world of limits”. “This is love going where we go, all of us, when we end…”. And then, after Friday has become Saturday and then Sunday, here is a dead man alive enough to say, “Don’t be afraid…Far more can be mended than you know.”

As I read those lines, I rejoice.

(Dr Stephanie Dowrick is the author, among other books, of Seeking the Sacred and In the Company of Rilke. A longer version of this review can be found at the Universal Heart Book Club.)