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Alan Jacobs


No Apologies

How Christianity makes "emotional sense."

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Francis Spufford is one of the most gifted English writers of his generation. He has written insightfully and elegantly about polar exploration (I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, 1996), postwar British scientific and technological innovation (The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, 2003), and his own history as a reader (The Child That Books Built, 2002). Perhaps his finest book so far is Red Plenty (2010), an extraordinarily vivid and ambitious part-fictional part-historical account of Soviet self-understanding. But for all his achievement and success, Spufford has an embarrassing secret—or rather, it was a secret, to the general public anyway, until he gave us the first words of his new book:

My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We're weird because we go to church.

(Indeed, as the resourceful investigator may discover, his situation is stranger than that of even the average English churchgoer: he's married to an Anglican priest who ministers at a church near Cambridge.) This familial peculiarity is something that Spufford feels he must now account for—and even defend. This word, defend—as in, "Be prepared to make a defense of the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15)—is related to apologetics, apology; but that's not quite what he's prepared to do.

Or maybe he is, just in a different way than we're used to. Christian apologists are typically concerned to deny, as strenuously as they can manage, that their attachment to Christianity is in any way an emotional response. Rather, they want to demonstrate that Christian doctrine can meet the most stringent criteria of critical thought, that it holds up to rational scrutiny. Spufford doesn't care about any of that at all. Instead, he wants to show that Christianity "makes emotional sense." He refuses to acquiesce in the common dismissal of emotional responses as unreliable, untrustworthy, and in need of being sequestered or dismissed altogether. So he describes his project in these words:

Ladies and gentlemen! A spectacle never before attempted on any stage! Before your very eyes, I shall build up from first principles the simple and unsurprising structure of faith. Nothing up my left sleeve, nothing up my right sleeve, except the entire material of everyday experience. No tricks, no traps, ladies and gentlemen; no misdirection and no cheap rhetoric. You can easily look up what Christians believe in. You can read any number of defenses of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defense of Christian emotions—of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The 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.

But how and where does such a project begin? Spufford's begins with a man at the end of his rope, at odds with his spouse, at odds with himself, frustrated, miserable, and with no internal resources capable of addressing his condition. He has quite personally confronted what Spufford likes to call the HPtFtU, the Human Propensity to and I bet you know what the "F" stands for, especially if you also guess that the last two words are "Things Up." That's the "how." The "where" is a little more complicated, is twofold.

First it's a coffee shop, where the miserable man has come to sit and drink a cappuccino and either think or forget about what a mess he's made of his life. Sitting there and sinking ever deeper into his own shame and guilt he realizes that there's music on in the shop: it's the Adagio of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, music that, as the novelist Richard Powers once commented, is what mercy would sound like—and how there can be such music, and whatever degree of healing and comfort that comes along with it, is a poser for the miserable man. Something to absorb, on some lower level of the self, if not to comprehend. Something to listen to—except that in a noisy, noisy, world "It's hard to listen, even when misery nudges you into trying."

Which leads to the second "where," a where more available to European city-dwellers than to many of the rest of us:

Fortunately, the international league of the guilty has littered the landscape with specialized buildings where attention comes easier. I walk in. I glance around. And I see the objects that different ages carried in here because they thought they were precious, tattered battle flags and stained glass, carved wood and memorials saying he was a magistrate of unequalled probity: not in order to declare, those past people, that this was a place where only a precious and tasteful selection from human behavior was welcome, but the opposite, to celebrate with the best things they had the way the place acknowledged absolutely all of human behaviour. The calm in here is not denial. It's an ancient, imperturbable lack of surprise. To any conceivable act you might have committed, the building is set up only to say, ah, so you have, so you did; yes. Would you like to sit down? I sit down. I shut my eyes.
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