Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
240 pp., 38.9
The most common mistake made by practitioners of that vexed activity called "Christian apologetics" is to think of the task as a dialectical rather than a rhetorical one. You may be convinced that logic dictates a particular starting point for your defense of the faith, but that will matter very little if you cannot get the unbelievers you would convert to pay attention to your argument or, worse, even to grasp what your point is. Instead, it is vital to find a shared belief, a point of initial agreement on which to build. But what that starting point should be varies considerably according to general cultural context and even individual predilections. Apologetics is hard to do well.
When, in the midst of the Second World War, C. S. Lewis was asked by the BBC to give some radio talks on the basics of the Christian faith, he decided that he could count on his audience sharing with him a commitment to fair play and even-handed dealing. If he could get his audience to acknowledge that they don't like it when someone cheats, and to agree that they respond to cheaters by appealing to a general moral principle—"How would you like it if someone did that to you?"—then he could establish a foundation on which he might, eventually, build a case for the whole of Christian faith and practice. So he came to give a collective title to his first few talks: "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe."
It was a shrewd choice, as the immediate and then lasting popularity of his lectures demonstrates. After all, the English have long prided themselves (rightly or wrongly) on their commitment to fairness, justice, and honesty; and in the midst of war they were confronted every day with appeals—via radio addresses, posters, advertisements in newspapers and magazines—to pull together and work for the common cause of Victory. Lewis' approach was precisely calibrated to his listeners' circumstances; no wonder it struck a ringing chord.
But there is another point that needs to be considered when contemplating the apologetic task: not just the circumstances of the audience, but those of the apologist him- or herself. Many years ago I spent a summer in Nigeria teaching, in a seminary, a course called "Practical Apologetics." Most of my students were pastors, and many of them came from the Muslim-dominated north of their country; so it seemed obvious to me that they needed to know how to respond to Muslims. I encouraged them to try to think as Muslims thought; to imagine, for instance, how the Christian doctrine of the Trinity might sound to those most radical of all monotheists.
To this encouragement my otherwise generally receptive students responded with stiff resistance. Why should they think as their persecutors thought? Why should they strive to enter the minds of those who burned their churches? Moreover, some of them came from Muslim families and were converts to Christianity, or their parents had been: it was painful for them to re-enter a mode of being that they had left behind; it felt like a kind of self-imposed slavery.
Gradually it dawned on me that, however admirable it may be for the student of rhetoric to learn to anticipate objections, there was a human dimension to this enterprise that I had failed to take into account. Would-be apologists cannot think only of the needs of their audience; they must think also of their own limitations. Those limitations may be intellectual: as Sir Thomas Browne wrote in the 17th century, "Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity. Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth." They overrate their own intellectual capabilities, and embarrass not just themselves but the faith they had planned to defend.
But equally important are emotional or spiritual limitations. 'I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one's own faith than the work of an apologist," Lewis wrote in 1945, when he was at the apex of his career as defender of the faith. "No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate." The key word in that second sentence is "successfully": the greatest spiritual danger presents itself not to the one who has manifestly failed (in Milton's phrase) "to justify God's ways to man," but to the one who succeeds, or thinks he succeeds. And the greatest danger is not even pride: it is the discovery that a doctrine put into cold print, or into one's own (fallen, fallible) mouth, loses much of its reality and power.
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.
And he listens. He hears various things, mainly his own breath and curious sounds in the upper reaches of the building. But it may be that, after a time, he hears other things too: things farther off, perhaps much farther off. Perhaps altogether elsewhere. The universe begins to open up to the miserable man; at the very least he becomes aware of the smallness of his misery, in comparison to all that he perceives and thinks he might perceive.
And so the story begins, a story that leads the reader ultimately to the life of a man who lived long ago, a man named Yeshua, whose life Spufford narrates briefly and piercingly. That story does not quite end with Yeshua's death:
Early Sunday morning, one of the friends comes back with rags and a jug of water and a box of the grave spices that are supposed to cut down on the smell. She's braced for the task. But when she comes to the grave she finds that the linen's been thrown into the corner and the body is gone. Evidently anonymous burial isn't quite anonymous enough, after all. She sits outside in the sun. The insects have woken up, here at the edge of the desert, and a bee is nosing about in a lily like silk thinly tucked over itself, but much more perishable. It won't last long. She takes no notice of the feet that appear at the edge of her vision. That's enough now, she thinks. That's more than enough.
Don't be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.
Far more can be mended than you know—this is the message of Unapologetic in a sentence.
My friend and erstwhile colleague Roger Lundin has for years taught his students that the Christian faith is always practiced under cultural conditions that do a lot to determine its texture. The constant threat of martyrdom sets certain terms; the ease of a politically or just culturally established church, Kierkegaard's "Christendom," sets others. Those conditions will always offer dangers and possibilities alike. For us, in our time, doubt is a major ingredient of the air we breathe: we are constantly being reminded that it is possible to live without God, without faith. An educated Englishman like Francis Spufford understands this as well as anyone. So when he tells us that, whatever happens to us, "Christ will still be looking across at us from the middle of the angry crowd" and "God will still be there, shining," he must if he is to write in good faith go on to say,
If, that is, there is a God. There may well not be. I don't know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He's there; to dare the conditional.
And, Spufford says in my favorite passage in this sweary and funny and lovely book, if you dare that conditional over a significant period of time, you change:
Early on in this I compared beginning to believe to falling in love, and the way that faith settles down in a life is also very like the way that the first dizzy-intense phase of attraction settles (if it does) into a relationship. Rapture develops into routine, a process which keeps its customary doubleness where religion is concerned. It's both loss and gain together, with excitement dwindling and trust growing; like all human ties, it constricts at the same time as it supports, ruling out other choices by the very act of being a choice … .
And grace, you come to recognize, never stops, whether you presently feel it or not. You never stop doubting— how could you?—but you learn to live with doubt and faith unresolved, because unresolvable. So you don't keep digging the relationship up to see how its roots are doing. You may have crises of faith but you don't, on the whole, ask it to account for itself philosophically from first principles every morning, any more than you subject your relations with your human significant other to daily cost-benefit analysis. You accept it as one of the givens of your life. You learn from it the slow rewards of fidelity. You watch as the repetition of Christmases and Easters, births and deaths and resurrections, scratches on the linear time of your life a rough little model of His permanence. You discover that repetition itself, curiously, is not the enemy of spontaneity, but maybe even its enabler. Saying the same prayers again and again, pacing your body again and again through the set movements of faith, somehow helps keep the door ajar through which He may come. The words may strike you as ecclesiastical blah nine times in ten, or ninety-nine times in a hundred, and then be transformed, and then have the huge fresh wind blowing through them into your little closed room. And meanwhile you make faith your vantage point, your habitual place to stand. And you get used to the way the human landscape looks from there: re-oriented, re-organized, different.
Unapologetic captures better than any book I have read the distinctive texture of today's life of faith, faith always ever-so-slightly but also ever-so-constantly eaten away at by uncertainty, by the possibility of a truly disenchanted world, a wholly material life. YMMV, as we say online, your mileage may vary: you may be blessed with the constant blessing of God's full presence. If so, then you won't need Spufford's book. But I am deeply touched and richly blessed by it.
Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, just published by Princeton University Press.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.