Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
240 pp., $25.99
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.