Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford

review published on May 30, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

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I’ll admit, when I first saw the title of Francis Spufford’s book, “Unapologetic,” I was delighted. “We’ve got them on the ropes,” thought my inner militant atheist, “the best they have to offer now is a mealy-mouthed refusal to apologise.” I was, it appears, quite drastically wrong, and Spufford had my number right from the get-go.

“Unapologetic” is one man’s attempt to explain how, despite the indignities heaped on it by the New Atheists, Christianity (to quote the subtitle) “can still make surprising emotional sense.” This is an examination of faith, and how Christianity enjoys an understanding of the human condition unmatched by other faiths or no faith at all.

Spufford’s opening salvo outlines the two external views of Christianity, or at least Anglican Christianity. The first, and the one around which much of the book is based, is the caricatured view taken by the New Atheists –

We’ve committed ourselves to a set of awkward and absurd attitudes which obtrude…against the background of modern life. Believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties, who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour.

Cards on the table time – across four pages of solid listing of perceived quirks of believers, hardly a one was an attitude I haven’t held at some point or other. Am I so transparent? Probably. Spufford, is not of the “la la la, I am not listening” school – he’s acutely aware of the perceptions of others, and he finds them sorely lacking in understanding.

If you’re looking for a book that will joust with the ghost of Bertrand Russell, you have come to the wrong place. While he does address certain atheist points, largely in the footnotes, he does so briefly and certainly not with the kind of intellectual rigour that us “atheists with the light of combat in [our] eye” might demand. No, this isn’t another chapter in the Battle-of-Paeschendaele style debate that seeks to finally prove or disprove the existence of God. Instead, what Spufford offers is an emotional account, rooted in his own experiences and entirely unconcerned with whether God can be found with a telescope.

When he writes about his faith, Spufford is erudite, fascinating; his writing and his vision are a joy to behold. The physical and mental experience he undergoes while sitting in a church pew is awe inspiring, and his account of the life of Jesus (or “Yeshua” as he appears here) is a particularly powerful piece of prose, imbued with more emotional power and literary verve than a great deal of pro-religious writing. Believers take note – when proselytising next, arm yourselves not with the insipid, inoffensive pamphlets of old, but with a copy of Spufford’s single chapter on the life of Christ.

Key to Christianity’s emotional resonance is it’s recognition of what Spufford calls the HPtFtU, or Human Propensity to Foul things Up (no, it’s not “foul” in the book, and you’ll be hearing the actual word many times if you choose to pick up a copy). For Spufford, our own culture has become obsessed with not doing oneself down, with ignoring one’s frailty or moral weaknesses. He certainly has a point. Each of us is an imperfect human being, there can be little doubt about that. This isn’t the easily lampooned Christian message of old though, where self-flagellation is a cherished virtue. Spufford argues that to admit our fallibility is simply self-awareness.
In seeking to re-frame the debate around religion, “Unapologetic” is a valuable book. Is there something cartoonishly simple about atheistic interpretations of religion? Certainly when contrasted with Spufford’s expansive, evocative account of Christian faith, it would seem so. His faith is transcendental, intuitive, profound – and a much harder intellectual target to hit than the “space wizard” absurdity that takes such a bashing from the New Atheists.

To get the most from “Unapologetic,” it might be best to remember that this isn’t a treatise on the factual existence of God, or a defence of the Church as an unmitigated force for good in the world. It’s neither of these, and won’t be satisfying if you approach it as such. However, take it as an intimate but relatable account of religion as a facet of the human condition, and you’re in for a thought-provoking and invigorating treat – and that’s coming from a devout atheist.


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