Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a witty, engaging defense of Christian faith from a respected British writer. For this reason alone I wanted to like it. It is directed toward those whose a priori  assumption is that there is no place for God in modern society–that intellect, education, and science have rendered belief in Him obsolete and irrational. Another reason I wanted to be able to endorse it. And I did, to all and sundry, throughout my reading of the first two-thirds of the book.

Spufford’s graphic descriptions of the reality of sin and its consequences effectively illustrate our dire need for grace–not just for those who have tragically destroyed their lives, but all of us. It is all well and good, he says, for atheists to urge us to relax, forget about God, and enjoy life. But to do so presupposes that our default state is peace, love, and joy. Anyone who is honest will admit that these are states that we have to work at and that we achieve, if at all, very temporarily and in part.

Spufford also argues that honest introspection requires the admission that not only do we make mistakes, but that greed, selfishness, pride, cruelty, and other such “fatal flaws” are at the core of our very identity. Ignoring them and pretending to be happy is no solution. The only true comfort lies in facing up to our failures and accepting the grace offered by Jesus.

All this resonates deeply with me. The clue to the difference between our positions is in the subtitle: “Why, in spite of everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense” (emphasis mine). Others, Spufford says, have ably outlined the rational and historical arguments for Christianity. Nor does he argue that the existence of God can be proved. That’s what faith is for. Agreed. Reference Hebrews chapter 11 verses 1 and 6. Spufford’s aim, he says, is simply to contend that Christianity makes emotional sense.

I have no objection to emotions. Like any self respecting mother, wife, daughter, friend, I nurture and display a healthy dose of them, both positive and negative. However, Spufford relies much more on feeling than on a belief in biblical truth, and this has far-reaching implications. For Spufford, “It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas” (p. 19). He follows this up with an acknowledgement that feelings can be misleading and a defense of his approach that initially convinced me. But as I read on it became clear that Spufford elevates emotions at the cost of biblical authority in a manner that I can’t endorse.

Spufford acknowledges that his Christianity is a this-worldly faith. Grace is for here and now. Jesus rescues us from the stranglehold of sin and shame, but Spufford is not at all certain that we will be with him for eternity. In that case, what of 1 Corinthians 15, where the Apostle Paul directly addresses this sort of belief? “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 9). I would like to see a response from theologian N.T. Wright–also a Brit–who, in Surprised by Hope, argues that the whole hope of Christianity is in the biblical promise of resurrection.

Likewise with hell. In fact, Spufford goes so far as to say that “the majority of us have not believed in it for several generations. … I promise this is really true. No more hell! It’s official!” (p. 179) Questions of truth aside, it is rather a rash statement. It is true that the doctrine of hell has become less popular in the modern world, but Spufford overstates the situation.1 For myself, I wish I could dismiss hell with Spufford’s certainty. I know many who will join me in breathing a collective sigh of relief if we discover, at the end of time, that God has another way to resolve the tension between loving mercy and divine justice. But for now my reading of the Bible doesn’t permit me to proclaim to the world in good conscience that we are all off the hook, and the majority of evangelicals are still in this camp.2

Similarly with sexual conduct. Spufford is on target when he says that evangelicals have demonized sexual sin while entirely overlooking other categories of destructive behavior. But Spufford seems to downplay it almost to the point of saying it doesn’t matter. Perhaps he is only trying to correct an imbalance, but he does make the statement that “the founding story of Christianity is astonishingly unbothered about it” (p.189)–unless one regard’s the Pentateuch as the foundation, in which case the teachings about sexual misconduct are difficult to avoid. Spufford adds that “Jesus didn’t think it was worth picking it out in particular to talk about it” (p. 189). Perhaps he didn’t dwell on it, but he did uphold the law–the Ten Commandments at the very least–and he also said that “whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That sets the bar pretty high.

Ironically, Spufford presents an incisive dismissal of the non-canonical “gospels” that have commanded so much popular opinion in recent years. He points out that these books were written at least one to three centuries later than the accepted New Testament books. Beyond that, far from being alternative interpretations of the life of Christ, they are, rather, propaganda for writers seeking to put their own agendas into the mouth of a prominent individual. He writes: “Read much of the rival ‘gospels,’ and you start to think that the Church Fathers … had one of the easiest editorial jobs on record. It wasn’t a question of suppression or exclusion, so much as seeing what did and didn’t belong inside the bounds of a basically coherent story” (p. 154).

It disappoints me that Spufford can argue for the canon and yet maintain such a dim view of the inspiration of Scripture. I guess mine is more of an all-or-nothing approach. If one purports to revere the Bible and yet can throw out hell because it’s unpopular and heaven for some unnamed reason, then how does one know that any of it is true? Spufford would probably say that one doesn’t. In fact, his concluding paragraph begins with this non-comittal fragment: “If there is a God.” I am fully sympathetic with doubt. I have even learned to live with it. But if I’m going to build my life around something, I want my own fulcrum to be set a little more toward the belief end of the beam.

I am surprised that neither the Christianity Today review of Spufford’s book nor the April 2014 CT interview with Spufford raises any of these concerns. I did find an interesting post on Jeremy Rios’s blog, “Mustard Seed Faith,” that questioned the popular reaction to Unapologetic: “Unapologetically Unimpressed by Francis Spufford’s ‘Unapologetic.

Spufford expresses eloquently any truths that I can affirm, but taken as a whole, I can’t endorse his book. As an alternative, I recommend Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God as a well written and thoughtful engagement with modern–and post-modern–ideas about faith and God.While I have not yet read it, based on previous exposure to N.T. Wright, I can also recommend Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (emphasis mine).

1 A search on the Christianity Today Web site alone yields a wealth of reading, including this article by CT editor Mark Galli–“Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell”–and this by theology professor Todd Mangum–“Three Models of Hell.”

2 See this longer CT article from 2000 by seminary professor Robert A. Peterson: “Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire.”

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