Sunday, December 09, 2012

Book Review

by Francis Spufford
I am old enough and uncool to have sung "I serve a risen Saviour" without any sense of irony. (Irony not being something which Methodist youth groups named Sunday Session are known for.) You remember the one: 

“He lives! 
He lives! 
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me! 
He talks with me! 
Along life’s narrow way!
He lives! 
He lives! 
Salvation to impart! 
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives…!
My heart…!”

I recall a (male) speaker at my college Christian Union taking issue with the song, pointing out that it invited the response “You ask me how I know he doesn't live? He doesn't live within my heart.” Had you asked St Paul how he knew Jesus lived, he suggested, he would have replied “He lives because a massive great stone was moved away from his tomb, and five hundred people actually saw him, go and ask them, they’re still alive.”  Which wouldn't have scanned.

Christian Unionists insisted on Christianity being historically based; objectively true; a God Who Acts in History; not a dead hero but a risen saviour, the Resurrection is the best attested event in history. Once you have memorized Who Moved The Stone? and can confidently show why it is impossible that Jesus Swooned On The Cross; The Disciples Moved The Body; or The Women Went to the Wrong Tomb then you've established the literal truth of Christianity with geometrical certainty. I wonder what they would make of this book?

In one sense, Francis Spufford is making an even weaker claim than "he lives within my heart". 

"I don’t know whether there is (a God). 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…"

Which does, I suppose, invite the Village Atheist to respond "I don't know whether there is a God either. But it doesn't feel as if there is one, and so it makes sense..." I doubt that he would have got even that far, actually: he knows in advance that nothing exists except "knowable items", and that "not being a knowable item" is the same as not existing. 

But that's what makes this book such a refreshing read. The New Atheists say that there is No Evidence and that you should just stop worrying and enjoy your life. The Evangelicals say that there jolly well is Evidence That Demands A Verdict and that you should take on the Atheists on their home turf.  (That rarely ends well.) Spufford sort of admits that there isn't, in that sense, any evidence, and that all he has got to go on is a feeling, and then has a pretty good stab at saying what that feeling is like and why it's the kind of feeling which makes the whole "evidence" thing seem pretty unimportant. 

Some parts of his description work better than others. He's rather more convincing about Jesus than he is about God, as you might expect, and he gets a bit stuck on the problem of evil. Even Old Atheists might lose patience with his lack of answers. How does he know there's a God? He doesn't. There may well not be. If there is a God, why is the world so obviously horrible? He doesn't know, but when you've come a certain distance in believing in God, it seems to stop mattering. Did the story of Jesus actually happen? "Well, I don't know. I think it did. Miracles, resurrection and all. But I don't know." What about all the terrible things the Church has done? Well, a lot of that's true: but on the plus side, there's Holy Communion. 

It's an exaggeration to say that nothing like Unapologetic has been attempted before: it's recognizably a spiritual autobiography, and in it's jaunty, witty, four-letter-word-including way it follows the trajectory of a lot of spiritual autobiographies: becoming conscious of sin; calling out to God; encountering Jesus; coming to the foot of the Cross. ("Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners" might have done nicely as a subtitle although "Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense" looks more snappy in Waterstones.) But spiritual autobiography normally forces psycho-spiritual experiences through the sieve of theological language (because that's what that language has been developed to talk about) or else turns them into allegories (because making up concrete symbols for things you can't otherwise describe is what allegory is for.) I can't off hand think of another book written from the point of view of the man in the pew trying to be as honest as possible about how (rather than what or why) he believes.  

It's very entertaining: a lot of the fun is in the digressions, where he wanders off the point to talk about John Lennon or the gnostic scriptures or the wealth of the Church of England. There are some terrific footnotes. He has a direct, engaging, funny style, full of pointed analogies, direct addresses to the reader and very long sentences. 

He gets in some good hits at deserving targets:

"In fact the're something truly devoted about the way that Dawkinsites manage to extract a stimulating hobby from the thought of other people's belief......some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England , which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like doing needlepoint, or playing Subbuteo, or fitting a whole model-railway layout into an attaché case."

This is good, crowd pleasing stuff (always depending on who is in the crowd) but when he gets into serious argument, Spufford can be very nuanced. Take this passage, talking about the popular myth which says that if only you can cast off the taboos and rules which are preventing you from being yourself, you'll become truly happy, stop worrying and enjoy your life:

"Like all potent myths it has a large amount of truth in it. Over the last fifty years we really have been escaping, as a culture, from a set of cruel and constricting rules, particularly about sexuality and gender roles which (yes) did have the sanction of religion behind them. (Not that religion caused those rules to exist, on the whole. There was a malignant cultural consensus in their favour, of which religion was a part."

I suspect that that kind of honest good sense — Christianity was involved with the Bad Thing, but it didn't cause the Bad Thing and it doesn't follow that if you just took Christianity away the Bad Things would go away as well — is likely to irritate both sides. You can just imagine the Village Atheist howling "So you are trying to MAKE excuses for the Church's HOMOPHOBIA, are you, you obviously AGREE with it" while the evangelical would want a more robust defence. His chapter on the Church ("the international league of the guilty") is one of the best things in the book: rejecting out of hand the Sixth form Religion-Causes-All-Wars canard, but painstakingly going through all the specifically bad things that the church has specifically caused (anti-Semitism, body-hating asceticism, fear of hell) and looking at how they came about.  (Twistings of the message in most cases, but it was always part of the nature of the message that it could be twisted in those particular ways.) Very few axes seem to be being ground. He doesn't seem to be translating pre-conceived theology into journalism-speak. He really seems to be saying what he actually feels, whether or not it is going to support his case.

At times, his style makes me uncomfortable -- embarrassed, even. Because he’s trying to talk about faith from the inside, he’s necessarily telling us about his most personal feelings. In his opening pages, talking about how Christianity is regarded, outside of the Dawkins bubble, as not so much wrong or evil as tragically uncool, he remarks that “we get down on our actual knees” and something in me said “Do we? I mean, of course we do. But I wish you hadn't mentioned it.” Maybe the shifts between the jokes and the piety sometimes happen too quickly; maybe a book which refers to original sin as "the human propensity to fuck things up" needs some hand signals before doing a right turn into churchgoers being engaged in “the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us…as if we were all precious beyond price…” It’s like that cringe when the biology teacher shifts without warning from the reproductive organs of frogs to masturbation. A clash of register. But that may well be just the reaction he’s aiming for. 

The thrust of his argument is thusly. The Human Propensity To Fuck Things Up is a given; we all have the experience of waking in the night realizing that we have messed up our lives, though our own choices and that’s not pathological but a fact about what it is to be human. (Sin is “what flying a plane into a skyscraper has in common with persecuting the fat kid with zits” - bravo!) This can bring you to a point where you “turn to the space in which there is quite possibly no-one” and cry out “Hello? A little help in here, please?” and usually get no answer. I almost wish he’d left it there, and said that faith is precisely that: calling out to the empty space and not getting an answer. Noble Christian existentialism: I think that was probably what Kierkergaad believed in. 

Greatly to his credit, he doesn't do this, but instead gives us a rather awkward chapter about sitting quietly in church and just feeling that there is something real and loving underlying the universe. ("Behind, beyond, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity.") Again, to his credit, he doesn't attempt the the manoeuvre that some Quakers, Hindus and Archbishops would attempt — that the feelings you experience in the silence are what is real, and “God” is simply a name we give to those feelings. He thinks that his experience of "bog standard transcendence" is a feeling about something: it sometimes feels as if God is there because he is. 

He admits that it's this experience of God which creates the "problem" of evil, because without the sense of a loving thing behind the universe, there isn't a problem, there's just stuff. He gives the standard theological solutions to the problem pretty short shrift: I was particularly pleased with his idea of the Eden story as a "cut out or circuit breaker (between) God and a derelict creation", and he's surely right to say that the story tries to have it both ways "We're fallen because of our HPtFtU; we have the HPtFtU because we're, um, fallen". But I think I have enough faith in Tradition to think that a story which has scriptural backing can’t be quite so easily rejected out of hand.  (A hypothetical Martian reader could, I think, get to the end of this book without realizing that the Hebrew scriptures were part of the book which Christians call the Bible, although his imaginative description of first century Judaism in the Jesus chapter is excellent.) If I felt slightly uneasy with his conclusion — that there is no answer to the problem of evil, but that most Christians find that it doesn't matter, they can still hold on to the thing they experienced in the quiet in church regardless of the obvious horrible stuff in the world — then I imagine that it would make the Village Atheist chuck the book across the room in disgust. But again, it’s the honesty which makes it such uneasy reading. And the fact that I think he’s probably right.

The impossibility of solving the problem of evil is preliminary to his quite brilliant chapter about Jesus, who he de-familiarizes as "Yeshua". I can see this chapter being taken out of context and used as devotional Easter-time reading for many years to come. I don't know if it's specifically intended as a riposte to Phillip Pullman's feeble book about the two Jesuses, but it feels as it could be: a novelistic synthesis of the gospels, at times very traditional (he seems to conflate Mary Magdalene and the woman taken in adultery) and at other times wittily iconoclastic:

"So tell me, teacher, says a solid citizen, as the remains of the baked eggplant are cleared away what must I do to be saved? Yeshua's gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests' feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I'd get rid of this lot for a start, he says."

I think he even allows Yeshua to say "fuck" at one point, although he doesn't put it in quotation marks. 

"This is the story that we have instead of an argument" he says -- meaning an argument which solves the problem of evil -- "and it is important that it is a story, making a story-like sense". In "The Child That Books Built" he used the expression "story-like sense" to gloss the argument that Tolkien famously made to his atheist friend Jack Lewis that Christianity was "a myth that really happened". Spufford mentions that Lewis's mad/bad/god trilemma is one of the all-time classic bad arguments; but no-one who has read the earlier book will be surprised to learn that his Yeshua sounds an awful lot like Aslan.  

I assume that everyone will take him at his word that the feelings he's describing are feelings that he has really had, and that they really are the source of his beliefs. ("It’s the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feeling; I don’t have the feelings because I've assented to the ideas.”) You’d have to be a very uncharitable Dawkinsbot to read this kind of book and say “Oh, don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes: you really believe in an old chap with a beard who made the world in seven days and all this subjectivity stuff is just spin-doctoring." But he's specific enough about what he does feel and what he does believe that no-one is going to go the other extreme and say that he's replaced God with a vague, mushy, spiritual mood. 

He comes out as a fairly mainstream C of E believer. The Yeshua of his story is definitely God; the miracles and the resurrection are an important part of that story; Yeshua's death really was to save us from sin. He avoids the language of punishment and retribution, talking instead in terms of  Yeshua sort of sucking in all the guilt for the bad things we've actually done. At one point it sounds as if he thinks that nearly the whole point of the Church is Holy Communion, and he doesn't quite commit himself on which side of the miracle / symbol line he comes down. He may not be a fully-fledged Alpha Course evangelical, but he's a traditional enough Christian that Giles Fraser would probably denounce him as a death-cultist.

He says that he think the life of Yeshua was all about mending and forgiving broken people in the here and now and that he doesn't really think in terms of heaven. While I agree that the whole "watching and waiting, looking above" otherworldliness is unhelpful, and that Yeshua did have a lot of awkward things to say about this-worldly social justice, I think the whole story is seriously compromised if you don't think it leads, in the end, out of this world into a different one. I also think Spufford is a little optimistic to say that Hell has been abolished, except for a few extremists. Probably no-one sensible still thinks of Hell in terms of an eternal step on which God is going to make the naughty sit for ever and ever (that would, he rightly says "make God himself a torturer") but the idea that the HPtFtU is such that some people will not let Jesus mend then and are going to carry their fuck-ups into eternity is pretty widespread, and I think, pretty important. (It's hard to avoid the fact that the New Testament puts passages about God's judgement into the mouth of Jesus himself. I'm also, incidentally, not quite convinced that Jesus' relative silence on sexuality means that he didn't think that what we did in bed really mattered, or that his absolutism about divorce should be read as proto-feminism.) 

It isn't quite clear whether Spufford thinks that what are universal human feelings have, for him, flowed into the shape of Christian orthodoxy because he happens to live in a Christian culture; or whether he thinks that the twin facts of guilt and transcendence necessarily add up to the Christ-story, or something a lot like it. 

It's hard to know who the book is aimed at. Atheists almost certainly won't read it. (The first chapter was published in the Guardian, and the on-line comments from "New" Atheists ranged from bafflement to simple rage.) Christians, both of the old style evangelical mould and the new style Giles Fraser social gospel type, may feel that he's divorced Christianity from reality, immunized it from criticism and therefore made it pointless. (The real thing is not about how you feel: it's either about the objective fact that you were objectively going to an objective hell and now you are objectively going to live forever in an objectively real heaven; or else it's a social programme about not picking on the fat kid and erecting tents outside St Pauls Cathedral.) 

But I think its going to prove to have been a genuinely important book. Many of us read Dawkins and Hitchens and say "Well, what you say is sort of right, but it isn't really the point." Spufford has done a pretty good job of articulating what the point is. The idea of the book, the whole concept of "a defence of Christian emotions" is what's important. If you "get" what he's trying to do, then he's probably made his point, even if you don't in the end think he succeeds. Maybe some serious theologians and philosophers and (most importantly) saints will get to work on the book and say that faith has to have some objective elements as well as some purely subjective ones. But the book will have still been worth writing. What's important is that he's attempted the journey, even if you can't go with him right to the end of the road.