Book Review: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford
First, a confession. When I brought this book home after finally grabbing a copy from the library, my wife gave me one of those half-amused, half-offended looks and pointed out that not so long ago, I’d been dismissive and even scornful when she’d mentioned that it sounded interesting. I’d forgotten that, but she’s right – I think I’d previously read some comments by Francis Spufford that didn’t impress me, and a whole book of the same thing seemed less than appealing.
But when I got started (mainly, it has to be said, out of curiosity and with the intention of carefully dismantling it), I began to feel rather well-disposed towards both book and author. Spufford’s style is a disarmingly conversational faux-dialogue, answering questions he expects you to ask, waxing lyrical, spinning yarns and quoting liberally from sources as unlikely as Monty Python and Hannibal Lecter. If nothing else, it’s very readable.
While I’m on the subject of things that surprised and attracted me about the book, I should also mention that it’s quite impressively sweary, with a generous helping of profanity throughout, and dropping the f-bomb as early as page 7. In fact, I can safely say that I’ve never read a book on religion that even comes close. Given that my reading list over the last year has included a book by Marcus Brigstocke, that achievement must be worth something.
To say Spufford writes well would be to damn him with faint praise. Some passages are little short of majestic, willing the reader to live every moment along with him. This is the book’s great strength, dealing with his thoughts and feelings and doing an impressive job of describing the indescribable. If you want to know what it feels like to pray, look no further. What faults there are lie elsewhere.
When he addresses various common criticisms of Christianity, Spufford makes some valuable corrections to the received wisdom, but he also explains away some objections with a pedantic delicacy that borders on special pleading. Opinions will vary on how many (and which) arguments belong where, but his points are generally worthy of consideration.
Spufford says the book isn’t about apologetics, but even ignoring his publisher’s claim that he takes on Dawkins and Hitchens, that’s not quite true. When he’s describing how it feels to sit in a church pew, he’s still engaging in apologetics, still defending his beliefs, but he prefers to deal in feelings and needs rather than rational or philosophical arguments. That’s probably as well, because when he strays into that territory (as he does from time to time) the results are hit and miss.
His complaint that Russell’s Teapot is a non-argument because “It’s not as if anyone has bothered to publish The Teapot Delusion” misses the point by an embarrassing margin. Lest I should be accused of allowing my views to colour my perception, his dismissal of C.S.Lewis’s trilemma (which I join Spufford in hating) is little better, even contriving to omit one of Lewis’s three options.
Oh yes, didn’t I mention that? Spufford spends much of the book criticising the theological arguments of “his” side, maybe even more so than the atheism he rails against, and does so very well in places. Many of his objections are things I’d not only agree with, but would be happy to publish here, not least his demolition of the standard theodicies attempting to answer the problem of suffering. And then he returns to justifying his belief.
This, confusingly, is the consistent pattern of the book. It seems Spufford knows the arguments, understands them, even agrees with them by and large, but then he doggedly insists that you can’t prove that it isn’t true, and comes back to describing his feelings and considering the implications if he does happen to be right. He’s the Fox Mulder of Christianity – the message that comes through loud and clear is “I want to believe”.
At times, I was reminded of the joke about the economist on a desert island trying to open a can. Spufford seems to be much more comfortable when he can forget about awkward details like whether things are true, and start from the assumption that God exists. Understandably so – it’s always easier when you can skate past some claims that you’d struggle to justify – but I began to wish the book had been subtitled “assume a spherical cow.”
Throughout the book, I found Spufford’s apparent hopeful agnosticism to be a haunting reflection of my own past, although his past journey from atheism to Christianity was in the opposite direction to mine. I recognise the resigned acceptance that the evidence is against you, the desire to believe, and especially the delicate footwork required to justify a belief you want to cling onto even while acknowledging that it’s probably not true. As for whether that makes me more or less sympathetic towards him, I have no idea.
As I was reading, I badly wanted to challenge him over various claims that seemed inaccurate or unfair, as well as sections of the book where he seemed to gallop through a series of points that deserved further consideration. And I get the feeling from the style of his writing that if we were in the same room, with him making these arguments in person, he’d cheerfully stop and discuss every objection and aside at some length.
The book wasn’t really my thing – I know all about what it feels like, and I’m more interested in the evidence – but it may be more to your taste. As long as you aren’t looking for a careful logical defence of Christianity, it’s worth a read. But my main conclusion at the end of it was that while I may find Spufford a frustrating apologist, I love his writing and I’d find him a very stimulating sparring partner and conversationalist.
If he ever happened to be in the area, I’d be happy to stand him a pint or three and spend some time chewing the fat.
Unapologetic is published by Faber and Faber, priced £8.99