Coming Late to the Unapologetic Party image

Coming Late to the Unapologetic Party

OK, so four posts on one slim book might seem overkill, but having read Liam’s reviews (here and here) and then Andrew’s I decided to read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic for myself, and having done so want to throw my penny worth into the reviewing pot.

I agree with both the praise and criticism that Liam and Andrew have heaped upon Unapologetic and here want to consider it from a slightly different angle: that of how we Christians communicate the faith we have. There is a lot to disagree with in this book. In his desire to retell the story of Christianity and to do so in a way that connects with contemporary culture Spufford ironically misses great chunks of the story. The two most egregious examples of this are his sexual ethics (or lack of such) which he bins as a relic of earlier cultures, and his dismissal of any kind of cosmic judgment. Spufford seems to have bought the contemporary lie that sex between consenting adults is an entirely personal and uninteresting matter, and thus entirely misses the point: which is that sex is always a public matter because of its relational consequences. Christian sexual ethics isn’t ‘body-phobic’ or prudish, but recognises that what we do with our bodies always has an impact upon community, and if it is anything, Christianity is a story about community. As for Spufford’s dismissal of judgment because he considers this to run counter to the notion of God being love, well, the whole point there is that to reject love is to place oneself in a place of judgment. That’s the story; it always has been. As Liam pointed out, he is also terribly inconsistent in what he believes about the extent of God’s activity in the world. (And, incidentally, and inadvertently, in this inconsistency Spufford demonstrates why Piper’s position is better than Olson’s!)

Those criticisms apart, what Spufford does incredibly well is to tell so much of the story brilliantly well. The chapter ‘Yeshua’, a retelling of the life and ministry of Christ, left me in tears – of worship, but also of some frustration. If only I could preach Christ so compellingly! I would encourage every Christian to read that chapter and to think about how we speak of Jesus.

I was also provoked by the way Spufford re-tells familiar themes. It is tiresome to endlessly hear sermons and seminars in which we are told that we need to dispense with Christian ‘jargon’; that we shouldn’t speak about being ‘washed in the blood’ or ‘finding rest in the lamb’. This is tiresome because we all know it, and have been told it, and no-one except weird Pentecostals talks that way anyway. It is not a clever observation to make. Much more helpful would be to have it demonstrated how we might explain our terminology better, and why there can be a problem with the terminology we use. Spufford does this. Take, for example, his description of sin:

‘Sin’…always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something…Everybody knows that ‘sin’ basically means ‘indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness’. If you were worried, you’d use a different word or phrase. You’d talk about ‘eating disorders’ or ‘addictions’; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use ‘sin’ in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so insistent that it’s hard to hear anything except an invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. And if someone talks, gravely and earnestly, about what a sorrowful burden one of those is, the result will be to make that speaker seem swiftly much, much more alarming than the thing they’re getting worked up about. For which would seem to you to be the bigger problem, the bigger threat to human happiness: a plate of pralines, or a killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?

I love that. It is immeasurably helpful. And having set things up this way, it then makes sense when Spufford begins to describe sin in terms of “the human propensity to f*** things up” – his unpronounceable ‘HPtFtU’. I feel that that is exactly what I need to say when I am preaching about sin; though so as not to alienate most of my congregation I would need to find another verb.

Spufford is writing an anti-apologetic. He is not seeking to demonstrate the truth of Christianity; indeed he regards it as impossible to do so. However, the way that he engages with apologetic arguments is interesting, and another lesson to us in the art of communication. I, personally, often find Alpha-type answers to Life’s Big Questions deeply unsatisfactory, so I appreciated Spufford’s quick rip through theodicy and Alpha-esque answers like, We suffer as part of a package deal that gives us free will. And I appreciated his insistence that Christianity does not offer great moral teaching: “‘If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too’ is not ‘great moral teaching’...It is either foolishness, or something else.”

So, this is not a book to help you sort through your doctrine, and it comes recommended only with many attached health warnings, but it is a deeply provoking example of compelling communication. Read it for yourself; sift the meat from the bones; and we’ll stop reviewing it here!

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