Francis Spufford’s new book has been billed as a gutsy riposte to the new atheists. And it is. He tells us in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t like being patronised by nit-wits. No one knows whether God exists – ‘not even Richard (expletive deleted) Dawkins’. But this work is more than a two-finger salute the atheist bus. It is an equal challenge to the Christian community to gets its intellectual act together.
So, where does Spufford go? To a theology Library? To a desert monastery? To a great cathedral? To the vicar’s study? No, none of these. He goes to the coffee-shop. And there he writes a report from the inside of his head.
And riveting stuff it is too. The Bishop of Bradford likes it, telling his blog-readers that it is ‘wonderful, funny, totally engaging and sweary… – the best book on Christian faith I have read for ages.’
I read the first chapter through at great speed when it was published in the Guardian’s Review section. On the front page too. This is where theology needs to be. And more of it needs to be in this tone of voice and about these issues. This is passionate theology. Theology with attitude, edge and bite. But also lived and lived-in theology. Spufford does not tell us much about his personal experiences but there is a book called ‘Celebration’ by one Margaret Spufford which engages profoundly with the issues of first-hand suffering, pain and loss. The preface tells us that Francis read the draft. That was back in the 1990s. ‘Unapologetic’ may have been written in a coffee-shop but it has been made over many years. And there is nothing arm’s length, academic, pious or – apologetic – about it.
‘Unapologetic’ has been widely reviewed already and the religious press will catch up before long. So this is not a review. Rather a coffee-time list of six things I really like about it.
- Its passion. Spufford cares about this stuff. He needs to get it straight and clear in his mind and on the page. There is too much nonsense spoken. Too many intellectual short-cuts are too commonly made. If this is a rant it is a rant which says, ‘come on everyone, take this stuff more seriously’.
- Its use of langauge. It’s both colloquial and intelligent. You feel that if you interrupted him writing and started a chat the idiom would remain much the same. Yes, it’s sweary and on the whole we try to do theology without swearing. But careful swearing, if I can put it that way, can be a way of pointing to the known inadequacy of my words in the face of what I am trying to communicate. There is self-exasperation in swearing, as well as indignation. It means ‘I need you to know that I know that I can’t think of anything better to say but that something more does need to be said – now.’ Every theologian should know self-exasperation – should be frustrated by how little they can put on the page.
- It is serious about sin. Not just moral infringement but original sin. The church has more or less forgotten about sin – apart from when talking liturgy-speak in services. Most of us think of sin either in a camped-up or a dumbed-down way. Spufford has none of it. Humans always make a mess of things. Get over your fantasy that maybe you are the one who might be without sin yourself. As Jesus put it – if you are without sin then by all means throw stones at those you judge, but do first have a peep inside yourself.
- It is realistic about Jesus. He calls him ‘Yeshua’ – that being his non-Latinised name. He probably did have bad teeth and all the other unsavoury characteristic of those who lived rough a long time ago. There were obviously no Victorian stained-glass windows in Spufford’s coffee shop scriptorium. He gives us Jesus raw.
- This is going to sound pompous, but ‘Unaplogetic’ meets my own personal criterion for ‘proper theology’. That is, it is serious and articulate about grace. Not in a preachy or monography way, but in a real way. Grace is what lies in and behind all forgiveness, healing and restoration. All ‘mending’, as he puts it. We cannot fix ourselves. Yet there is grace. Or at least this is what we believe because we find ourselves less undermined by ourselves and by suffering than we could ever imagine, given our experience – when we are honest about it. And we believe it both because we know the story of Jesus and because, when you come to think of it, and many do think just this, while the story of God becoming human is unlikely to humanly minded people, and unpalatable to metaphysical purists, it is the only non-outraging way into the problem of suffering.
- And because it is serious about grace and real about sin is not an optimistic book but a book of hope. Hope against hope, perhaps, but real hope. We are both more broken and more mended than we realise. And this is what makes emotional sense – by which he does not mean a less than fully rational sense but a more than merely cognitive sense.
So, get the book, get some coffee and start reading.