Basic Christianity for WEIRDoes
I’m reading the English novelist Francis Spufford’s new book Unapologetic, his case for Christianity, written for a culture — his own — that has little or no feeling for the faith. From a NYT interview with Spufford:
Q: To understate things, there’s a big difference between public expressions of Christianity in Britain, where your book was first published, and in the United States. Is the book aimed at a different reader here than in Britain?
A. I think it has to be, the situations are so different. (6% of the British population being regular churchgoers, versus 26%.) A few people in the U.S. seem to be reading it out of curiosity about godless Europe, but for the most part I think what they’re responding to is a kind of unplanned consequence of the fact that I wrote it in the first place for people who would bring no knowledge to it. Consequently, the book tries to make the imaginative case for Christian faith absolutely from scratch, using only the ordinary experiences of adulthood as a starting point.
For American readers, the result seems to break the religion out of the familiar categories of culture-wars argument and so on. It seems to defamiliarize and therefore refresh it. As one guy wrote to me, “it helped me see what I continue to forget I believe.”
Boy, that’s true. I’m only on the third chapter, but I’m really glad Andy Crouch and Alan Jacobs brought this book to my attention months ago, after it came out in the UK. I want to revisit Alan’s comments after seeing some of this blog’s readers’ comments trashing the Spufford book based on excerpts I posted. Here’s Alan:
I’ve read the whole of Unapologetic and I think it’s a uniquely beautiful book. Of course, there is much in it that I don’t agree with, but you know what? Maybe in those areas Spufford is right and I am wrong. I need to consider that possibility. Moreover, there are surely many people who know nothing about Christianity, or who know little and want to know even less, who will be touched by Spufford’s approach in ways that they could never be touched by anything I write.
And there’s this too: Francis Spufford is and has been for many years a much-admired writer in England — rightly so — but his reputation will suffer because of his open embrace and warm defense of Christianity. Doors that had been open to him will close; reviewers who had commended his earlier work will henceforth look askance at it. He will pay a price for writing this book. And his brothers and sisters in Christ just sneer at what he has written, denounce the heretic, and turn away with smug self-satisfaction.
Yes, this is exactly right. From only three chapters, I can tell that Spufford, an Anglican, is a rather more liberal Christian than I am. But I’m telling you, people who would never listen to a thing I have to say about Christianity will be able to relate to Spufford’s work, and not because he’s a squishy “I’m OK, You’re OK” sort of liberal Protestant (he’s not). Like Spufford’s American reader, I too find that I’m learning a lot by encountering a description of my very familiar religion depicted in fresh ways. This is what I keep reminding myself as I listen to Pope Francis. I think he’s wrong about some important things, or at least not on the right track. But maybe I’m wrong about some things, and need to reconsider my thinking and behaving in light of what he says. I appreciate how he makes me think, even when I disagree with him. Spufford’s book is like that, and it’s written in a powerful voice (this is the kind of confident, artful prose I associate with British writers). Here he is talking about the secularist materialism of the present age, which many people, Spufford (an ex-atheist) contends, seize not because they have thought about its claims and find them persuasive, but because it functions “as a rationalization after the event for a deep and emotional conviction that the universe is just not the kind of place in which such things can happen.” The “radical strangeness” of the world and our mysterious existence cannot be recognized by lots of people because they don’t want to live in a universe in which these things happen, and God might exist. I recognize that feeling well. When I was struggling with faith in college, I realized one day that I didn’t want God to exist, because if He existed, He might want something from me that I wasn’t prepared to give. That’s not exactly a mind dedicated to a dispassionate examination of the evidence. (Similarly, there are plenty of people who are emotionally geared toward believing in God; I have been that guy too.)
This world believes that it has science on its side. Indeed, by an act of oblivious metaphorical digestion, it tends to believe that it is science; it thinks that what it sees around it is the bare, disenchanted, unmediated, uncolored truth delivered by the scientific method. Look, no gods! Also, no fairies, no unicorns, no griffins, no leprechauns. A quick census of the local fauna confirms it: case solved. But this perceptual world isn’t science. It is a cultural artifact created by one version of the cultural influence of science, specific to the last two centuries in Europe and North America. It is not a direct, unmediated picture of reality; far from it. It is a drastically human-centered, human-scaled selection from the physical universe, comfortably restricted to the order of reality which is cooked rather than raw, which happens within the envelope of society. It scarcely touches on what the world is like apart from us. It doesn’t acknowledge the radical strangeness of quantum mechanics, down in reality’s basement; it doesn’t engage with the perturbing immensity of cosmology, up in the attic; it doesn’t admit the extraordinary temporariness of even the familiar things we think we possess securely on our middle floor of the universe. It treats us living creatures as the securely tenured lords of all we survey, rather than as the brief ripples of information we actually amount to. In fact the stolid “science” of this obviously godless world is rather eighteenth-century. Needless to say, none of the proven strangenesses of the physical universe make the existence of God any likelier (or less likely). They imply nothing about it at all. I am not one of those soft-brained purveyors of New Age woo who propose that if some weird things are true, any weird thing you think of can be true. All I’m pointing out is that if the basis for your conviction that there’s no room for God is the comfy familiarity of the universe, it’s a bit of a problem if it turns out not to be comfortable or familiar.
Right. It’s WEIRD. I think Unapologetic is an introduction to Christianity that’s accessible to WEIRDoes — that is, Europeans and North Americans who are virtually alone on the planet in having lost a strong sense of religion, of the numinous. We need a book like this. If I had a friend who couldn’t understand why anybody would be a Christian, I would give them this book. And like I said, it’s wonderful to read a description of the phenomenon of Christian experience from the inside written by an intelligent and extremely articulate believer who knows exactly what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. Spufford’s approach is not my approach, but what a blessing this book will be to many people, believers and unbelievers both.