Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Unapologetic about apologetics

I have had some epiphanies down the years, during bible studies. In 1988 I realised Christians can declare they believe in something without considering the emotional effect it has on someone whose experience of life is very different. 

So, I walked out of a bible study where remarriage was being denigrated as unbiblical. No one taking part in the discussion in a small lounge in a small seaside town came from a background where divorce and remarriage had figured. Except me. It was dark outside, and windy. I cycled home home in disgust, feeling suitably self righteous whilst also regretting the lost opportunity for coffee and biscuits. 

Ten years later I was in another small lounge, different town, happily discussing 'the questions you might be asked' by unbelievers, to which you will need to be able to give a thought out answer. I was in my early thirties and already had two children and a mortgage. It wasn't as if people were stopping me in Sainsburys every other day demanding to know: 'But what exactly is the evidence for the resurrection?'

I suddenly realised, in that bible study group, that no one was asking me 'apologetics' questions any more. It had been about twelve years since anyone had engaged me in an intentional conversation which required an intellectual defence of my faith. Everyone I knew was talking about endowment policies, nappies and nursery schools. If no one was asking about this stuff any more, what was the point sitting around talking about it as though everyone was still at University? Shortly after this epiphany we quietly and amicably left the bible study group and joined a village church where no one had heard of bible studies. 

I never thought about 'Apologetics' again until, bizarrely, we had one random lecture on it at the end of three years at Theological College. It felt like we had fallen back into the 1980s, where evangelism meant your church put on an evening with 'a speaker' and you all cringling-ly invited your two non Christian friends to come and hear him (it was always a 'him') put forward an intellectual defense of Christianity, point by point, topping it off with an altar call, during which everyone tried not to (but secretly wanted to) look round and see if anyone had 'responded' (i.e. magically turned into a Christian).

And then I came across Francis Spufford's Unapologetic (2012, Faber and Faber), subtitled  'Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense'. In his clever (nay brilliant) way, Spufford has taken apologetics off the remotest shelf, dusted them down and given them a poetical reworking for the 21st Century. Though he says in the book he is not engaging in apologetics the net effect is of giving a defense, but an emotional, not intellectual one. When writers such as Julian Barnes are saying 'I don't believe in God but I miss him', this would seem to be a good idea. 

He begins with listening to a Mozart clarinet concerto and 'feeling' the mercy. He walks into a church and tunes in to the 'inhabited' silence. He considers 'the crack in everything' and 'the human propensity to f*** things up', both ideas readily related to by most human beings. He is not interested in presenting the 'facts' of faith for a cold assessment to take place of their validity; he wants to say how it feels to believe. As he puts it 'You can easily look up what Christians believe in. You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defense of Christian emotions - of their intelligibility, their grown up dignity'. He continues: 'The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an apologia, the technical term for a defense of the ideas. And also because I'm not sorry' (p. 23). 

It's a must read for anyone tired of being put down by endless sniping and/or ignorance from the 'new atheists' and the media combined. Traditional apologetics may have their place in academic debate still. I would be delighted if hordes of unbelievers tracked me down each day to test me out on theodicy or the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. But till then Francis Spufford has become one of those writers you go to for wisdom when you can't quite remember why it is you do believe. Or just feel a bit defeated by it all. And to be encouraged by the fact that not only does Christian faith make sense in the light of the historical fact of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it also still makes surprising emotional sense.


  1. I have to admit that the Emotional Christianity concept appeals. Because I know that I feel that I believe before I understand why I believe.

    I love being in a quiet church, just sitting and allowing the sense of the worship and prayers of the generations wash over me, because they ascend to heaven, but leave a lingering permeation in the air, which if you can atune to, you might almost hear.

    I also love a full, vibrant church with liturgy, and much unapologetic music and singing, not necessarily choral singing, but the lusty singing from the heart that seems to lift the rafters during a well known, well worn, popular hymn is used. We know the words and cadences by heart and they ring within us as they pour from us.

    I love the quiet, thoughtful spaced prayer of the liturgy, delivered unhurriedly and responded to in the same vein. The Readings, the Psalms and the Sung Eucharist where the Gloria to is sung in full.

    The moments of the consecration where heads are bowed, the Holy Words are said and the elements become the Body and Blood of Christ (for some in reality, for others representatively) but, where you KNOW that Jesus is there in spirit, love and life, sharing his last meal with you, all over again.

    The glories of Matins, Evensong or Compline or BCP, generations of worship and honouring God available still in occasionally to celebrate continuity.

    The Offices, Weddings, Baptisms, Funerals all marking the passage of the Saints in these places. Who needs virtual reality, when you can have your imagination and feel the vibes of the past, joining with us now. Give me emotional Christianity every time.

  2. " 'The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an apologia, the technical term for a defense of the ideas. And also because I'm not sorry' (p. 23). "

    Loved the punchline!

  3. I know - the punchline is great. A writer who thinks on multiple levels of wit I love.