Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Unapologetic - Francis Spufford

This is an utterly remarkable book. Here's part of Spufford's explanation of what the book is for:

You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an 'apologia', the technical term for a defence of the ideas.

And also because I'm not sorry.

Spufford is a novelist and lecturer in creative writing, and it shows. The book is incredibly well written and saturated in knowing references to modern highbrow culture – not in a showing-off sort of way, but in a way that shows utter familiarity with the Guardian-reading arts scene and much prefers knowing allusions to quotes or references.

He says he seeks to be utterly honest, and that shows too, in a kind of fearless way. He isn't afraid to describe God as a “sky fairy” in a way that gently takes the mick out of those who do, or to explain where his ideas diverge from either popular orthodoxy or Christian orthodoxy (of which more later). It isn't a book of tightly-argued logic; it's a description of how his emotions work as a Christian, written in complete non-Christianese.

Spufford's explanation of sin is just about the best I've ever read for the non-Christian reader. Some of his phrases - “Human Propensity to F*** things Up” (or HptFtU) for sin, or “International League of the Guilty” for church are brilliant, and there are some important ideas he's clearly got a better grip of than many Christian writers, if you aren't offended by the language (and that's only coarse-Anglo Saxonisms, not swearing).

There are some significant weaknesses though. I think the root one is that the church Spufford goes to doesn't seem to believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture – I'd guess it's fairly liberal catholic C of E. So while Spufford affirms the physical resurrection of Jesus, he's unsure about eternal life for the rest of us, and doesn't believe in Hell. I'd love to sit down and have a chat with him about that – I suspect that the kind of hell he doesn't believe in is a kind I don't believe in either.

The same problem shines through in a number of other areas. There isn't really the idea of a propositional grounding for ethics, his take on the cross seems to be vaguely Girardian. Perplexingly in a book about emotions, the Holy Spirit doesn't get a look in and there isn't really a sense of the exciting growth in experience and knowledge of the love of Christ that you get in Eph 3:14-21.

I'd love to chat to him. On the basis of this book, he's clearly a Christian; he's got a wonderful way with words, a great sense of humour and such a clear understanding of the nature of sin. But there's so much more which God has for those who love him, and I can't help feeling he's missing out on it.

Oh, and whether you're a Christian wanting a fresh look at things, or a non-Christian wanting to understand why Christianity makes sense, as long as you're willing to engage with something you'll disagree with, this book is a great read.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Quick Book Reviews

Michael Reeves – The Unquenchable Flame

This is a very readable, clear and entertaining introduction to the Reformation. Obviously, it's an area I've studied a bit, and I can't say I learnt a lot new from this book, but I really enjoyed reading it! There are a couple of things he gets wrong – for example he recognises that Calvin wasn't a Calvinist, but I'm not sure he realises that Zwingli wasn't a Zwinglian either. There are, of course, loads of things he could usefully go into more detail on, but as a short (under 200 page) paperback introduction to the Reformation goes, this is as good as it gets.

Vaughan Roberts – True Friendship

This is a very short book (not even 100 pages), but it's brilliant and well worth a read. Vaughan has obviously read and thought a lot on the topic, and condenses it really well. Here are a couple of really helpful ideas I picked up from it.

  • Our culture idolises sex in such a way that friendship is dramatically de-valued. It seems a common belief that all truly intimate relationships are sexual relationships, especially for men. As a result, classic Biblical teaching on sexual ethics sounds like it is condemning those who aren't able to marry to a lifetime of loneliness. This might be because they're exclusively same sex attracted like Vaughan is, or because they can't find a suitable Christian mate like several people I know, or for a variety of other reasons.
  • Don't worry about other people not being good friends to you – make sure you're a good friend to others.


Malcolm Gladwell – What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell has become famous in the UK for his book-length popular treatments of social science topics, such as The Tipping Point and Outliers. This is a collection of 20 shorter articles (20 pages or so each) which he wrote for the New Yorker magazine. It's typical Gladwell – he can make pretty much anything seem interesting, even the history of advertising hair dye. It's always thought provoking, always informative, always entertaining.

John C Maxwell – Winning with People

This is a typical John Maxwell book. 25 big points about how to work well with people, explained really clearly, illustrated well, and explained in such a way that they seem utterly obvious. I can see that if someone really needed to learn soft people skills, this book could change their life, but it's got enough helpful advice that pretty much anyone would benefit.