A few weeks ago I was sitting with a friend, watching a trendy new sitcom that featured a Christian character. Five minutes into the episode, my friend said, "She fits all the stereotypes, huh?" The character was uptight, more concerned about what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms than about the plight of refugees in the Horn of Africa. When we turned off the TV, I said, "Shows like that make me wonder if the writers know any actual Christians."
Not that Christians are never holier-than-thou or hung up on sex. But things aren't so simple for most of us. Along with smug feelings of moral superiority, we also experience shame. We're trying to live up to our ideals for sexual behavior, but many of us are also fretting over how best to support aid efforts in Haiti—or our neighborhoods. While we're worrying about justice, we're also asking ourselves how to have hope despite heartache. The question is, how do we invite outsiders to walk a mile in our shoes? How do we describe what belief feels like from the inside?
That's the question driving Francis Spufford's book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (HarperOne). Rejecting the need for yet another defense of Christian ideas, Spufford tries instead to paint a picture of what it's like to be a believer. He describes how emotions that are "deeply ordinary and deeply recognizable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience" are precisely the emotions that make up the Christian life.
A novelist and instructor in creative writing at Goldsmiths College in London, Spufford seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence. His book displays a searing intelligence, but not the kind that is off-putting. Each chapter is down-to-earth, chatty, liberally salted with profanities, and laden with allusions to everything from Star Trek to Sarah Palin.
And the style isn't ornamental. Religious sensibilities, as Spufford writes in the preface, "are not made of glass, [and] do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience." When we talk about sin and grace and faith, we're not entering some rarefied realm of discourse removed from everyday life. We are, Spufford contends, trying to describe the sense of guilt that keeps us up at night worrying that our mean-spirited comment at a fancy dinner party puts us in the same predicament as the guy who tears into his former drinking buddy in a bar fight. We're trying to describe the sense of mystery and elusive presence that frightens and comforts us—or comforts by frightening us—when we listen to the lilting melodies of Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto."
At the heart of Spufford's book is a long retelling of the story of Jesus, or Yeshua, that is as evocative as any I've read. When I sent a copy of the book to a skeptical friend, I told him, "Finishing the Yeshua chapter made me want to become a Christian all over again."
Evoking that reaction, though, isn't what Spufford is fundamentally after. In the end, Unapologetic wants to make Christianity seem like "something emotionally comprehensible even if not shared; something that provides one good-enough solution to a set of fundamental human needs." Even if you don't pray the sinner's prayer when you turn the last page, the book will have done its work. But—fair warning—you just might want to pray it after all.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
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