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4.0 out of 5 stars Imagine, 16 Oct 2012
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This review is from: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Hardcover)
Concluding an essay on Rousseau, Lytton Strachey wrote that 'as we see him now, Rousseau was not a wicked man; he was an unfortunate, a distracted, a deeply sensitive, a strangely complex, creature; and above all he possessed one quality which cut him off from his contemporaries; which set an immense gulf between him and them: he was modern. Among those quick, strong, fiery people of the eighteenth century, he belonged to another world - to the new world of self-consciousness, and doubt, and hesitation, of mysterious melancholy and quite intimate delights, of long reflexions amid the solitudes of nature, of infinite introspections among the solitudes of the heart.' Strachey might, with less sympathy, but as much truth, have added that part of Rousseau's modernity was embodied in his craving for notoriety, his delight in showing off, his extravagant sentimentality, and his bottomless capacity for self pity. Voltaire, who cordially detested him, said that Rousseau would have been happy to see himself hanged, provided that his name was prominently displayed on the gibbet. And although many modernists would like to see themselves as begotten of the Enlightenment, they are, in truth, its illegitimate children out of Rousseau. Christianity, on the other hand, has been a rational project from the moment at which it sought to systematise itself in a manner that made it not just consistent with, but a triumph of, reason, and it was precisely its success in performing that task which rendered it vulnerable to the emotional irrationalism of its modern critics.

Francis Spufford has now written a polemic which reverses the earlier polarities, and seeks to persuade modern man of the case for religion by employing modernism's own language of emotion - against itself. Here we have all the scorn, the contempt, and the dismissiveness which we are accustomed to hear from the mouths of religion's enlightened despisers - but employed in its defence; all the sentimentality, sarcasm and grand-standing with which are so familiar to us from their empurpled prose -but used to convince a popular readership of the opposite case. So, instead of writing about 'sin', and being put aside with a yawn, Mr.Spufford prefers to write about what he calls the 'Human Propensity to F*** things Up (or 'HPtFtU' for short); instead of writing about 'prayer', Mr.Spufford takes us on a mind-blowing tour of the infinite which reminded me of the last 15 minutes of '2001'; instead, of a Jesus with a halo, shampoo'd hair, combed beard and flowing robes of spotless white, we have 'Yeshua' - a 'male Jew in first century Palestine... probably bearded, a bit smelly by modern standards, and quite short' -possibly 'with bad or missing teeth', a sort of ' holy fool' with a talent for annoying the authorities, scandalising the establishment and embarrassing his own family, but who, on has something of 'the other' about him: a healing hand, a dumb compassion, and profound understanding of HPtFtU - which 'he's here to mend'.

Without involving us in the details of his personal life, Mr Spufford leaves us in no doubt that his religious drive is essentially emotional, that its motor is some unspecified personal unhappiness, and that it is of the kind that has little or no time for tradition or authority, but refers all things to personal judgment - which is essentially Luther via Rousseau.

So, when it comes to writing about the difficulties of the presence of cruelty and pain in a supposedly God-created world, Mr Spufford takes the usual answers, simplifies them, holds the up to the light and says 'Nah!' It's a bad business, and he can't explain it, but the reader should trust him - these problems aren't really central. In looking at the Churches, Mr.Spufford explains the idiocies and the scandals as collective 'HPtFtU' and therefore no surprise. When it gets doctrinally difficult, Mr.Spufford tends to the intellectual equivalent of 'Whatever': 'This is my body... This is my blood... Do this when you remember me. It's one of those likeness things again - but the friends don't think too hard about what he means, because they're bursting out with anxiety at the finality of the way he's talking.' Not much difference between this and the 'What's the buzz... tell me what's-a-happenin'' theology of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. Similarly, with human sexuality: 'Except to make it clear that it falls under the umbrella of his perfectionism, he [Yeshua] has hardly has anything to say about it... he appears to be opposed to divorce on the pro-feminist grounds that it cuts women off without economic support;' and as for Hell, 'the whole contrivance, besides being repellently sadistic in itself, is blatantly incompatible with the primary thing that Christianity believes about God, and must be... another vengeful projection of the HPtFtU of christian humans, rather than part of the furniture of God's universe.' And as for the dear old Church of England, well, its a complete muddle and f*** up but awfully, awfully English - 'For the church, relating to power one way or another is a necessary consequence of operating in the world, or rather of trying to straddle two worlds: of trying to witness to an unconditional love while also doing what is necessary to go on existing in a world of condition' - so bye-bye Benedict XVI, and hello Rowan Williams, or whoever is unfortunate enough to have next to occupy the seat of St.Augustine.

But looking too closely at some of the premises of its arguments rather defeats the point: this is a book contrived for people who are 'modernist' in outlook, inclined to a relativistic view of life, and confused by, and/or impatient of, debates within the Churches that to them seem hopelessly irrelevant, stuffy and out of date. It is well-written, passionate, and often very funny. Those who are impatient with the callousness, the the stupidity, and the strutting vanity of evangelical of atheism, may find what they object to well-articulated here. Mr.Spufford is as witty as the best of his fashionable targets, and like them, he takes no prisoners. He coins some entertaining phrases about the 'hobbyists of unbelief', 'the people who care enough to be in a state of negative excitement about religion.. or to rent a set of recreational objections from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens'. And he expresses a perfectly reasonable irritation that any of those idiot savants should presume to tell him what he believes, and why he believes it, and that he is wrong, stupid, and possibly even criminal in doing so. After all, how do they know, any more than he does, whether God exists or not? And 'It would be nice,' says Mr. Spufford, if people weren't quite so rude. It would be nice if they didn't brandish crude cartoon of nineteenth century thought as the very latest thing in philosophy, and expect you to reel back, dazzled. It would be nice not to be patronised by nitwits. It would be nice if people were to understand that science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and that, powerful though it is, it doesn't function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can't be perceived except through metaphor.'

Mr. Spufford has a lot of fun with the tin-pan gods of the new establishment, especially John Lennon, an icon whose shampoo'd hair, combed beard and spotless white 3 piece always reminds me of exactly the image of Jesus which its critics associate with 'pious fraud' - alright, forget the round-eyed rimless spectacles, which is Lennon's own contributipn to the saccharine. So it cracked me up when Mr. Spufford described 'Imagine' as 'the My Little Pony of philosophical statements', and went on to write about 'John and Yoko all in white, John at the white piano, John drifting through the white rooms of a white mansion...' and how 'Imagine' looks like one part 'A Matter of Life and Death to one part 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'. Only sillier.' And how he skewers idiocy when he writes: 'Imagine there's no heaven. Imagine there's no hell. Imagine all the people living life in - hello? Excuse me? Take religion out of the picture and everybody starts living life in peace? I don't know about you, but in my experience, peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the the size of Joey and Chandler's is.... Peace between people is an achievement, a state of affairs we put together effortfully in the face of competing interests... Peace within people is made difficult... by the way we tend to have an actual, you know, emotional life going on, rather than an empty space between our ears with a shaft of dusty sunlight in it, and a lone moth flittering around and around.'

Yet as I finished this spirited, emotional, but somewhat tiring book, I couldn't help thinking of Nicholas Herman - 'a lowly and unlearned man, who, after having been a footman and a soldier, was admitted as a Lay Brother among the barefooted Carmelites at Paris in 1666, and was afterwards known as 'Brother Lawrence'. His conversion, which took place when he was about 18 years old, was the result, under God, of the mere sight in midwinter, of a dry and leafless tree, and of the reflections it stirred respecting the change the coming spring would bring. From that time he grew eminently in the love and knowledge of God, endeavouring constantly to walk 'as in his presence.' No wilderness wanderings seem to have intervened between the Red Sea and the Jordan of his experience. A wholly consecrated man, he lived his christian life through as a pilgrim - as a steward and not as an owner, and died at the age of 80, leaving a name which has been as 'ointment poured forth.' But he never wrote a book, and if he'd had his way, nothing would ever have been heard of 'Brother Lawrence' at all.
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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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