After reading some great passages and recommendations for Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, I’ve finally gone through it, and the hype is well-deserved. As a rejoinder to the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, Spufford’s book faces the task of affirming Christianity, while at the same time admitting its weaknesses. And who knows, maybe these two things go together? They certainly do in his view of the Christian Church:

spuffordThe vision is of an intrinsically imperfect cosmos, hairlined through and through with flaws, chipped and battered and patched.

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such. It can’t be about circling the wagons of virtue out in the suburbs and keeping the unruly inner city at bay. This, I realise, goes flat contrary to the present predominant image of it as something existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves, far from life’s messier zones and inclined to get all ‘judgemental’ about them. Again, of course, there are Christians like that: see under HPtFtU. The religion can certainly slip into being a club or a cosy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Not all guilty of the same things, or in the same way, or to the same degree, but enough for us to recognize each other….

Christianity wants us to know the look [of sin, HPtFtU] when we see it in a mirror, and to know it too when we see it in other people. Christians are supposed to understand that the family resemblance makes us family even with the nastiest and most frightening of our brothers and sisters: a different kind of continuum. We’re supposed to do our fallible, failing best to perceive other bad people as kin.

A league of the guilty. Of the sick, recognizable to each other by the family resemblance of (and now I extrapolate a little) wearing their sin on their shirtsleeve. Of course, the ‘hypocrite’ accusations one hears so much from the non-Churchy world often have much more to do with our posturing than our behavior. And all that about seeing the sin in others? Well, something about being known as a prerequisite for being loved is operative here; after all, who wants to be loved for quiet-time diligence and regular, committed attendance? I wouldn’t, at least if it were to the exclusion of something more fundamental, or if such love were ignorant of fault.

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And of course, this is how God loves us, as Spufford also, in equally lovely language, writes of silence before God:

It takes no account, at all, of my illusions about myself. It lays me out roofless, wall-less, worse than naked. It knows where my kindness comes chequered with secret cruelties or mockeries…It knows the best of me, which may well be not what I am proud of, and the worst of me, which is not what it has occurred to me to be ashamed of….As a long-ago letter writer put it, someone who clearly went where I’ve just been, it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God. Only, to be seen like this is forgiveness, too – or at any rate, the essential beginnings of forgiveness…I am being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe it, with a generosity wider than oceans.

As much theological and emotional material is in those passages, I want to go back and focus on the (a)polemical aspect of it. I don’t think it’s too broad or speculative a claim to say that a defense of Christianity which acknowledges the role of weakness and sin within the Church is the only defense out there. Of course, all this is just a way of saying, read the book!