I first discovered this author when I came across his highly imaginative, fluently written book, Red Plenty, about life under Communism in the Soviet Union during the era of Nikita Khrushchev. Like that volume, this one does not disappoint. Its strength lies in its originality and in the feast of verbal games and voice tones that the author likes to deploy (he teaches creative writing at university and it shows). One could also argue that this is its weakness: the determination to be original can sound contrived and the author’s love of the fine art of writing can fall into pretentiousness. Nonetheless, stimulating and irritating by turn, it is a book about the Christian faith that is worth pondering.
Subtitled, “Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense”, the author has set himself the task of arguing for the emotional validity of the Christian faith rather than by means of the traditional intellectual “proofs”. He is contemptuous of the patronising tone of the well-known Dawkins bus advertisement which told people to enjoy themselves as “there is probably no God.” As Spufford points out with some passion, many people “are sad, miserable, sick, poor, lonely: they can’t enjoy their life.” Indeed, it is this intuitive recognition that atheism does nothing for unhappy people leading unhappy lives that in part underlies his argument.
He himself, after a Christian childhood, became an atheist for 20 years. He returned to faith because “piece by piece, I have found it answers my need and corresponds to emotional reality for me.” In case people want to point out here that one’s feelings, being variable and shifting, are an unreliable basis on which to pin a set of potentially life-changing beliefs, the author is at pains to capture those bedrock emotions which endure and which are thus significant. As he rightly comments, assenting to the propositions of faith doesn’t make you a believer: “I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings.” Arguments arising from proof are secondary: “We dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight, surmise, joke, detest.” How do we make sense of these emotional experiences?
Spufford experienced a kind of personal epiphany when sitting in a cafe after an appalling row with his wife – the sort that makes a person aware of his own lamentable weaknesses and failings and his incapacity to move away from this slough of despondency on his own. Suddenly, instead of the saccharine background “muzak” usually played in public places, he found himself listening to the adagio of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. As he writes about this unforgettable moment: “It sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said.” I think this captures very delicately what music at its best can communicate to the human consciousness.
“More to be said” is the author’s shorthand for the rest of the book: how do you explain evil and the God of love? How do you make sense of the unique attractiveness of the person of Jesus in the Gospels? How can you be an intelligent 21st century writer in the mocking, strident, secular world of artistic bohemia in the UK, and still make defend going to (your local Anglican) church every Sunday? Along the way the author wryly admits that, “as a long-ago letter-writer puts it… it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God.”
So what does Spufford learn in this interior exploration? That the universe is sustained “by a continual and infinitely patient act of love”; that grace is “forgiveness we can’t earn”; and that although he might see himself through “the grim optics of sorrow and self-dislike, I am being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe it, with a generosity wider than the oceans.” There is an almost mystical awareness here which the author has the gift of being able to translate into words. Although he knows that neuroscience might be able to explain how his feelings and emotions might have arisen in a particular part of the brain, nonetheless, “they don’t explain my feelings away.”
Because Spufford is anxious to make contact with a youthful rather than an aged readership, he has an irritating tendency to sprinkle his beguiling prose with four-letter words in the mistaken belief that this will make what he has to say more appealing or relevant. It doesn’t. In Surprised by Joy C.S. Lewis managed quite well to relate his own conversion story without resorting to swear words and Spufford should take note.
He invents a formula about humanity which is not inaccurate but which sounds tiresome when used over-frequently. This is “HPtFtU” or, the “Human Propensity to F- things Up” (spelt out, of course.) Despite this propensity, which we all well understand, there is the amazing response of God’s love – the “weeping father on the road”, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Indeed, Spufford devotes a long passage to John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, as well as to the conjectured thoughts of the late Field-Marshall Montgomery of Alamein as he waits to die. As I said, the book, which was wholly written at a cafe table, where the author was sustained by constant cups of strong coffee, has many original moments. It is an insightful, humorous and unapologetically modern contribution to an ancient question.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.