Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
Reviewed by Louis Markos, English, and Robert H. Ray, Humanities, Houston Baptist University
England is post-Christian in a way that America is not. Christian stories, imagery, and theological concepts permeate American culture; they do not do so on the other side of the pond. In America, religion still brings respectability; in England, it more often than not brings embarrassment. In fact, as British writer Francis Spufford points out in the preface to the U.S. edition of his Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, whereas 16% of Americans claim to go to church when they do not, the “idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous… is completely bizarre to us” (vii).
During WWII, C. S. Lewis overcame England’s growing ignorance of and reticence toward Christianity by finding common ground between himself and his post-Christian countrymen. Instead of appealing immediately to the existence of God or basing his arguments on the authority of Scripture, Lewis begins his radio broadcasts (which were later gathered together under the title Mere Christianity) by noticing something curious about human beings: when two people disagree about something, they argue about it rather than fight.
Beginning with this universal, cross-cultural experience, Lewis goes on to argue that the fact that we can argue points to the existence of a moral-ethical Code that transcends both us and our culture. From there, Lewis further argues that if we will only be honest with ourselves, we will be forced to admit two things: 1) that we know we should live our lives in accordance with that Code; 2) that we do not and ultimately cannot. This dual awareness not only points to God (for if such a Code exists and is binding upon us, its source must be super-natural) but to the need for religion (the goal of which is to bring us back into a right relationship with the divine Author of the Code). What makes Christianity unique is that it is the only religion that takes seriously our inability to follow the Code, which reveals, in fact, that only God himself can effect the reconciliation.
Writing seventy years after Lewis’s broadcasts, Spufford sets himself the task of appealing to a country whose ignorance of Christianity is almost total and whose reticence has given way to bemused neglect punctuated by occasional bouts of hostility from the New Atheists. Adopting a postmodern, anti-dogmatic style that bears some resemblance to American apologists Don Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell but that is wryer, wittier, and rawer (he does not shy away from profanity), Spufford skewers the sacred cows of conservative Christianity on the one hand and secular humanism on the other. He gives almost no quarter to reason-based apologists (including Lewis) who use logic to prove the tenets of Christianity, but then he also courageously attacks the utopian nonsense of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the lyrics of which he wonderfully dismisses as the “My Little Pony of philosophical statements” (12).
Still, for all his post-modern, politically-correct cleverness, Spufford is bright enough to realize that no true defense of Christianity can be mounted without first acknowledging the problem of sin. Like Lewis, he avoids using the word “sin”; unlike Lewis, his bull-in-a-china-shop method smashes any and all traditional moral codes, relegating them to the ash heap of legalism. For Spufford, sin means neither more nor less than “the human propensity to f—k things up” (27), a phrase which he uses again and again in the form of a decidedly strange acronym: HPtFtU.
With considerable insight, Spufford argues that the moral teachings of Jesus, far from enabling us to avoid the HPtFtU, make the goal of perfectionism impossible. Unlike Jewish and Muslim laws of behavior—which, though demanding, can be kept—the Sermon on the Mount highlights our utter inability to measure up. Our awareness of that inability provokes a healthy kind of guilt that should free us from judgmentalism even as it opens our eyes to our participation in “a league of the guilty” (47).
Evangelical readers, like myself, will expect Spufford to move directly from this awareness of sin to a revelation from God, but Spufford says that, more often than not, we are left with a gnawing sense of God’s absence. But at least we are now listening. We might even drag ourselves to a church (a “vessel of hush”  to use Spufford’s pregnant phrase), where the still, small voice of God can reach us through the noisiness of our lives. And once that happens, we come to realize that God was always there and always speaking; the problem was that we could not hear him over (another pregnant phrase) “the unending song of my self” (58).
Of God’s presence, Spufford says that it brings comfort but is not itself comfortable. It will not turn away from us, though we can always turn away from it. Yes, Spufford concedes to his materialist readers, our sense of God’s presence can be explained away as a physical sensation, but that is only because it is a physical sensation. We are physical beings; if God wants to touch us emotionally, he must do so “by way of hormones and neurotransmitters and nerve fibres” (67). After all, we do not explain away love as “only” physical because we experience it biochemically!
In fact, God was so concerned to touch us on a physical level that he himself became a man and lived among us. “He is as human as we are,” writes Spufford in a beautiful meditation on the Incarnation that never uses the word, “but if you meet him, you are also meeting the being responsible for the universe” (110). While he lives on the earth, he serves and uplifts and heals all that come to him, but his human limitations prevent him from physically touching more than a handful of people. Still, all those who do come garner his full attention. “One by one, as they get their moment with him, they are vividly, substantially present to him. They matter…. Yeshua’s sense of people is not additive. More is not better. Each person in front of him is, for that moment, the one missing sheep” (129).
This image of a supremely personal savior God forms the heart of Unapologetic and empowers Spufford’s affirmation of Jesus’ unique God-Man status. Without using theological words or referencing creeds and dogmas, Spufford shows, narratively and emotionally, how when Jesus carried his cross, he bore not only the shame and cruelty and spite and failure of the Jerusalem crowd but, because he was also the God who dwells outside time and space, the shame and cruelty and spite and failure of all people at all times.
At its core, Unapologetic is an orthodox book that affirms, without using guild argot, the Trinity, the Incarnation, original sin, and the atonement. However, in its desire to privilege the emotional over the rational, it too quickly (and glibly) dismisses apologetical arguments grounded in logic and history. For example, though neither the organization nor the thrust of his book makes it necessary, Spufford goes out of his way to ridicule Lewis’ liar, lunatic, lord trilemma as “one of the great Bad Arguments of all time” (154). His reason for doing so? Jesus’ claims to divinity can also be explained in two other ways: 1) Jesus was “just plain wrong” (154); 2) the early church misunderstood his claims.
It is indeed the case that Lewis’ trilemma relies on the reliability (though not the inerrancy) of the gospel accounts; as such, were Spufford writing a century ago, when serious scholarly doubt had been cast on the historical accuracy of the New Testament, his dismissal of the trilemma might carry weight. But the last three decades have produced a mountain of scholarship upholding the reliability of the gospels. Does Spufford mean us to ignore the work not only of fine popular apologists like Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Gregory Boyd, and Ravi Zacharias, but of such respected academics as Richard Bauckham, Craig Bloomberg, Gary Habermas, Larry Hurtado, Luke Timothy Johnson, and N. T. Wright?
But the aspect of Unapologetic that is most disturbing is its fashionable embrace of the gay rights movement, which Spufford, like many American Christians, falsely compares to the civil rights movement. Were Spufford’s position only a political one, it would not hamper the overall message of his book. Unfortunately, Spufford’s advocacy of gay rights rests on a narrow understanding of compassion that comes close to driving a wedge between Jesus’ mercy and holiness. This tendency to reduce Jesus’ teachings and actions to love and inclusivism is best illustrated by Spufford’s slanted reading of the story of the woman caught in adultery. Spufford is exactly right to focus on Jesus’ mercy and on his admonition that only those without sin should cast the first stone, but he conveniently leaves out the end of the story. After the crowd dissipates and Jesus forgives the woman, he tells her to go and sin no more.
In saying this, Jesus does not reveal his old-fashioned judgmentalism but his desire to free the woman from a self-destructive lifestyle. I applaud Spufford for reminding conservative Christians like myself that sin is sin and that we should not place sexual sins over other types of sin, but he fails to acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is (like adultery and fornication) a sin: not because God has a hang-up with sex, but because homosexuality violates the way that God intended us to express our sexuality. We should feel great compassion for those struggling with same-sex attraction, and we should certainly invite them into our churches, but we must not therefore forget that all forms of fornication (heterosexual or homosexual) are part and parcel of the HPtFtU.
Spufford wants us (rightly) to open our doors and our hearts to prostitutes, drug addicts, and adulterers, but does he also not want us to point people to ways of life that lead to human flourishing? As documented by a 2008 review of 13,706 papers on LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) people that appeared in BMC Psychiatry, “LGB people are at higher risk of mental disorder, suicidal ideation, substance misuse and deliberate self harm than heterosexual people.”1 Advocates of gay marriage have long laid the blame for these findings on the guilt that society lays on homosexuals. But, if that is the case, then why did a 2001 report conducted by NEMESIS (Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study) find “a higher prevalence of substance use disorders in homosexual women and a higher prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders in homosexual men.”2 Given that the Netherlands is strongly pro-gay in its legislation and cultural mores, it seems that factors other than social stigma must be driving the high rates of psychological disorders that plague gay men and lesbians. Spufford wisely reminds us that guilt is a signal that something is wrong and that, as such, it helps make us aware of our participation in the HPtFtU. When Christians who embrace the suffering homosexual, as they should, also embrace homosexual behavior, they risk enabling behavior that is part and parcel of the brokenness of our world.
Jesus sets us free by forgiving us, but he also sets us free by telling us that we do not have to continue living the way we have been living. And he sets us free as well by breaking us of the worst sin of all: of that arrogant pride that impels us to reject God’s handiwork and remake ourselves in our own image.
The author of Unapologetic is a man of compassion who brings us face to face with the abundant, life-changing compassion of Jesus. He neglects to mention, however, that compassion often manifests itself in the form of a tough love that will not rest until those it loves are truly free from the fears and addictions and idolatries that prevent them from showing forth the image of God.
Cite this article
- Michael King, et. al., “A Systematic Review of Mental Disorder, Suicide, and Deliberate Self Harm in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People,” BMC Psychiatry 8 (2008): 70.
- Theo G. M. Sandfort, Ron de Graaf, Rob V. Bijl, Paul Schnabel, “Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Psychiatric Disorders: Findings From the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS),” Archives of General Psychiatry 58 (January 2001): 88-89.