Saturday 7 December 2013



Francis Spufford (Faber 2012) 

There was a lively discussion on December 1st of a lively and provocative book. Reactions to Francis Spufford's style varied from the negative (childish, unnecessarily crude language, verbose) to the positive (at least he sounds modern and not stuffy). What can't be denied is that Spufford uses his twenty-first century writing skills to create a fresh and fluent account of one man's experience of, and reflections on, religion, specifically Christianity. 

In Chapter Two, The Crack in Everything, he argues what we all know, that both we and the world we live in are hardly the way we would really like them to be.  Call it broken, or use the F word, but it's not surprising that some people meditate on this and wonder if there is an answer beyond our trivial daily concerns or the flattering image that our advertisers help us to believe about ourselves. He ends the chapter thus:
The crack in everything is here to stay. So one thing we do … is to turn towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us … To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one – in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one.
And we say: Hello? Hello? …

It won't bother you if you don't bother it

This leads directly to Chapter Three, Big Daddy, which begins: 'And nothing happens. ... Well, we've arrived at God, or at God's absence'. But he goes on to give a long account of his own experience of meditating in quiet places such as churches: 
Churches are vessels of hush, as well as everything else they are, and when I block out the distractions of vision, the silence is almost shockingly loud. 
It's best to read it for yourself but the result is that 'something makes itself felt from beyond or behind or beneath it all', 'it seems to shine ... with lightless light', and he's honest and aware enough to comment that 'what you've experienced is an absolutely bog-standard piece of transcendence'.  

There were other accounts at Wychwood Library of experiences of transcendence. What was more equivocal was how, why or whether these led one to reconsider what the great religions have to say about such experiences and what lies behind them. Clearly for Spufford they have done and you can only really glean with how much reality and sense - as well as emotion - by reading his own words in context. 

Hello, Cruel World

One could be disappointed by Chapter 4. Spufford has seemed to promise so much.  But Spufford is also strikingly honest. He won’t just tell you that he can’t solve the problem of pain (if he could, he’d be Regius Professor of Divinity by now); he’ll also take you through each of the historic solutions (“theodicies”) and make sure you aren’t taken in by them, even if thousands or millions have been, through wishful thinking or otherwise.

But then he stops and says:
And that’s about the end of what argument can do for us.
How then do we deal with suffering? How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is that we don’t. We don’t try to, mostly. Most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction. …
We don’t forget, mind. … The impasse is still there. It’s just that we’re not in the jaws of it. … Our feelings have moved on elsewhere. Because there is a long answer, too, to the question of suffering;  a specifically Christian perception of what God is, which helps us to move on.  (pp 104-106)
... We don’t say that God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world: not deep down. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story. (p107)
 And this is the prelude to chapter 5 (Yeshua), which is the most extraordinary tour de force of narrating a very old story in a very fresh way. I was well and truly gripped by this re-telling of lots and lots of bits of the story of Jesus in a thoroughly modern, intelligible way. Billy Graham has nothing on Francis Spufford.

You have to read it. It would be impossible to produce excerpts or summaries. It’s 39 pages but it’s worth the investment. What he does say before ending ch 4 is about praying, or rather who he prays to, and hence the essence of what Christianity is about.

When I pray...

Straight after the passage quoted above, he goes on:
When I pray, I am not praying to a philosophically complicated absentee creator. When I manage to pay attention to the continual love song, I am not trying to envisage the impossible-to-imagine domain beyond the universe. … I look across, not up; I look into the world, not away. When I pray I see a face, a human face among other human faces. It is a face in an angry crowd …  [I]f  you are a Christian you do not believe that the characteristic of the God of everything is to mould the universe powerfully from afar. For  a Christian the most essential thing God does in time, in all of human history, is to be that man in the crowd… (p107-108)
... Which leads to the page-turner that is Chapter 5, 'Yeshua' (later latinized to Jesus). 

There are 3 more chapters after this, ending with Chapter 8, 'Consequences'. We have set ourselves to read all the remaining 5 chapters for January 12th at Wychwood Library, from 7 to 9pm. Since all agreed that there is a lot there - even if sometimes hidden in the verbiage, as one could, unkindly, put it - we thought we would all pick out our favourite chapter or passage and bring it before the group to discuss. We may well run out of time... 
February 9th is already earmarked for Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria. And on March 9th we welcome poet and theologian Nicola Slee to lead a session on Faith and Poetry.