Book Review: “Unapologetic”

One thing that can be said about Francis Spufford’s book, “Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense,” is that it is utterly unique. I don’t know of any book quite like this. Lots of books seek to make a case for the Christian faith, but few (if any) do it in such gritty, earthy and edgy prose.

This gets to one of my main gripes about contemporary evangelical culture – it’s so tidy and cleaned up. Everything is soft, tame and “nice.” It has no teeth. It doesn’t always deal honestly and candidly with the fact that the world is still fallen. What I find so refreshing about Unapologetic is that Spufford writes in a way that would get the attention of many unbelievers, and one reason, quite frankly, is because he swears so much — even drops the F bomb from time to time. Spufford explains why he does this: “To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience” (xiii).

For those not persuaded by that explanation, you should know that Spufford fearlessly takes on the heavyweight atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell (p. 68); affirms a pretty solid understanding of Jesus’ person (“He is as human as we are, but if you meet him, you are also meeting the being responsible for the universe” – p. 108); defends the reliability of the New Testament, especially in contrast to the claims of the lost gospels (ch. 6); offers a persuasive apologetic to the accusation that the church (“the international league of the guilty”) is responsible for so much evil in the world (p. 167-169); and appeals to Jesus’ suffering on the Cross as the only proper theodicy (p. 106).

Best of all, Spufford displays a profound understanding of how sin works in the deep recesses of human hearts. Sin goes overlooked until we notice it in one of those “classic moments of adult failure: when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when a relationship fades away with a child seen only on Saturdays, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream.” In moments like these, we get a glimpse of “an unflattering vision of yourself as a being whose wants make no sense, don’t harmonize: whose desires, deep down, are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and you truly want not to, at the very same time.” (p. 28). That’s me!

So far so good. But for every brilliant point made by Spufford, there was a counteracting doctrinal error that took the wind out of the book’s sails. Spufford denies the historicity of the Genesis creation account (101). He denies God’s immanence by saying He’s remote and withdrawn (87). He says Jesus is “weirdly unbothered by sex” (116), and gives the impression that just about any sexual practice is A-OK with God (“Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in lists of forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods” – p. 188). And he flatly denies the existence of hell, saying, “We went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago” (p. 179), as if it’s up to us to determine whether hell exists or not.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with Spufford’s views: he implies that God’s ways are subject to changing human conventions. Spufford writes, “a God of everything who loves us would have to behave as love requires” (p. 99). Here he makes “love” to be some kind of eternal constant to which everything else is subject, as if god were accountable to Love. Mr. Spufford, it is God who defines love, not the other way around.

This book is sharply written. It is witty, insightful, and engaging all the way through. Honestly, I wish more Christians wrote like Spufford (but maybe with less F words). When I started this book, I was thinking this would be the one I could give to all my unbelieving friends, that this would be the one that would get their attention, make them think, earn their respect. But I can’t do it. For every one step forward in this book, there are two steps backward. It’s a respectable effort that indeed makes emotional sense, but in the end leads to doctrinal confusion.