A humanist friend bought this book for me, which was a kind thing of him to do, as it’s blessed me. I haven’t read much in the field, but it’s the finest apology for Christianity I’ve encountered.
There are so few contemporary Christian writers whose prose is beautiful, but this book is beautiful in places, and full of the kind of insight into human experience one hopes to find in the best literary fiction, and rarely encounters in Christian nonfiction.
All this said, I’m hard pressed to sum up Spufford’s argument. It’s less an argument than a beautiful monologue about what ‘Christianity feels like from the inside’ – about how, apparently, it makes emotional sense.
Spufford states early on that he is a fairly orthodox Christian, but he writes as someone who carries little theological baggage, and perhaps that’s why he’s refreshing. He describes his inner life and how it resonates with his faith. He actually manages to cover all the key areas of the faith in this account, from his limited but important experience of God, to the message of Jesus and the significance of church.
It’s not a book which will sit easily with evangelicals; he likes to use f-word, and he claims that hell is not something many Christians believe in. For me, I’m so glad to find this account of a fragile but very real faith that takes seriously the prospect of being wrong, the spectre of atheism and the reality that we often hear nothing back when we pray, and spins from these threads a compelling account of ‘why, despite everything’ Christianity might still be true.
As one perpetually caught between literature and theology, C.S. Lewis’s words here make me pay attention:
We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone far away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and text book undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round… It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern [person] a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books… The first step to the reconversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and the Thinkers’ Library on their own ground.
- “Christian Apologetics” in Timeless At Heart, p. 18
(To my mind, Tom Wright says it better and closer to my way of thinking when he imagines – in “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” - ‘a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.’ For Wright, the purpose isn’t simply conversion or even apologetics, although that is part of it. The purpose is to embody and redeem all elements of life and infuse them with a background story of the kingdom. A sign and foretaste of Jesus’ reign. Lewis would probably agree. But I’m not sure Wright would call for the ‘reconversion’ of Britain – that horse has bolted, surely? Do we want to go back to Constantinianism? Not us Anabaptists, anyway.)
Yet I was genuinely struck by this passage. I picture Lewis as a sharp, kindly great-uncle, and he’s dispensing some pointed advice to me when I read his books. (For this analogy to work, he’s a great uncle I avoided until recently, because all the other great-nephews and nieces kept saying how great he was.) There’s a generation gap, but also genuine wisdom to be found.
For me, I am drawn to in-house Christian writing and thinking because I see too much of the church in the grip of fundamentalism and other unhealthy forms of Christianity.
Lewis writes here specifically about the need for more science books written by Christians, but I’m sure he’d urge me to persist with novels too. He is one of the few to be a respected voice in both.
Please bear with me, as I articulate an initial question, a challenge to Christianity (and theism) I’m sure has been raised before but that I’m only just getting my head around.
It is common to talk of a crisis in faith within Western Christianity starting in the late 19th century, particularly post-Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Darwin’s theory that humans were descended from other animals is often depicted as causing widespread doubt and apostasy among believers, who up until this point had been the clear majority within Western countries. (Not sure of the situation in France.) Perhaps one could paint the picture in the years afterward as a gradual shift away from faith for the majority of people in Western countries to the point where today, for example, only a small minority of Australians have a positive faith in Christianity.
It would be ludicrous to put this decline solely or even largely at the hands of a Darwinian account of human origins, although young earth creationists frequently do. Yet from most quarters it would be acknowledged that the theory of evolution certainly did not encourage belief in God or Christianity, and did much to discourage it.
So how does evolutionary theism – and for someone like me both young and old earth creationism are untenable [I believe God created the world, but that Genesis does not give us scientific information about this] – account for the crisis in faith that evolution (at least partially) caused?
If all truth is God’s truth, why would the uncovering of truth lead people away from God rather than closer to God?
1. Creationism: touche – evolution is a deception and this is why it caused a crisis of faith.
2. The theory of evolution provided an excuse for [some in] society to move away from God. Or it at least gave rise to a hubris which felt it could reject God/Christianity in the name of science, which could provide a new, firm basis for the nature of existence and the future of humankind. Thus: the problem is the project of modernism. Intertwined with truth – insight, for example, into human origins – was idolatry of science, as if it could replace faith in God.
3. The reaction of conservatives and fundamentalists against evolution in the name of Jesus discredited Christianity in the minds of many people.
4. The role of belief in evolution in leading people away from God is either an exaggeration or a delusion (perhaps used by individuals as an excuse).
5. Atheism/ Agnosticism: evolutionary theism is an attempt to salvage religious faith from the ashes. The theory of evolution caused a crisis of faith because it points toward a reality of a world without God.
If you ask this question, you will be told this gem of wisdom, a cross between a joke and a proverb:
If you find the perfect church don’t go there, because it’ll stop being perfect.
This is sort of true, but rather annoying to hear, and certainly doesn’t carry the full weight of the question.
I know a lot of people who are very disappointed by church. It is an epidemic amongst evangelicals, and almost a requirement for anabaptist types. Often some of the fault lies with the complainers, but not all of it.
It is an apologetics question and a pastoral question.
- If Christianity was not true, what sort of churches would you expect to see? Would they differ from your experience of churches? If the churches you have seen were merely a bunch of people trying in their own power to do what they do, would they look any different?
Not sure. Unfortunately several of the situations I have seen would be much the same. But this is speculation.
- To what extent has Christianity generally taken a wrong turn and lost touch with the source of its truth? To what extent has (for an anabaptist) a constantinian compromise, a lack of emphasis on the radical teachings and call of Jesus, an embrace of consumer values (etc – or substitute your analysis of what is wrong with Christianity) made the church disappointing? The shift away from participation, community and love between brothers and sisters?
This is exactly how I used to answer the problem. But that was when I had the Answer, and was modelling something different. That was when I thought that if people attempted a form of Anabaptism in their loungerooms, their dissatisfaction with church would end. As it happened, my church disbanded and left people disappointed. Now I have questions and am not so sure of the Answer.
If this analysis of a largely fallen church with pockets of renewal and revival the signs of faithfulness amongst the rubble, how can the church find its way back? Is it a narrow way that only a few will find?
Working for the ‘system’ has also given me a different outlook. I see students, pastors and leaders asking questions, and most of them earnestly seeking after God. It is not easy to generalise too much when you have to include specific people and churches.
- To what extent are people’s expectations of church too high? The church at Corinth was full of torrid problems and divisions and undoubtedly disappointments.
- The desire for community and connection in a culture which works against these things make the church’s task much harder. Busyness is a terrible disease in Perth: people too busy for community, for connection. Some people’s comments have made me think Perth also lacks a culture of hospitality. It is surely not confined to Perth, but it is severe in Perth. Some American friends say it is only in Australia that you could attend a church service and leave without anyone speaking to you.
And this is so much a part of the problem I see! Congregations of strangers. So few members of churches making an effort to welcome new people in churches.
- To what extent does church disappoint? Maybe it’s only people I know it disappoints. There are a lot of people who seem relatively content. The malcontents could learn something from them. And they could learn something from us.
A middle eastern bearded man who was a threat to the empire is summarily executed, while rumours quickly spread that the man did not really die.
Conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden’s death are already appearing days after it happened. Was he really killed? Where’s his body? Why won’t the president release the photograph? If this is the case days later, what will the stories be in a few decades time? In a couple of thousand years?
How does this situation compare to the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Does it lend credibility to sceptics who would see the empty tomb and resurrection stories as the conspiracy theory of an extremist group?
I think the questions are valid ones for sceptics to ask. (Not that I’ve heard them asking them, but the sceptical side of my brain was weighing up the comparison this morning.) But I see a number of important differences.
1. The source of the conspiracy theory is not Bin Laden’s inner circle. It’s people who are much more removed, people without the facts, Americans who are used to seeing conspiracy theories in everything and Muslim extremists who don’t trust anything the West tells them.
2. Jesus’ execution was very public while Bin Laden’s was not. Jesus’ resurrection was also public, with many of his disciples testifying to seeing him in the days after the resurrection. (Of course, the sceptic will ask why only believers saw him, and insist that the empty tomb tradition of Mark is the earliest account, while the resurrection stories are a later fabrication.)
3. The early church responded in a way consistent with Jesus’ resurrection: they grew quickly, motivated by a deep love and hope and performing acts of service and compassion. They did not seek revenge and they did not go through a crisis. I expect both of these could be the outcome within Al-Qaeda. Of course, Al-Qaeda is a group with a very different ideology to the first Christians and they may go through a resurgence stirred up by Bin Laden’s martyrdom. I am not sure what I would make of such an event in relation to the early church.