Well I have never read anything quite like this before. I am really enjoying the book. Spufford reads like a Christian version of Julian Baginni the author of a Short guide to Atheism. Just like Baggini he is affable, polemical, engaging. Spufford, is an incredibly effective author – definitely someone I’d like to have a glass of port with (I don’t really drink port – but it feels strangely more appropriate than the offer of a beer.) Spufford’s style is perfect for his readership: its no wonder the first chapter was published in the Guardian – he would fit in very well in some of the circles I have observed in Oxford. He is articulate, witty and decidedly “unreligious” in that he uses very little jargon from the Church’s lexicon but lots of language that betrays a fine education.
Spufford says he is not quite sure who his audience is:
I don’t know who you are, of course, my dear particular reader with this particular copy of the book in your particular hands, or what you think about religion. You may be an atheist with the light of combat in your eye, or a fellow-believer hoping for a persuasive account of what we share; you may be one of the large number of non-believers who are mildly, tolerantly curious about what faith can possibly feel like from the inside, in what seems to you to be a self-evidently post-religious world
But I think he is very aware of the kinds of people that will read his book and he knows just how to go about engaging and disarming them. This is an iconoclastic opening chapter – calling to account the prejudices of many people about those apparently strange enough to hold theistic views which have become oddly unorthodox in polite society.
Believers are people with pudding-bowl haircuts, wearing anoraks in August… That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds… That we’ve provided pious cover stories for racism, imperialism, wars of conquest, slavery, exploitation. That we’ve manufactured imaginary causes for real people to kill each other.
The turning point of this chapter is the place that emotions have in Christian belief. Spufford recounts an experience he had whilst listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.
I am going to withhold judgement here as I want to see where Spufford takes us. I can already hear some of my Christian friends being alarmed at his statement:
Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. No dancing about; no moving target, I promise. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas. (emphasis mine).
I can sense some of my Christian friends wincing because this sounds like a belief in belief, or belief as a kind of emotional crutch. Its also a decidedly middle class kind of crutch – he gives two examples from impoverished people needing hope and his witty deconstruction of the Atheist Bus Campaign argues that you are robbing these people of hope by telling everyone to forget about God and start enjoying life. I hope this doesn’t backfire into a kind of faith is a helpful emotional opiate for those who are messed up kind of line.
It is possible he is offering an alternative entry point to belief – i.e. for some people it is the rational side, for others it is there experience of community, for others still it is the practices; joining in with God’s concern for the poor and fighting injustice – for others still it is the way Christianity helps us navigate our emotional life. I can see lots of merit in that.
Lets see where he takes it – I am up for the ride, even if I get a little puritanical when he drops the F-bomb every now and again.