What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.
A lot of the lure for me in peeling away the skyscrapers was the way this ancient New York I was imagining, only just on the doorstep of modernity, reversed so many of the qualities the later city would be famous for. I like irony. I’m a glutton for it. But Manhattan’s later self would not be so easily banished. It wasn’t just that the 21st-century city put up visual resistance as I walked it – that the site on what used to be called Golden Hill Street where I planned that Mr Smith would receive the greatest shocks to his heart and his pocket-book, was actually occupied by a tanning salon; that in fact, I couldn’t quite scrub the skyscrapers out of my imagined sky, and lingering afterimages of them, pale as ghosts, stained the air above the tiled roofs and church steeples of my Manhattan. It wasn’t just that. Instead, I realised, it was that the memory of what hadn’t happened yet inevitably informed almost every aspect of the story I wanted to tell. Unnamed, never looked at directly, the Manhattan that was to come loomed over the whole thing. Because it had to: because a historical novel is never ever simple time travel, no matter how vivid it might manage to be, but always and every time a conversation between then and now. And a good historical novel introduces the strangeness of then to the familiarity of now, and entangles them, to the shock and captivation of both.
— In Video and Words: The New York of Francis Spufford | Waterstones.com Blog. A lovely brief meditation by Francis on thinking, and seeing, and writing history.
If you haven’t yet read Golden Hill, please do. It’s wonderful.
Indeed, this is the (unexpected) discovery I have made. It is that having been holding out against failure for a long time, having been committing to hope, trying to make the writing better and so on, it is rather liberating to let all that go. I’m never going to win a Clarke, never going to get shortlisted for a Hugo, never going to get an American deal, and it’s …. relieving, actually. The emotion is a largely positive one, muddied if at all only by a slight sense of embarrassment that I ever thought those things in the first place. Indeed, given our culture’s toxic Trumpoid obsession with winning, winning and winning again, with winning so much we get tired with winning, there may even be a principled merit in failing, provided only we accept the failure as our own, and don’t try to shuffle off responsibility onto others.
2016: the Story So Far. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post by my friend Adam Roberts, whose language of failure (as you’ll see if you read the whole post, and you should) concerns his most recent novel, The Thing Itself. I’ve wanted to respond, but I haven’t been sure quite how — Adam’s post touches on so many issues that seem vital to me. Still, let me leap in and flail about as best I can.
I began an article I published last year by talking about Frederick Buechner’s status as a rock star among Christian readers of literature. I’ve seen 1500 people pack into Pierce Chapel at Wheaton College to hear him read, and a more rapt audience you couldn’t imagine. Yet it was around the time of that reading that Fred changed publishers from Atheneum, a very classy house that had done his books for many years, to Harper, and when I asked him why he had done that he told me, “Atheneum expects my novels to sell 8,000 copies each and that’s precisely what they do.” But I don’t think his books with Harper did any better. And yet on 8,000 copies per book a writer can become an absolute rock star — at least among a certain subset of that fictional entity The Reading Public.
All of which is to say that literary success and failure are elusive concepts. Sales and awards are two ways to measure success or the lack thereof; but there are many others that are equally valid, and some of the criteria can’t be applied immediately. I’ve read The Thing Itself three times now, each time with more admiration and emotional investment, and there is much in it that I still haven’t grasped. (When Adam and Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams and I were discussing the book in Cambridge a few months ago, Adam briefly mentioned the ways the structure of the book echoes that of the Aeneid, and I am certain that I never would have realized that had he not mentioned it — and yet now that I know it I have a better understanding of the book. I feel like Stuart Gilbert being told by Joyce how Ulysses is organized. Except Adam told the whole room rather than just me.)
I simply don’t believe that a book so ambitious is likely to find its place in the world immediately. Milton famously spoke of writing for “fit audience though few” and for a long time “few” was what he got. The most highly-regarded English poet in Milton’s lifetime was Abraham Cowley, and if you’re wondering who that is, you have just grasped my point. It is of course difficult to sustain yourself as a writer on the hopes of future generations realizing your greatness long after you’re a-moldering in the grave, and probably only the deeply narcissistic can manage it; but it’s a factor, you know? Something to consider, especially if you’re as good a writer as Adam. The story of the reception of The Thing Itself is not over; it has scarcely begun.
In one sense I’m all for letting go of hope, as Adam says he has: not only am I in favor of it, I’ve done it myself! I have long realized that if I’m granted a normal lifespan I’ll outlive all my writings, and while I sometimes cast around in my mind for ways to increase my readership, basically I write for two reasons: to scratch itches, and to provide extra income for my family. But I’m no Adam Roberts, and while I perfectly understand why he might want to take a vacation from the demands that a really ambitious book project places on him, I hope at some point in the near future some such itch will afflict him, and in flagrant disregard of all the world’s award voters he’ll sit down and write a big crazy book that will move me to laughter and tears and thought and envy and admiration. Again.
On the Acknowledgments page of The Thing Itself, the new novel by Adam Roberts, there’s this:
As an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God, I have taken more than I can say from the eloquent and persuasive devotional writing of my friends Alan Jacobs and Francis Spufford, Christians both.
Well, one thing led to another, so… The place: Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge (the English one). The date: The evening of 15 June. The event: A conversation about The Thing Itself and associated topics featuring
- the esteemed author himself
- Francis Spufford
- The Rt Revd and Rt Hon The Lord Williams of Oystermouth (more familiarly known as Rowan Williams)
- and yours truly.
Stay tuned for more details. And sorry about the title of this post, you can’t actually book anything.
I was brought up in the church, back in the old days before the deluge when church-going, confirmation and so on were ordinary landmarks of life, but lost touch with it for twenty years, like almost all of my generation. I came to real belief as an adult, after a practical demonstration of God’s mercy at work in my life. I’m at the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, I suppose, in that I support the ordination of women, with full authority, to all three of the historic orders of priesthood; and I’ve come around, slightly to my surprise, to thinking that same-sex marriage is something we should be bringing within the Christian vision of a faithful, monogamous union. But though these things matter a lot to me as justice issues, they are not central to me as a Christian. If I’m a liberal, I’m a liberal saved by the blood of the Lamb. It is Christ that makes me a Christian, and the story of redemption and resurrection with Him at its heart. I come from a parish setting where it would seem a crazy luxury to pick and choose between different styles or schools of faith, not to mention weirdly beside the point. Locally, Christians of all kinds co-operate as a matter of basic survival – beggars can’t be choosers – but that seems right to me theologically as well. God is bigger than our tastes, our divisions and our theories. In Him is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, and neither liberal nor conservative either. We’re all brothers and sisters. We should behave like it.
— My friend Francis Spufford, who is standing for election to the Church of England’s House of Laity.
Another reason for the upsurge in writing about religion may lie in the failure of a convincing anti-capitalist discourse to emerge after the financial crisis. ‘One of the problems for a post-Christian age is what on earth to do with the figure of Jesus who – ha ha! – just won’t stay buried,’ Spufford says, unsure whether or not to be pleased with his pun. Even after we dispense with the miracles, the figure of Christ remains attractive because, as history has shown, he cannot be reduced to a single narrative account of what a person should be, but can be incorporated into several others. ‘Many consider him the last bit of demolition work that needs to be done [to rid Britain of religion], precisely because he is opposed to a utilitarian account of people: the figure of Jesus resists speaking in terms of prudence or cost-benefit analysis about individuals of limitless value.’
That music you hear in the distance? It’s St Augustine, St Teresa, Teilhard de Chardin, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Simone Weil all singing together, and what they are singing is that, as Christ commanded, we are supposed to love God with our minds, as well as with our hearts and our souls and our strength. It is an illusion to think that there is any necessary conflict between a Christian commitment and free, adventurous thinking. No-one ever does their thinking on a blank sheet of paper. Every intellectual of every kind is in a conversation with some set of ideas, doctrines, ways of seeing the world, and that’s what makes their own thinking serious. The Christian conversation with Christian ideas, and with every other kind of idea, need not be defensive or imprisoning. Why is there a stereotype that says you have to choose between faith and thought?
Her most personal book, Celebration, came out in 1989, shortly before Bridget died at 22. It is a tough, clear meditation on illness and suffering in the light of her faith in God. Margaret itemised without flinching the cruelties she had discovered in creation, in her daughter’s life and on the wards at Great Ormond Street, where she once reached out to stroke a crying child’s face and was stopped by a nurse who told her that the slightest touch could break the child’s bones. She could reconcile none of these things with the idea of a loving and benevolent God and she made no attempt to do so. Instead, she was convinced that God shared in the sufferings of his creation and that through the symbolic recreation of Jesus’s acceptance of death in the eucharist it could somehow, sometimes, be made bearable.
Ariane Sherine, who launched the Atheist Bus campaign in the UK a few years back, has written a piece for New Humanist magazine suggesting that the time has come for atheist polemic to become kinder. This is a development devoutly (and not-so-devoutly) to be welcomed. And for what it’s worth it fits very much with my sense that the particular cultural moment associated with the Four Horsemen (etc) is ending. The perceptual tide has turned, and the tone of caustic contempt that marked the atheist bestsellers of the last decade has started to look awkward and dated and dismissive of human complexity, rather than fresh and bold. From the atheist side as well as on the centre ground of unimpassioned unbelief, there’s a tentative sense that more interesting conversations between belief and unbelief might be available, if belief were not labelled in advance as being utterly unworthy of human respect.
Apologetics, after all, is a literature of the imagination. Its cousins are the memoir, the literary essay, even the travel book. Like the memoir it turns the private tissue of life into convertible coin, like an essay it makes the line of an explanation as concretely felt as it can be, like travel writing it delivers the sensations and incidents of a journey: all to accomplish for a reader on the outside of belief what an insider does not, strictly, need. (Though it’s always a pleasure for a believing reader to see our own half-lit, half-understood experience more perfectly articulated than we could manage ourselves.) The apologist is trying, above all, to convey the body of a truth. For a believer of course truth already has a body, in several ways, ‘body’ being the site of one of Christianity’s profound puns. Our truth is a body, the body of the incarnated Lord, and it makes us a body, the body of Christ which is the church, every time we eat the bread which is also the body of Christ. But more routinely, truth also has a body for us as believers in the sense that it is carnally present to us all the time, in bodily habit and bodily movement; in the lived shapes of a life. But if you’re on the outside, this kind of body is exactly what belief has not got. Apologetics is in the business of trying to create for the reader of goodwill a kind of temporary, virtual body for faith; one they can borrow and try out, so that they may have a concrete inkling of what it might be like to assent, long before they do.
What else? Oh yes: the swearing. Why do I swear so much, in what you are about to read? 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. To express a serious and appropriate judgement on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness. But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony. I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m fucking embarrassed.
Early on in this I compared beginning to believe to falling in love, and the way that faith settles down in a life is also very like the way that the first dizzy-intense phase of attraction settles (if it does) into a relationship. Rapture develops into routine, a process which keeps its customary doubleness where religion is concerned. It’s both loss and gain together, with excitement dwindling and trust growing; like all human ties, it constricts at the same time as it supports, ruling out other choices by the very act of being a choice. And so as with any commitment, there are times when you notice the limit on your theoretical freedom more than you feel what the attachment is giving you, and then it tends to be habit, or the awareness of a promise given, that keeps you trying. God makes an elusive lover. The unequivocal blaze of His presence may come rarely or not at all, for years and years – and in any case cannot be commanded, will not ever present itself tamely to order. He-doesn’t-exist-the-bastard may be much more your daily experience than anything even faintly rapturous. And yet, and yet. He may come at any moment, when and how you least expect it, and that somehow slightly colours every moment in the mass of moments when he doesn’t come. And grace, you come to recognise, never stops, whether you presently feel it or not. You never stop doubting – how could you? – but you learn to live with doubt and faith unresolved, because unresolvable. So you don’t keep digging the relationship up to see how its roots are doing. You may have crises of faith but you don’t, on the whole, ask it to account for itself philosophically from first principles every morning, any more than you subject your relations with your human significant other to daily cost-benefit analysis. You accept it as one of the givens of your life. You learn from it the slow rewards of fidelity. You watch as the repetition of Christmases and Easters, births and deaths and resurrections, scratches on the linear time of your life a rough little model of His permanence. You discover that repetition itself, curiously, is not the enemy of spontaneity, but maybe even its enabler. Saying the same prayers again and again, pacing your body again and again through the set movements of faith, somehow helps keep the door ajar through which He may come. The words may strike you as ecclesiastical blah nine times in ten, or ninety-nine times in a hundred, and then be transformed, and then have the huge fresh wind blowing through them into your little closed room. And meanwhile you make faith your vantage point, your habitual place to stand. And you get used to the way the human landscape looks from there: re-oriented, re-organised, different.
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?“ He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
— Emo Philips. I’m thinking of Emo’s famous joke as I’m reading the comments on my buddy Rod Dreher’s blog about Francis Spufford’s new book Unapologetic. The atheists are saying the things that atheists usually say in such contexts and so, alas, are the Christians, who are falling over themselves to condemn Spufford for failing to meet their very precise and utterly absolute theological standards.
They can’t pause for thirty seconds to think about the audience Spufford is trying to reach; they can’t be bothered to ask whether, not having read the whole book but only a newspaper excerpt from it, they have the whole story. They just see something they don’t like and sweep everything away in condemnation. Really, it’s no wonder people despise us and flee when they see us coming.
I’ve read the whole of Unapologetic and I think it’s a uniquely beautiful book. Of course, there is much in it that I don’t agree with, but you know what? Maybe in those areas Spufford is right and I am wrong. I need to consider that possibility. Moreover, there are surely many people who know nothing about Christianity, or who know little and want to know even less, who will be touched by Spufford’s approach in ways that they could never be touched by anything I write.
And there’s this too: Francis Spufford is and has been for many years a much-admired writer in England — rightly so — but his reputation will suffer because of his open embrace and warm defense of Christianity. Doors that had been open to him will close; reviewers who had commended his earlier work will henceforth look askance at it. He will pay a price for writing this book. And his brothers and sisters in Christ just sneer at what he has written, denounce the heretic, and turn away with smug self-satisfaction.
The funny thing is that, to me, it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. Belief demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending – pretending that might as well be systematic, it’s so thoroughly incentivised by our culture. Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t “probably”. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is “enjoy”. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.
But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you’d think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you’d think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God’s possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.
— Francis Spufford. This is from the first chapter of his remarkable new book, which Francis was kind enough to send to me in typescript a few months ago. It is an amazingly funny, insightful, honest, and moving book, and I hope everyone with even a passing interest in the realities of religious experience will read it.
A keen Morris dancer with a countryman’s voice, [Roy Dommett] was largely responsible for Chevaline, the naval update of Polaris in the 1970s. As I talked to him, he sat by his fire; an old panama hat wobbled on top of the stack of books next to his armchair. It gave him quiet satisfaction that he looked less like Dr Strangelove than like Falstaff, or some other figure of innocent pleasure out of deep England. Another of the rocketmen I talked to spotted him by chance once in Bristol. ‘These Morris men came dancing up the street, led by this big fat bloke in a kind of Andy Pandy outfit who was bopping people on the head with a pig’s bladder – and I said to my wife, “Sweetheart, you won’t believe me, but that man is one of the brains behind Britain’s nuclear defence.”’
To reformulate reading at thirteen, you jump to adult books. One entrypoint is via the classics. Amid the baffling profusion of grown-up possibilities, a reassuring sense of order adheres to the novels from the past that have already been sifted through and declared good, and conveniently assembled together, as a row of orange Penguins in a bookshop, or a dump of old Everymans discovered in a cardboard box. The country is dotted with dormant shelves-full of standard editions, put together by a previous generation, and waiting for a bored thirteen-year-old to blow the dust off. Go this way, and your next move when Narnia ceases to satisfy is to Jane Eyre. Fiction recomplicates itself for you: you step up a whole level of complexity. Suddenly you are surrounded anew by difficulties and riches commensurate with your state of mind. From an exhausted territory, you have come to an unexplored one, where manners and intentions are all to find, just like the rules of your own new existence in your own new lurch-prone adolescent body; and here the emotions are urgent again, because the great canonical novels of courtship – Jane Austen is next – all deal with people circling warily, interestedly, as they try to figure each other out, and decide from cues of behaviour like the ones real other people present to you yourself, whether this person or that is the one with whom desire and affection and trust can come together.