The takeaway message is this: no one needs churches to be nice or tasteful. If churches have a future, it’s in addressing our existential darkness: sin and death. Progressive politics is important, but it doesn’t do any deep religious work. And liberals in the church will have to rediscover this after we have won our culture wars. What other religion has such a dark image at its centre? And yet my own brand of liberal Christianity too often seeks salvation through a few gentle verses of All Things Bright and Beautiful or lots of self-important dressing up and wandering around in fancy churches. Devoted atheists are never going to be persuaded by a theology of the cross. But no one whatsoever is going to be persuaded by a theology of nice.
The last speaker before the General Synod of the Church of England voted for women bishops. The sound quality is awful, but it’s worth persisting, because of what it shows: that we did this for many reasons, but we didn’t do it as liberals defeating conservatives in some zero-sum game, to shift our denominational brand leftwards along the shelf of the divine supermarket. Social justice is good in itself, but social justice is not the point of church. The point of church is to be church. The point of church is the risen Christ.
'The Word falls on us like a rainstorm': sermon by Jessica Martin
Think of the last message you got. Perhaps it was a card or letter through the post; perhaps an email; perhaps a text. All these are media. They are the means by which information is transferred from someone else’s mind to your own.
I am not sure what your inner picture of a message is, but mine is very influenced by the fact that as I grew up messages mostly appeared on paper. So my understanding of a message is something flat with writing on it; floppy; passive; telegram-like; something which needs my intelligence in decoding to make it do anything at all. A message is a charm you animate briefly with your mind and then absorb into yourself at leisure, abandoning the medium and digesting the content.
If your message is just a practical arrangement – say, meeting someone for lunch – that takes scarcely any time. But if it is an important piece of news, that takes longer and you have to change yourself and your inner mind to fit the news in. It is at that point that you might realise messages are not flat or passive, but have the potential to make changes in the hearer which are lasting and which take time to deal with.
Now remember the last time you were out in the rain. (This should be fairly easy.) A rain storm is not a message in the sense I was just talking about. A rain storm is an event in the world.
A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting—even a little luxurious—to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the ‘new atheists’—which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men—might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market.
I got a disappointed blog review a week or so ago, linked to below, that saw Unapologetic’s emphasis on emotion as a kind of vote in favour of subjectivity as such: my subjectivity, my subjective feelings, given priority over truth, and specifically over Biblical truth. ‘Spufford elevates emotions at the cost of Biblical authority in a manner I can’t endorse.’ This isn’t the first time the book has got this reaction. It’s been a fairly steady minor theme in readings of it by some conservative evangelicals, both in Britain and in the United States, and often those who take it this way feel the need to sound a kind of warning. Beware, they say. Something unsound, perhaps even toxic, is being passed off as Christian here under cover of pleasing eloquence. Fellow evangelicals who liked the book — Christianity Today endorsing it as a Book of the Year, for example — are being seduced by a product fatally accommodated to the tastes and prejudices of secular culture. Prime symptoms being the book’s dismissal of Hell, indifference to Heaven, mockery of literal readings of Genesis, and view of homosexuality not as a sin in itself but as a value-neutral domain of human experience within which both sin and virtue can be manifested.
Probably the most passionate and best-expressed response along these lines came from a pastor called J Michael Rios in two blog posts last November here and here, repeated as Amazon reviews of the book, in which he set out, clearly as a form of epistemological clean-up duty, to expose Unapologetic as idolatrous insofar as it took self rather than scripture as the measure of things. ‘Spufford concludes that the Bible is incorrect because it doesn’t conform with his novel perception of what is particularly wrong with the world.’ Or, spelled out most fully and eloquently as the argument continued in the comments section of his blog:
It is fundamentally God’s business to make God known. Now, the Christian scriptures are the historically authoritative place where this revelation is given to humans, and of course the Incarnation of Christ (attested to by those Scriptures) is the apex of divine self-revelation… Now, if God is really God, then I and my impressions about what is and is not appropriate for reality take a distinctly secondary place. Hell is a reality in the teachings of Jesus, therefore it doesn’t really matter what I am able to conceive regarding Hell. And if I take my idea of love and apply it to God in definition, then I’ve not allowed Him to define it for me. In turn, I am worshipping not God, but my own personal idea of God–which is what I think you are doing, and what Spufford has done, and why his book is so terrible. This all may sound subtle, but it is in fact the heart of a legion of idolatries.
I think Michael Rios is wrong, of course, but I found this extremely useful in its clarity, and I’ve been meaning to write something about it ever since, but haven’t had time until now. What interests me here is our genuine and solid disagreement about what scripture is and does, beneath what I naturally take to be misreadings of my intentions with Unapologetic.
[The French soldier] advised me to correct the rebellious principles I had imbibed among the English, who, for their insolence to their kings, were notorious all over the world, even to a proverb. In vindication of my countrymen, I repeated all the arguments commonly used to prove that every man has a natural right to liberty; that allegiance and protection are reciprocal; that, when the mutual tie is broken by the tyranny of the king, he is accountable to the people for his breach of contract, and subject to the penalties of the law; and that those insurrections of the English, which are branded with the name of rebellions by the slaves of arbitrary power, were none other than glorious efforts to rescue that independence which was their birthright, from the ravenous claws of usurping ambition.