Unapologetic: Why, despite, everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. Francis Spufford. Faber and Faber.
I have been meaning to post on our family’s experiences with the (in my opinion) unfairly maligned Youcat, but that’s a post that won’t gel at the moment. So I’d like to break the long silence here (my Dutch friends would say, “A minister walked by”) with a book that I feel less responsibility towards.
“Unapologetic” aims not to be a logical defense of the faith, but a defense of its emotional intelligence, as it were, of how and why it addresses human needs, and in particular, the needs of Francis Spufford, an English writer of whom I’d never heard. (But I have been very busy in the last ten years.)
It is a personal account, and it doesn’t pretend to clothe its raw assertions with figleafs of appeals to others. There’s nary an Early Church Father in the book, or even ur-Anglican C.S. Lewis. Or rather, there is one reference to him, but the famed liar, lord, lunatic trilemma has been collapsed by Spufford into a dilemma, for reasons I don’t remember, and then condemned as a bad argument. So it’s fair to say that Spufford has no problem about owning his opinions.
The book starts with Spufford bosom-burning as to how his faith practice may mark his six-year old daughter as weird. My heart pumped custard, I tell you, feeling the pain of one who has just, it seems, at a pretty advanced age, stumbled on the inevitable ramifications of parenthood. Get a grip, man. They fuck you up, your parents do, Spufford, you ought to know that: Larkin was English, after all. It is the bounden duty of you and your wife to half the time be soppy-stern and half at one another’s throat, and thereby transmit to your child the troubled legacy of humankind. A legacy which Spufford, in desperate advoidance of the word “sin”, labels, The Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up, thereafter, ad nauseam, HPtFtu.
This abbreviation, as ugly a piece of Camel Case as I’ve ever seen, grates worse with each repetition, and Spufford spends the rest of the book trying to pass it through the eye of the needle, and magic out of thin air a necessary fulfillment for an emotional need.
Spufford recounts his first tentative realization of his own HPtFtu , and need of Christ. It would be unbecoming of me to fisk that, especially since it involves a very low point, perhaps the nadir, of his married life. I also first inched towards Christ when I realized that I had to change, or my marriage wouldn’t last. My own self, considered in relation to one other human, was, so I saw, all I could manage. I had a mission field of one, and it turned out to be myself.
Spufford then outlines an episode of prayer of a contemplative and non-directed sort, unbounded by any urgent cognitive purpose. May I note, at this point, what a relief it is to me to now have the helps of Catholic prayer. Conventional is good; it works. The Aves, the Paternosters, the Memorares, the Glorias, thank God for those, and I constantly thank God through and in those. I never was any good at prayer extempore. Spufford apparently doesn’t have this difficulty. Fluency is not his problem.
There’s a slightly tiresome chapter wherein Spufford recounts the Passion in terms of Yeshua and Skull Hill, carefully spicing the narrative as much as he dares, like a sophomore spiking the punch. What is rather sweet is that Spufford says he is avoiding cliche, without suspecting for a moment how crashing a cliche this is. It was a cliche back in CS Lewis’ schooldays, when Lewis used to hang round with youths who thought it was clever to talk of Yahweh and Yeshua.
I’d like to sketch the rest of the book better. The main point is that faith is the help of the desperate, the poor and the pain-racked. He gets no fight from me on this. Where this stops short is at any idea of the communion of saints, that our experience of pain may be pressed into the service of others, if we offer it humbly. But that point may have been made, it’s just that I turned a page inadvertently.
The trouble is that I’m reading on my (son’s) Kindle. Fine for large print, terrible for getting a sense of the totality of a book. Terrible for keeping your place. You can’t see the end, or the beginning, just the Word in front of you, divorced of context. In a way, it’s the most thoroughly Protestant and sola scriptura of experiences, and disconcerting. So I’m probably not doing the book justice, but the endless stream of hyperbole reminds me of the man in the pub, whose eye you hope not to catch, because you’ll not easily escape his monologue. O Brunnenmund, Du Gebender, Du Mund. I laughed aloud when I got to the end and found he’d written it mostly in a coffee-house.
I’d like to talk with Spufford, if I thought I could get a word in edgeways. I’d tell him that Christian life gets better as you get older, acquire more friends and relatives, and the corporate aspect of your faith life grows. It’s when you have a child to catechize that faith becomes urgent, part of your life blood, and then, you surprise yourself, sometimes to tears, by the simplicity of the old adages you couch it in for your child, and for yourself.
As the Catechism says:
180 "Believing" is a human act, conscious and free, corresponding to the dignity of the human person. 181 "Believing" is an ecclesial act. The Church's faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (St. Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519).
"Patrick left on Saturday afternoon. What an enormous, uncovenanted blessing to have kept Henry James for middle age and to turn, as the door shuts behind the departing guest, to a first reading of 'Portrait of a Lady.'"
I think I read Portrait in college, not for a class, but while babysitting during the summer for a set of twins who would likewise spend the afternoon reading Goosebumps books. I know I wrote down portions of it in my journal, and used them the following year in my senior thesis, but my memory all these years later is that I didn't especially enjoy reading it. I didn't think it was funny or bright. I mostly was scandalized and obsessed with the evil of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond--that they could trap someone seemingly so innocent as Isabel Archer in their web of deceit and then keep her captive there for the rest of her life.
I'm not that far into it on a second reading, in my near middle age, mainly because I'm finding a slow read to be so enjoyable--I want to make it last as long as possible, and also post-pone the tragedy that I know is coming. Sort of wish, like Waugh, I'd never read it in my younger days.
For now, I'm just delighting in the young Miss Archer, in sort of the same way that her cousin Ralph does. I like watching her, and I wince as people show up and exercise their effects on her. She's so impressionable, so absorbent, and mutable about almost everything but the knowledge of her own worth. I sort of remember feeling that way a long time ago.
I'm also sort of loving and hating her American friend Henrietta Stackpole, the young reporter who wants to write about everyone she meets for her job at the Interviewer. And when Isabel comes across a tablet on which Miss Stackpole is writing "Glimpses of Gardencourt"--which is a draft of her reflections on Isabel's family, Isabel asks her to stop immediately.
"I don't think you ought to do that. I don't think you ought to describe the place." ..."Why, it's just what the people want, and it's a lovely place." "It's too lovely to be put in the newspapers, and it's not what my uncle wants." "Don't you believe that!" cried Henrietta. "They are always delighted, afterwards." "My uncle won't be delighted--nor my cousin either. They will consider it a breach of hospitality." (Miss Stackpole puts her pen away) "Of course if you don't approve, I won't do it; but I sacrifice a beautiful subject." "There are plenty of other subjects..." (scenery, etc.) "Scenery is not my department; I always need a human interest. You know I am deeply human, Isabel; I always was...I was going to bring in your cousin--the alienated American. There is a great demand just now for the alienated American, and your cousin is a lovely specimen. I should have handled him severely." "He would have died of it!" Isabel exclaimed. "Not of the severity, but of the publicity." "Well, I should have liked to kill him a little...." "...My poor Henrietta...you have no sense of privacy." "You do me great injustice," said Miss Stackpole, with dignity. "I have never written a word about myself!" "I am very sure of that; but it seems to me one should be modest for others also!" "Ah, that is very good!" cried Henrietta seizing her pen again. "Just let me make a note of it, and I will put it in a letter."
See... it's hilarious.
Don't know if anyone is still reading here, but since I'm reading actual books this summer, I thought I'd take a minute to jot some things down.
Gone With the Wind:
OK, I know I'm possibly the last person in the universe to read this book, and I saw the movie twice before I actually got down to the business of reading it--but I REALLY loved the book. People (my husband, for instance) often talked to me about how they read it in only three days, or whatever, and I thought, wow, impressive, sort of--but there really is nothing else to do once the book is cracked but finish it.
So, I watched the movie after reading it, and suddenly the movie was no longer the charming thing it had once been for me. All the best parts were cut. Both Rhett and Scarlett were less despicable than they should have been. All the really politically incorrect parts were cut, as well as 2/3rds of the characters. What are you going to do with a thousand pages of material, I guess--but I'm picturing a remake. Wondering about Lily Collins as Scarlett.
Or maybe Camilla Belle?
Thought of Jude Law for Ashley Wilkes, but I can't decide if that's just because I chased Gone with the Wind with a re-screening of Cold Mountain (and now I remember why I thought that movie was stupid).
Who is the modern day Rhett Butler, though?
I was noticing some similarities in plot between GWTW and Downton Abbey--the cold hearted Scarlett cancels her sister's chances at finding love. The idea of the great house as a symbol of personal redemption. ... And Michele Dockrey came to mind as having Scarlett potential as well.
Anyhoo, now I'm reading another page-turner--Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. When this book came out, I thought I would be scandalized by it--but, alas-- I'm not. Fascinating. More later.
Since it's Sunday evening and the teenager is cooking, and since our current read is Wolf Hall, I thought I'd take a moment to mention this article, mentioned earlier in the month by Rod Dreher. You may already have seen it (it's garnered seven hundred-odd comments on the Guardian site) but it's jolly good.
In the middle of March, I fished Middlemarch out from under the bed, where it had been peacefully collecting sluts’ wool since before Christmas, put into the orange bag (courtesy of its colour, impossible to leave behind anywhere by accident) and took off for China. This was the easy part: harder, was fielding the questions.
“You’re going where? To do what? Why?” To the People’s Republic of China, to pick up a little boy and shepherd him through emigrating to the US, because –
Because the pay-off of having a large family is that it can tick over by itself, without me, for a little while. Because Pentimento dared to ask, and that’s an honour. Because hitherto, I’ve lived hobbled by fear and caution; my worst sins have been of omission. (Let’s, if we must, sin boldly, for once.) Because I still feel treacherous towards my former church community, and I wanted to kick myself out of Paradise New Zealand, for a while. Because my sister has received a diagnosis of cancer identical to that of our late aunt: life is short. Because taking off suddenly for the unknown is good practice for dying.
Nowhere on the list was a desire for pure tourism, a tiki-tour, a look-see, an OE, a tirotirohaere. “Du mußt dein Leben ändern,” says Rilke, in response to seeing the “archaic torso of Apollo”; “you must change your life.” But I’m afraid of change; change is the last thing I ever want. Home’s where life is, in the personal space. Life-changing art, life-changing events, can wash over me, eventually, if they must, while I sally on with the Brownian motion of daily life.
All the same, I couldn’t help but see some sights. I saw a branch of the yellow Yangtze River, heard someone exclaim, “La-la-la-la-lei!” and saw people river-swimming with barrels tied to their backs. (“The Story of Ping”!) I saw a piece of brocade that took a man five years of his life to make. I saw three cities bearing the weight of history. I saw multitudes of people living busy lives, and I left for the States having shed some xenophobia, and having tried chickens’ feet. (They’re delicious! Chewy!)
More than that, I found the Church is Catholic, that at Mass my English responses could join the Mandarin and Cantonese, that the Rosary group accepts temporary members at the drop of a hat, and that the Sign of the Cross is the most universal prayer of all.
But the great overarch of the experience was the sight of a transcendental father-son relationship springing into existence in an eye-blink. Did you ever, as I did, read the New Testament and see adoption as faintly second-best, a faute-de-mieux, a concession? Maybe you never have: I think this may be the Calvinist mistake, the toxic run-off from the forensic view of justification. We Calvinists were too busy thinking of ourselves as criminals let off the hook by a clever legal dodge to think of ourselves as children adopted by God the Father. Thank God, I know better now, having seen adoption in action. It's not a lesser relationship. I now know God, my Father, the Church, my Mother, and find brothers and sisters everywhere, even in China: it’s a heady experience for a former Protestant, orphaned by sola scriptura and left to scratch out a faith, alone. I can sympathize if little Jude occasionally disbelieves in the glories of a family of his own. I can hardly believe that I’m part of my new Catholic family, either. Such riches. Unfathomable.
Betweentimes, I read Middlemarch, in swathes and in snatches, in airports and hotel rooms and houses half a world apart. It’s possible that a Victorian classic has never been read before in such disparate locations and conditions. Look, I liked Middlemarch, but I wished it hadn’t taken to page 250 for the plot to thicken. Also, I wondered who George Eliot thought she was writing for. Some of it - the natural history, the doctoring, the politics, the politics of doctoring - had the painfully over-researched quality of a Tom Wolfe work. Furthermore, wherein does Middlemarch’s readership consist? Does the same individual take equally lively interest in elaborate emotional interplay AND young scamps in strife AND Reform politics?
When I think about this, I believe the natural place of Middlemarch is not so much the reading group as in the reading-aloud group. Such a group has scarcely existed since the Victorian extended family ceased to gather round a common hearth, taking out busywork of all sorts while thrusting an open book into the hands of the most gifted reader-aloud. Nonetheless, one can see that in an extended family group, Middlemarch may come into its own. There’s something there for everyone, old and young, male and female, and the langours of any single passage may find ready attention in one ear, whose eager interest buoys the flagging attention of the others present. Fred Vincy’s doings for the teenaged boy, Dorothea’s for the blue-stocking daughter, politics and economics for the wonkish Darwin type.
Sadly, nothing short of a nuclear winter would assemble such a group again, for thirty-six hours of reading, and even if so, their pooled knowledge would be hard-pressed to explain all the references beached by the receding tide of memory. Middlemarch has slipped beyond the grasp of the average reader – its concerns require too much knowledge of the immediate past. It has passed irretrievably into the province of the specialist. Nothing, especially not margin notes, will save it. Nothing will save Tom Wolfe, either, but I suspect his run will be much shorter.
"I started going to Mass on brief experimental forays when I was a teenager and a close friend went to church. Then I took instruction from an Episcopal priest when I was nineteen in California, between trips to North Beach to listen to jazz and poetry. I wanted the world to be both magical and full of meaning. I was scared of what drugs did to my friends. I haven't ever used drugs, though now I would love to bite a hash brownie. I was always in a state of shock or awe at existing. It was inevitable I would end up a Catholic, and a lover of all religious literature and acts from around the world. Simone Weil said Catholicism is a religion for slaves. She meant it as a great compliment." --Fanny Howe
* "I can't imagine writing poetry outside the very large architecture faith affords….The question I more often ask myself is not about the relationship between faith and poetry, but rather the relationship between prayer and poetry. They're not the same, by any means, though there is some intrinsic relationship. Sometimes I speculate the two are like adjacent apartments in the same building: when you're in one, you have no direct access to the other, but if you listen closely you can hear sounds--sometimes muffled, sometimes sharp--coming from the other side of the connecting wall.
One does not invite the Holy Spirit into one's life and expect it to operate on one's own terms, as a sort of butler to the soul….I gradually, quietly started making the cultural changes I had long dreaded, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn't bear any longer not to make them.
For me, a serious commitment to faith--a living faith, within an orthodox tradition such as conservative Anabaptism--meant that certain questions were settled, if not in my heart, then in the wider sense of how and what the world is. Moving within and among those settled questions, as a subjective human intelligence and a sensual being, is a freedom. You could say that the tenets of faith provide something like conceptual constraint, though "constraint" is not the word I would use and certainly not how it feels to me, any more than a physical building is a constraint, if one moves in and around it."
* "I suspect that the actual writing, the continuous writing, the writing over and over again, the commitment, is a kind of devotion. Maybe it's not the devotion of a priest; it is certainly the devotion of a mourner." --Gerald Stern
* "And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well. The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away to find in the very next moment its consolation in the left one." --Rabindranath Tagore