Monday, November 5, 2012

Fisking Francis

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).

Yes.  This.