I started reading this book last night. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
I’m only two chapters in – but one of those chapters is just about the best chapter on the human condition I’ve ever read.
It is sensational. It’s brash. It’s frenetic. It’s honest. It’s compelling.
The writing moves like a bullet train, but hits like a freight train. It’s a dizzying stream of consciousness treatment of what it means to be human.
Here’s a little video Francis Spufford put together about why he wrote the book.
Atheist mega-brain Alain De Botton called it his book of 2012…
“As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.”
Here’s a couple of quotes – they’re potentially offensive – which sin should be.
“If I say the word ‘sin’ to you, I’m basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It’s going to sound as if I’m bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between ‘sin’ and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*** things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”
The HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature; that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling.
But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there – then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cosy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. I’ve found that admitting there’s some black in the colour-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.
First you have to go through; and while you do, while you’re struggling with the first raw realisation of the degree to which you’ve f***ed (things) up, in one of the louder or quieter crises of adult life, there is no resolution to be had, no comfy scheme of order to hold on to. The essence of the experience I’m trying to talk about in this chapter is that it’s chaotic. You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting, and this discovery doesn’t propel you to a new understanding of things, it propels you into a state where you don’t understand anything at all. Unable to believe the comfortable things you used to believe about yourself, you entertain a sequence of changing caricatures as your self-image. By turns your reflection in the mirror of your imagination nonsensically grins, scowls, howls, yawns, gazes back inert as a lump of putty: decomposes into pixels that have forgotten the reason for their mutual attachment. Here is a description of the state from a Hebrew poem 2,600 years old: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’
For what do we do with the knowledge that we’ve f***ed up, that we no longer make sense to ourselves? Turn to face each other, for a start. A community of acknowledged f***-ups ought at least in theory to be kinder to one another. And there are things we can use our imperfection for, once we admit it: structures that can be built from unreliable parts and yet be reliable themselves, like the constitutional order of the American republic, or the scientific method, or the internet. But there’s a limit to what we can do for each other, a limit to how much of each other’s HPtFtU we can ever manage to bear – even just to bear to hear about – while it often feels as if there’s no limit to how far or how long the ripples of our multitudinous f***-ups can keep travelling, or how intricately they can go on colliding and encroaching and causing collateral damage in other lives. Think of the consequences of John Newton’s HPtFtU, still fresh and vigorous after two hundred years. In this case, and in plenty of others where the harm is ongoing, it wouldn’t even be right to ask for help with the aftermath of doing the harm. Should John Newton’s victims have been asked to make him feel better about what he’d done to them? I think not. We have to attend to justice as well as mercy, and we’re finite creatures, with limited powers to make good what’s been broken. With the best will in the world, we can’t always take the weight of other people’s bad stuff, we can’t often lean in and lift it off them. The crack in everything is here to stay. So one thing we do instead, when we’ve f***ed up, when we no longer make sense to ourselves, is to turn towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us who is not one of the parties to our endless, million-sided, multigenerational suit against each other. To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one – in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one. And we say: Hello? Hello? I don’t think I can stand this any more. I don’t think I can bear it. Not another night like last night. Not another morning like this morning. Hello? A little help in here, please?
This sort of anthropology – this understanding of the human condition – this experience – is not uncommon, nor is it beyond the reach of the modern atheist – this reminded me of a David Foster Wallace essay on movie director David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, which is one of the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.
“I’m going to claim that evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about, and that Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are, if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true. I’m going to submit that the real “moral problem” a lot of us cinéastes have with Lynch is that we find his truths morally uncomfortable, and that we do not like, when watching movies, to be made uncomfortable.
The fact is that David Lynch treats the subject of evil better than just about anybody else making movies today—better and also differently. His movies aren’t anti-moral, but they are definitely anti-formulaic. Evil-ridden though his filmic world is, please notice that responsibility for evil never in his films devolves easily onto greedy corporations or corrupt politicians or faceless serial kooks. Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He is interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face. Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc. In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is “implied by” good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it.
DFW says Lynch movies work to make the viewer uncomfortable because they force the viewer to identify with people who turn out to be a mixture of light and dark. But they’re very dark. Which reveals something about us – something like the realisation Francis Spufford describes above.
“And I emphatically do not like to be made uncomfortable when I go to see a movie. I like my heroes virtuous and my victims pathetic and my villains’ villainy clearly established and primly disapproved by both plot and camera. When I go to movies that have various kinds of hideousness in them, I like to have my own fundamental difference from sadists and fascists and voyeurs and psychos and Bad People unambiguously confirmed and assured by those movies. I like to judge. I like to be allowed to root for Justice To Be Done without the slight squirmy suspicion (so prevalent and depressing in real moral life) that Justice probably wouldn’t be all that keen on certain parts of my character, either.”
I submit that we also, as an audience, really like the idea of secret and scandalous immoralities unearthed and dragged into the light and exposed. We like this stuff because secrets’ exposure in a movie creates in us impressions of epistemological privilege of “penetrating the civilised surface of everyday life to discover the strange, perverse passions beneath.” This isn’t surprising: knowledge is power, and we (I, anyway) like to feel powerful. But we also like the idea of “secrets,” “of malevolent forces at work beneath…” so much because we like to see confirmed our fervent hope that most bad and seamy stuff really is secret, “locked away” or “under the surface.” We hope fervently that this is so because we need to be able to believe that our own hideousnesses and Darknesses are secret. Otherwise we get uncomfortable. And, as part of an audience, if a movie is structured in such a way that the distinction between surface/Light/good and secret/Dark/evil is messed with—in other words, not a structure whereby Dark Secrets are winched ex machina up to the Lit Surface to be purified by my judgment, but rather a structure in which Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up—I am going to be made acutely uncomfortable. And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find some way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible.”
Or, Spufford might offer a third way – one might confront that darkness head on. Which is why that chapter is one of the most compelling things I’ve read on the human condition.