Magazine article The Christian Century

Right-Brained Apologetics

Magazine article The Christian Century

Right-Brained Apologetics

Article excerpt

FRANCIS SPUFFORD has won several literary awards in Great Britain for his nonfiction works, which include I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination and a memoir of childhood, The Child That Books Built. In 2012 he published what he calls "a short polemic about religion": Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. One British reviewer described his case for faith as "rude, intelligent, and convincing." The American paperback edition of Unapologetic was published this month by HarperOne.

Your book is not "apologetic" in the classic sense of presenting a rational defense of Christian belief designed to persuade skeptics. You explicitly focus on the emotional sense of Christianity. Do you think there is a place for the former kind of apologetics?

I'm not always intellectually convinced by particular moves that particular apologists make as they go about the traditional business of defending the integrity and plausibility of Christian ideas, but I absolutely accept the value of the task. It needs to exist in the Christian intellectual ecosystem and to be reinvented for changing contexts of ideas every generation, maybe every decade. I just don't think it is the only persuasive tool we need, or that it is always the right one to reach people with.

Often, even when writers think they are beginning from scratch, conventional apologetics assumes a kind of basic assent from the reader to the idea that this religion stuff matters at all--that God is important enough that you'd want to devote your time to propositions about him. And for increasingly large numbers of people, that just isn't true any more.

Especially in my own European context, but I think in swaths of secularized America too, there'd need to be a reason before the reasons began for why you'd engage with an argument about God at all. This, I think, is where it makes sense to speak in the language of experience, of emotion, which is humanly recognizable as being urgent without the need for prior assent.

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My book isn't intended to compete with more conventional apologetics, and it certainly isn't supposed to be saying: emotions good, ideas bad. We need both. But emotions create the setting in which the ideas begin to matter as something more than dry abstractions.

There's a particular danger, just at the moment, of falling in with the atheist polemicists' endless, tedious, monopolistic concentration on whether God exists. OK, God's existence is logically prior to the possibility of our faith in him, but it isn't biographically prior, it doesn't come first in terms of the life of faith. God's love gets us there, God's mercy. His mere existence is probably God's most boring quality.

It is sometimes said that the sequence of faith and churchgoing in our time is not "believe, then belong" but "belong, then believe." Does that sound right?

It doesn't sound quite right to me. In some ways, being a member of a church community for whatever reason clearly enrolls you in a kind of very valuable school for the heart, where the practice, the doing part of the shared Christian life, can build up over time into a powerful, wordless understanding. But if we say that in the contemporary world people primarily believe because they belong, and that our evangelical attention should therefore go on making them belong, or helping them belong, then we seem to me to be piling far too many of our eggs in the one basket of church's social legitimacy.

In the United States, church is still one of the standard forms of bottom-up civil association. It's one of the basic voluntary building blocks of society. You arrive in a new city or a new neighborhood, and you naturally look for a sympathetic congregation, as a way of attaching yourself, of becoming at home in a new place.

As someone who lives in a place--England--where this has not been true for at least two generations, I look at the American pattern with some envy, yet I also think that it would be a mistake to count on the desire to belong as a permanent force working in church's favor. …

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