Tuesday, 24 September 2013

More Lives of Jesus 8.5: Larry Norman

As I've been reading Reza Aslan over the last couple of weeks, Larry Norman's 'The Outlaw' has been going round and round in my head. 

Larry Norman is definitely not a Jesus scholar, nor a scholar of any kind.  He is a singer and songwriter, a pioneer of gospel rock and one of the more interesting characters to grace the Christian music scene.  'The Outlaw' is one of the pithiest summaries of the debate about Jesus I've ever heard, five short stanzas which say more, and are much easier to understand, than many of the thousand learned tomes written on the subject.  The song first appeared on Norman's 1972 album Only Visiting this Planet.  Here's a suitably antique recording.

Some say he was an outlaw, that he roamed across the land,
With a band of unschooled ruffians and few young fishermen,
No one knew just where he came from, or exactly what he'd done,
But they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run.

Some say he was a poet, that he'd stand upon the hill
That his voice could calm an angry crowd and make the waves stand still,
That he spoke in many parables that few could understand,
But the people sat for hours just to listen to this man.

Some say he was a sorcerer, a man of mystery,
He could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see,
That he conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread,
That he talked of being born again and raised people from the dead.

Some say a politician who spoke of being free,
He was followed by the masses on the shores of Galilee,
He spoke out against corruption and he bowed to no decree,
And they feared his strength and power so they nailed him to a tree.

Some say he was the Son of God, a man above all men,
That he came to be a servant and to set us free from sin,
And that's who I believe he is cause that's what I believe,
And I think we should get ready cause it's time for us to leave.

For me, as for many people my age, Larry Norman was my introduction to Christian counter-culture.  He is often credited as the founder of gospel rock, although that begs the question about the place of African-American music in history.  Still, he was certainly the person who brought the aesthetic of early 70's rock music into gospel, and he inspired a generation of wannabe gospel musicians with a vision for Christian music that went beyond hymns and Evie Tornquist.

Norman didn't have an easy ride.  He was denounced from pulpits around the US.  He played the music of Satan.  He was a bad influence, the first step on a slippery slope that would lead young people to drugs, orgies and bad haircuts.  His long blonde hair, his strange clothing, his outspoken views and scorn for the traditional church all made him a big target.  He was clever enough to reply in kind with a song called 'Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?'.

Of course you didn't have to be too radical to draw the ire of some parts of the American church, in the 1970s or now.  Norman's music sounds pretty tame to 21st century ears.  Even Noel Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary fame, noted nice guy and creator of laid-back folk gospel, had his 1979 record Band and Bodyworks banned from Christian bookstores because the cover showed him dancing. 

Still it has to be said that Norman contributed to his own problems.  His decidedly difficult personality, refusal to compromise, odd eschatological ideas and occasional lifestyle lapses tested the patience of his friends, never mind his enemies.  These days former friends seem to be lining up to spill the beans.

Then again, "let he who is without sin" and all that.  Norman was the cleverest, most creative and most daring Christian songwriter of his generation and we loved him.  He brought life to a scene where so much of the music was simply boring.  He could be hilariously funny, he encouraged his guitarists to turn up their Strats on the rocky numbers, and the slow acoustic pieces were clever, vivid and thought-provoking.  Every church youth group featured some modestly talented singer and guitarist like me who had memorised 'The Outlaw' - all three chords of it - and would play it at the drop of a hat.

Norman is laying out a series of options and asking his listeners to make a choice.  However, even as a young crooner plonking away on my acoustic guitar I remember thinking to myself that perhaps these were not alternatives at all.   It seems to me that if the gospels are to be taken at all seriously (as even Reza Aslan thinks they should) each stanza of his song contains an aspect of the truth.  Jesus certainly was an outlaw and his message was clearly political.  His parables, sermons and aphorisms may not be poetry in the strictest sense, but they are certainly brilliantly crafted spoken word pieces.  As Aslan points out, his reputation as a wonder-worker is the best attested historical fact about him. 

If when we get to the last verse we find we can accept its proposition too, then we have to go back to the other four and wrestle with the meaning of each in order to make ourselves ready for whatever kind of departure is in store for us.  If not, the other four continue to hold endless fascination and no shortage of challenges for the world to absorb, and no matter what we will all have to leave sooner or later.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

More Lives of Jesus 8: Reza Aslan

It's been a while since I reviewed a Life of Jesus, but I did promise to review more recent samples of the genre so here, hot off the press, is Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  I first heard of Aslan's book via a scathing review by John Dickson.  A couple of weeks later, the book itself was staring at me from the new acquisitions display in my local library, so here is my own (rather less scathing) review.

Aslan was born in Iran in 1972 and fled to the US with his family in 1979 following the Iranian revolution.  After a period as an evangelical Christian in his teens he shifted back to Islam as a young adult.  He has a doctorate in religious studies and teaches creative writing and religion at various universities.  Apparently Zealot has caused quite a stir in the US and he has not just been criticised for the content of his book, but had his credentials and his character impugned on national television in a way that makes Dickson's dismissal seem polite.

This is a shame because the book is really not that bad.  It is certainly not a piece of pseudo-history in the manner of Barbara Thiering, Stephan Huller or the amazing Tony Bushby.  There is no secret code, no hidden identities, no Catholic conspiracy.  Nor is it particularly ground-breaking, and whatever errors in makes have been made plenty of times before with much less fuss. 

His basic idea is obvious from the title.  Jesus was a zealot, a Jewish revolutionary leader intent on overthrowing the Romans and initiating an independent Jewish kingdom in Palestine.  Aslan explains this idea concisely in three sections. 

In the first he sets the context by describing the succession of revolutionary movements which rose and fell in Palestine from the time of Herod through to the final destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  In each of these a revolutionary leader (often either proclaiming himself the Messiah or designated as such by his followers) leads a band of rebels against the Roman authorities, is crushed mercilessly and as often as not is crucified in a public place as an example to other would-be revolutionaries.

The second section hones in on Jesus himself and uses various incidents from the Gospels to illustrate his critique of Rome, his claim to kingship (the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple) and the final loss of patience by the authorities that led to his public crucifixion. In Aslan's telling, this pattern is just the same as that of the other rebels of the period, and has the same result.

In the final section he describes how Christianity was transformed from a revolutionary movement under Jesus' leadership - and after his death, the leadership of his brother James - into a peaceful empire-wide spiritual movement.  Naturally he blames Paul, who he says completely transformed Jesus' message by infusing various Hellenic ideas into the interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection while ignoring Jesus' own teachings.

What are we to make of this interpretation?  Well, let me suggest a couple of things.

When you start reading this book, Aslan appears to be a sceptic in the manner of the Jesus Seminar.  He suggests that from a historical point of view we can only know two things for certain about Jesus - he was a Jew, and he was crucified by the Romans.  Crucifixion, he says, was the punishment reserved for rebellion or insurrection.  Therefore, Jesus was an insurrectionist.

However, he doesn't seem to realise the major problem with this chain of reasoning.  He inadvertently provides a clue with the following story.

A few years earlier, when two zealous rabbis, Judas son of Sepphoraeus and Matthias son of Margulas, shared with their students their plans to remove the golden eagle that Herod the Great had placed above the Temple's main gate, both rabbis and forty of their students were rounded up and burned alive.

If this over-the-top response is typical of Roman attitudes to dissent then Aslan doesn't so much need to explain why Jesus was treated so harshly as why his movement was treated so leniently.

In 1999 Paula Fredriksen wrote a book called Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews in which she started from a similar point.  However, she identified three facts rather than two.  Jesus was a Jew, he was crucified by the Roman authorities, and his disciples were not.  Building on these three observations she concludes that Jesus was not understood by the Romans to be a serious revolutionary, since if he had been leading a rebel movement his followers would also have been eliminated.  Instead they were not only allowed to live, but to operate openly in Jerusalem right up until its destruction with only intermittent harassment by the temple authorities.  If only Aslan had read Fredriksen's book before publishing his own!

As you read further you discover that Aslan's scepticism is not anywhere near as thorough as he wants you to believe.  Although he is formally dismissive of the Gospels as historical documents he makes free use of the stories they contain.  For instance, although he doesn't believe in miracles per se, he points out that Jesus' reputation as a wonder-worker is pretty much the best attested historical fact we have about him, referred to repeatedly by followers and enemies alike with far greater frequency than his crucifixion.  Hence in describing Jesus' mission he refers to a wide range of gospel stories - the healings and exorcisms, the teachings, the symbolic acts.  Like John Shelby Spong, he even gives surprising credence to the resurrection stories.  After all, something has to explain why the disciples kept going after Jesus' death and were eventually prepared to face death themselves rather than renounce him.

I suppose if you are going to write a book about Jesus you have to use the Gospels because otherwise you would have nothing to write about.  However their use gives Aslan a problem because unlike the Jesus Seminar fellows at one end, or conservative scholars like Dickson at the other,  he has no clear criteria for determining which stories to accept and which to discount.  In the absence of such a framework, he seems to just select (and sometimes even modify) those stories and quotes which support his starting point.  Hence all the passages in which Jesus is shown to reject violence, encourage inclusion of non-Jews and suggest a gradual, inward process of growing the Kingdom of God are discounted as later inventions, while statements like "I have not come to bring peace but a sword" from Matthew 10 are taken out of context and made into revolutionary statements.

Yet the biggest failing of this book is that it really has nothing new to say.  Aslan sets his Jesus up in opposition to the portrayal of "an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived".  This portrait has not been sighted in scholarship about Jesus for a long time.  Over a century ago Albert Schweitzer concluded that Jesus was an eschatological prophet, warning his contemporaries of the destruction that was soon to come their way.  Through the 1970s and beyond the liberation theologians of South America and Africa alerted the church to the political dimensions of Jesus' teaching and ministry, and these insights have spread much more broadly so that even a conservative figure like John Stott acknowledges their importance. 

Aslan by contrast is stuck in a debate that has long since finished. In order to combat the caricature of Jesus as an otherworldly spiritual teacher he has created a caricature of his own.  He doesn't deserve to be vilified for this, but nor does he deserve much adulation. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Evangelical Universalist

Speaking of nice people who give me books, a little while ago Alex gave me a copy of The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald.  Alex himself is a passionate universalist who gets a thankyou in the book's preface and is very active on the Evangelical Universalist forum, which is well worth a look. 

For myself, becoming a universalist was a fairly painless part of my gradual detachment from orthodox Evangelicalism.  At some point I realised I no longer believed that a loving God would condemn people to eternal torture, and when I realised that this viewpoint was called "universalism" I adopted the label for myself.

For others the transition is much harder.  I've written previously about Rachel Held Evans' spiritual crisis, precipitated by the idea that innocent non-Christian victims of the Taliban would go straight to hell.  For someone like Evans, passionately empathetic and completely immersed in Christian fundamentalism, such a realisation can be catastrophic and lead to deep and agonised soul-searching.

It was much the same for Robin Parry, the real person behind "Gregory MacDonald".  He is a highly trained theologian and at the time The Evangelical Universalist was published he was editor at Paternoster Press, a respectable evangelical publishing company.  Here is how he describes his dilemma.

Have you ever experienced the painful knowledge that the noble words of praise coming from your lips are hollow?  I can recall one Sunday morning when I had to stop singing for I was no longer sure whether I believed that God deserved worship.  For a believer, that is a moment of despair.  Ever since I had been a Christian I had never wavered in my conviction that God loved people, but on that Sunday I didn't know if I could believe that any more.  I was having a doxological crisis - wanting to believe that God was worthy of worship but unable to do so.  This crisis was brought on by my reflections on hell.

Fortunately for Parry, as a theologian and publisher he had access to a lot of resources to help him work through the issue, including the riches of historical theology and the opportunity to supervise post-graduate students who had to review universalist works.  He found himself more and more convinced that universalism provided a biblical solution to his dilemma, and wrote this book not so much for publication to help himself work through the issues.

When friends finally persuaded him to publish, he had another problem.  Personally, he was happy to own his views, but he worked for a highly orthodox publisher and didn't want to bring trouble on their heads or get himself sacked.  As a result, he sought out a small niche publisher for the work and published under a nom de plume which is a combination of the names of two of the most famous universalists in Christian history, Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald. 

He maintained this alter-ego from publication in 2006 until his final "coming out" in 2009, corresponding from a dummy e-mail address, maintaining a blog under his assumed name and even taking part in a radio debate with his voice digitally altered.  It seems that after all this skulduggery, his final coming out was underwhelming - his conservative employer refused his offer to resign and life went on.

The Evangelical Universalist stands out not so much for its radical departure from Christian orthodoxy as for its thoroughgoing theological conservatism.  The major departure from the traditional understanding of heaven and hell comes in the opening section of the book, in which he deals with the problem from a philosophical point of view.  What we see here is that the problem of hell is closely aligned with the wider problem of suffering

Christian theology has traditionally taught that God is all-powerful - his will can't be thwarted - and perfectly loving, desiring the best for all his creatures.  The existence of hell as a place of eternal torment inevitably contradicts one of these two assertions.  If God is all powerful and yet allows some of his creatures to be tormented forever, this suggests his love has limits.  If his love is unlimited then it must be that he doesn't have the power to achieve what he desires.

The universalist solution to this dilemma is that God will eventually save all humans - that his mercy has no expiry date and he will eventually bring all people to repentance.  This is not a difficult conclusion to reach.  The difficult part, especially for an evangelical such as Parry, is whether such a solution is compatible with the teaching of the Bible.  This is the main subject of the book.

He begins by outlining the overall theological narrative of the Bible, found in different forms and permutations through the Old and New Testaments.  Humans are created for communion with God, break that communion, are cast out and eventually restored.  Israel is called to be God's nation, fails in this task, is sent into exile, and is eventually restored.  Jesus comes as God's messenger to humanity, is rejected and crucified, rises from the dead, calls the church and ultimately restores all things. 

There is nothing radical in this, not even anything peculiarly universalist.  The key question, and the point at which universalists differ from the mainstream of the church, is what this final restoration entails.  Will those who reject God ultimately be condemned and exiled forever in hell, as the mainstream church believes?  Or will they also be restored through repentance, as universalists contend? 

To make his case he begins with the passage from Colossians 1 which includes the following statement.

For in him (Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Alongside this he puts other similar statements, like this one from Philippians. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

The all-inclusive scope of these statements seems to suggest that everyone, all creation, will be reconciled and that this will be a willing, voluntary acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.  How, then, can we reconcile this with the passages in the New Testament which seem to suggest eternal damnation for some?  This is where the argument gets tricky. 

Parry refers to a number of key texts.  A long chapter analyses the two key passages in the Book of Revelation which are widely held to promise eternal damnation for God's enemies - 14:9-11 which refers to the followers of the Beast and "the smoke of their torment rising for ever and ever", and 20:10-15 in which all those whose names are not found in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire.  His detailed forensic analysis of these passages in their context leads him to the conclusion that the punishment is not the last word, and that those in the Lake of Fire can later emerge and enter the holy city.

He then moves on to the key teachings of Jesus on hell - his references to Gehenna, and the fate of the protagonists in the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the parable of the sheep and goats - and to the various passages in Paul which seem to refer to damnation.  I won't repeat his arguments, merely report his conclusion.  Hell is indeed real, but is not permanent.  The moment of death is not our final opportunity to repent, we may also repent after death, even while we are in hell, and eventually all of us will.  After all, who would not once the evidence of the need to do so is clear? 

In a sense, he has replaced the Protestant hell with the Catholic Purgatory - a place where souls are cleansed of their impurity before coming into God's presence.  His conservative Protestantism prevents him from acknowledging that this is what he's done and it would certainly put the frighteners under his intended audience. 

It seems to me his explanations lack force for two reasons.  The first is that his reading of the Bible is so relentlessly literalistic, taking the most conservative possible interpretation of each passage.  In his 30 pages on Revelation he doesn't refer once to the possibility that the book is not about the last days of planet Earth but about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the alternate possibility that the scenes which describe eternal burning, like much else in the book, are intended allegorically  not literally. 

Similarly with the teachings of Jesus.  He dismisses analysis of the fact that Gehenna (the word of Jesus translated "hell" in many English bibles) is an actual place, a valley outside Jerusalem which was the scene of many atrocities in Israel's history.  Nor does he place any store on the fact that the stories of the rich man and Lazarus, and the sheep and goats, are parables which are not intended to describe actual events.

It's almost as if Parry is bending over backwards to be as conservative as possible, to demonstrate that even the most diehard fundamentalist can still be a universalist.  This may perhaps be a worthwhile endeavour but it left me bemused rather than convinced.  I wonder if, in the end, he was fully convinced himself?  I suspect that in the long run it will be hard to sustain universalism without also jettisoning some of his literalism.

However, my biggest problem is that Parry's solution doesn't seem to me to solve his original problem.    To what extent does a temporary hell, as opposed to a permanent one, rescue the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful God?  Is it only the eternal aspect of hell that creates problems?  Parry argues that the bliss of heaven would be less than perfect if I knew my mother was suffering eternal torments in hell.  Would I be perfectly blissful if I knew instead that her torment would only last a couple of centuries?  Or ten years?  Or even ten months?  It may not last forever, but this God still appears to condone torture.

I'm greatly encouraged by the recent rise of universalism in the protestant church, and by the people like Alex and Robin Parry who devote time to promoting it.  It seems to me to be a sign that we are coming to grips with the hatefulness and violence that have been incorporated into much of our orthodox theology.  The Evangelical Universalist is an important step on this way, but it also shows that we still have a way to go. 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Did You Get a Head Knock on the Weekend?

For some reason ever since I watched the election broadcast last night I've been thinking of this advert for NRMA Insurance a couple of years ago that featured a group of Brisbane Broncos rugby league players.

Shane Webke, the owner of the damaged car, wonders if his team-mate has had a head-knock on the weekend, and if this explains his bizarre confusion about whether the problem is caused by the elements or by a rival football team.

I wonder the same about our country.  We have just voted overwhelmingly, as we always seemed certain to do, for a government that promises to look firmly backwards, led by a man who in the first leaders debate said, "There is nothing wrong with this country that a change of government won't fix".  In other words, all the problems we are facing are caused by the Labor Party.  Is this evidence of some form of brain damage?

As you know, I'm not a huge fan of the Labor Party although I'm even less a fan of the Liberals.  For the record, I voted Green.  Yet I know it is plainly absurd to say that the problems we are facing are the result of a dysfunctional and incompetent government.  While the Labor Party is clearly divided and has serious organisational problems, the government of the last six years is not noticeably more incompetent than previous ones, and nothing in the election campaign has suggested the incoming one is exceptionally gifted. 

No, we are facing a number of serious global challenges.  We are facing a looming ecological shift which will see steady changes to our climate and rising sea levels.  We are rapidly reaching the point at which oil supplies will begin to decline.  We are facing a major shift in the global economic and political order from one dominated by the US and Europe, to one dominated by China and India. 

The results of these shifts and the measures to respond to them were ever-present in this campaign, but mostly in a "don't mention the war" fashion.  The Coalition's climate change policy consists of a promise to repeal the Carbon Tax plus some vague mumblings about "Direct Action", while the Labor Party promised to water down the carbon tax so that it would be less effective.  Coalition transport policy revolves around building more infrastructure for petrol-driven vehicles.  Both major parties have been falling over themselves to pretend that the global refugee crisis is just a problem of border security.

I've been wondering why one of the best educated nations on earth, populated by highly intelligent people with access to a vast amount of  information, has so easily fallen for this nonsense.  Why are we so determined not to see what is right in front of our noses?

By coincidence this weekend I read another article, this one about the drop-off in Australian retail spending. 

A middle-aged woman from a middle-class suburb sits among a group of people and is asked why she isn't spending money at the shops.    She pauses, thinks, and in her lengthy answer touches upon a hotch-potch of real and imagined worries that make the action to reach for her purse feel almost impossible.  Then she mentions the ''US fiscal cliff''; asked to explain what the fiscal cliff actually is, she is unable to define it but blames it for her lack of spending anyway.

This is a real discussion taken from a recent focus group run by one of the nation's best known retailers and goes to the heart of all that is wrong with consumers today - they have reined in their discretionary spending, but many just don't really know why.

You understand what is being described here, don't you?  It's generalised anxiety.  We have an overwhelming feeling that something is wrong, that we are facing threats in our future, but we can't put our finger on exactly what these threats are.

This anxiety triggers our "fight or flight" response.  We can come out looking for someone to blame, and then kick them hard.  Alternatively we can pretend it's not happening, that if we just close our eyes things will go back to the way they were.

There is, of course, a third option.  We can face the problems and do our best to solve them. 

A good government will try to do this, explaining the problems, outlining the options for solving them and choosing ones that have a reasonable chance of success.  A responsible media will report the problems and attempt to explain them.

Unfortunately we have neither.  We have political parties, on both sides, that see their best interests in provoking our fight or flight response, egging us on against their opponents and reassuring us that if we vote for them everything will be alright.  We have a media so interwoven with the world of big business that its vested interest in the status quo gets in the way of intelligent reporting.  And each of us play our own part in this problem, choosing to hide our faces, immerse ourselves in trivia and hope things will be better in the morning.

We have indeed had a head knock.  In fact we have had several.  Like Shane Webke we have been hit by a storm and we are likely to be hit repeatedly in the future.  The insurance industry will not save us.  The evidence of past crises is that insurance companies are some of the first to go when the financial world shifts.  Tony Abbott most certainly won't save us because he is busy pretending there is nothing to save us from except Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and a bunch of unfortunate asylum seekers.  Kevin and Julia are now slipping off into history but their successor, whoever that may be, will not save us either.

Looks like we'll just have to save ourselves.

Monday, 2 September 2013


I love it when people recommend good books to me, especially when they make it easy for me by sending them to me.  Like Tricia, who sent me a copy of this lovely book, Unapologetic: Why despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford.

As its title suggests, this is sort of a work of apologetics, but not quite.  Nor is Spufford your usual earnest Christian apologist a la Dinesh D'Souza or Alister McGrath.  Rather he is a professional writer and master of engaging prose.  You won't find yourself wading through Unapologetic wondering how many pages there are to go. 

He also largely avoids the fraught questions which dominate modern apologetics - has science disproved God?  Is the Old Testament God a monster?  Is the probability of God's existence so low as to amount to an impossibility?  Such questions are relegated to pithy, entertaining footnotes in which he refutes the standard atheist arguments in a few well-chosen words.

Instead, he starts his argument with two popular pieces of atheist rhetoric.  The first is the "atheist bus", the London bus with the huge sign on the side that says "There probably is no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". 

All right then: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognisable human experience so fast it doesn't even have time to wave goodbye?  It isn't "probably".  New Atheists aren't claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn't a God.  In fact they aren't claiming anything substantial at all, because really how the fuck would they know?  It's as much a guess for them as it is for me.  No, the word that offends against realism here is "enjoy".  I'm sorry - enjoy your life?  Enjoy your life

I'm not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment.  Enjoyment is lovely.  Enjoyment is great.  The more enjoyment the better.  But enjoyment is one emotion.  The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product...Only sometimes, when you're being lucky, will you stand in a relationship to what's happening to you where you'll gaze at it with warm approving satisfaction.  The rest of the time, you'll be busy feeling hope, boredom, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest....To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare.  This really is a bizarre category error. 

So it goes on.  Life is a grab-bag of the good, the bad and the downright terrifying, and a lot of the time enjoyment is simply impossible.

So when the atheist bus comes by, and tells you there's probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood.  What it means, if it's true, is that anyone who isn't enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. 

Which brings him to John Lennon's "Imagine", which he describes as "surely the My Little Pony of philosophical statements".

Imagine there's no heaven.  Imagine there's no hell.  Imagine all the people, living life in - hello?  Excuse me?  Take religion out of the picture and everybody spontaneously starts living life in peace?  I don't know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings....Peace is not the state of being we return to, like water running downhill, whenever there's nothing external to perturb us.  Peace between people is an achievement....

These two little reflections set the tone for what follows.  One of the problems Christianity has, he says, is that there is a growing gap between the language and practice of the church and that of the wider society. 

Caught in this gulf is the word "sin", which in our society has come to mean something pleasurable but a little bit naughty, like eating chocolate cake.  The notion of restraining sin therefore seems cruel and unnecessary.  Instead Spufford proposes a new term, the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up, or HPtFtU for short.  This propensity, he says, infects all our doings - our work, our marriages, our political life, our ecological record, our international relations.  If you can say you've never made a major fuck-up in your life you're either a certifiable saint or a consummate liar, with the odds firmly in favour of the latter. 

It is this that provides the "surprising emotional sense" that Christianity makes for Spufford.  In the face of his own monumental marriage fuck-up (for which he takes full responsibility, although he doesn't describe it in any detail) a chance hearing of a Mozart concerto gave him a profound sense that he could be forgiven, that God's grace was extended to him in his darkest hour.  He experiences the same in church, in prayer, in the exercise of his spiritual life.  This is the hope that the message of Jesus provides, and although its precise details and the language in which it is expressed may change over time, the core need and the core response remain the same.

What he propounds is kind of a Christian counterpoint to (not refutation of) the Atheism of Suspicion discussed by Merold Westphal.  Spufford does not seriously attempt to demonstrate that there is solid evidence for Christianity.  He is not very interested in that.  What he cares about is that in Christianity he finds an answer to the very problems Westphal's suspicious atheists present to us.  He finds hope and forgiveness for his and all our fuck-ups.  He finds a way to keep moving when it would be easier to give up.  He's not apologetic about this.  He's just telling it like it is. 

I think the main reason I enjoyed this book is because he says what I would have liked to say if I was clever enough.  I don't believe because of the evidence.  I don't think there is an ironclad case to be made for the Christian faith. or that one day I will miraculously stumble upon an apologetic strategy that will demonstrate its truth beyond all doubt.  I believe because Christianity provides a framework in which I can make sense of my own life, of my society and of what I should do next.  If you want me to give it up you will have to provide me with something better, and so far I haven't seen anything that even comes close.