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05/11/2014Posted by on
I’m in the midst of slogging through Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why , Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense while the wife and in-law’s cavort at the Magic Kingdom, spared from my heat-aggravated boredom-induced grouch. “To slog” is a verb I usually reserve for pieces of writing I dislike but find important or necessary to consume – sort of the media consumption equivalent of shlep. For Unapologetic, it is a verb I use to indicate both profound suffering before difficulty and profound gratitude before salvation (as the text has been reminding me, these emotions come together for the Christian). My pace through the book has been incredibly slow because it is overwhelmingly good. Not a chapter has gone past without me needing to put the book down to let myself pause and digest.
Easily my favorite thing about Unapologetic is also my favorite thing about Christianity, because Spufford isn’t writing about Christianity, not really. Christianity, world religion has not yet made a significant appearance thus far in my read, and I do not expect it to. Neither has Christianity, Christmas-to-Easter-to-Pentecost narrative, although I’m sure that will come up. No, Spufford has been telling me the better Christian story, the age-old one about people, you, me, the not-quite-best of us and the not-quite-worst of us. This, really, is the truth (both capitalized ‘T’ and uncapitalized ‘t’ versions of the word) that moves me as a Christian, the exact same sort of truth that the great myths tell.
Christianity is by the most useful definitions of the words (both subject and object of this sentence) a myth, but it is one I believe to be true, just as I believe that the truest expression of human nature is heroic, as the Ancient Greek poets, saturday morning cartoons and George Lucas all described in the only way they could, in story. Empirical data, never mind the empirical sciences that have sprung up as our tools for discovering and understanding that data, belies my belief in love and heroism and I know it as well as you do. Humans in the world. This is why the sciences, why “realism” is an essentially flawed tool for describing reality – because though we are ape-cousins-in-the-world we are also more than that. What is real about life is more than just the world, it is, at the very least, our aspirations and our awe. I want to talk about the whole of humanity, a real vital thing, more than random preferences stacked on top of biology and biography. For that, we need art to tell us the stories, tainted mirrors that can show us our true reflections.
I’ve had more than a few rationalists in my life look at me with irritation when I talk about myth and truth like that. As if I’ve gone daft, dumb or have just pulled some sort of dastardly deception – a bait-and-switch, complete with nefarious cackling and Fu Manchu mustache. I’ve never really known how to properly explain it, any more than even the most literate of deep water fish could explain the sensation of the ocean. My religiosity is not half my age, but my embrace of stories is older than my memory. (Really, it is atheists that seem to manage capturing the sensation best – Aaron Sorkin and J. Michael Straczynski are two of the best writers I’ve ever read when it comes to religious themes and characters.) All I can do is hope that the incredulity and incuriosity do not escape the silo labeled “religion” in their mind. Stories will take them like a thief in the night, burglarizing the non-place of their heart-of-hearts whatever they say and do in the world. Or so I pray.
Of course, stories have villains too – and worse they have tragedies. (As the Ancient Greeks and Lucas know well). I’m not sure joy could mean anything without despair in theory, but I’m sure it doesn’t in the world. It is imperfections, trade-offs and absurdities that stories transfigure into archetypes so that we may understand them. I dislike quoting from Unapologetic because Spufford has written something that can nearly only be read in full, against even the most ruthless of minimalist editors digressions survive. I think I must however, leave you with this:
If you tell somebody that, as a decent person, they cannot have done anything questionable, you may mean to be nice, but you are in reality denying them sympathy. You are refusing to go to them where they are, you are declining to join them in the emotion they are finding painful. Somebody who is accusing herself or himself of something may well be mistaken, factually or morally, in that particular instance; but not because they are incapable of wrongdoing. No one is incapable of wrongdoing, and we have to be allowed our capacity for HPtFtU if we are to have our full stature. Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than just be a flurry of events. It’s part of letting them be real enough to be worth loving, rather than just attractive or glamorous or pretty or charismatic or cool.
As with any man, it goes with Men.