September 15th, 2012


Two Angry Books: Crux Ansata and Unapologetic

I've read two polemical books this week, which, while it would be an exaggeration to say that they form a complementary pair, resemble each other in various ways, not least in being oddly out of character for their authors.

H. G. Wells begins Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church (1943) by asking, "Why do we not bomb Rome?" It's not a rhetorical question, either. Rome, claims Wells, is not only "the source and centre of Fascism, but it has been the seat of a Pope, who, as we shall show, has been an open ally of the Nazi-Fascist-Shinto Axis since his enthronement". In fact, when he says "bomb Rome" he clearly has the Vatican primarily in mind. The rest of this short book is taken up with a history of the crimes and follies of the Catholic Church, ending with a chapter on "The Pretensions and Limitations of Pope Pius XII", in which Wells notes the unnaturalness of celibacy, the amount of time that any priest must devote to church services to the neglect of educating himself about the world as it actually is, and concludes that "the Pope, any Pope, is necessarily an ill-educated and foolish obstacle, a nucleus of base resistance, heir to the tradition of Roman Catholicism in its last stage of poisonous decay, in the way to a better order in the world."

Now, while I'm not a big fan of the Catholic Church either, I really doubt the cause of secularism was much advanced by this hasty, scattershot book, which for all its trumpeting of rationality is clearly turbo-powered by outrage. Nor does this kind of tub-thumping play to Wells's strengths as a writer.

Next I turned to Francis Spufford's latest, Unapologetic, an apologia - but emphatically not an apology - for his Anglican faith. I'd been alerted to this (via nwhyte) by an article Spufford wrote in The Guardian, which turns out to be an abbreviated version of the first chapter. I felt there that Spufford hadn't done enough to show how he got from a general feeling that mercy is written into the universe's DNA to reciting the highly-specific claims of the Creed in church each Sunday; but I was intrigued enough to buy the book to find out how he bridged that gap. Besides, I'd really liked The Child that Books Built, and I'd warmed to Spufford personally when I'd met him briefly in 2005 at Worldcon.

Maybe I went to the book with the wrong expectations. In the end, I don’t know to what extent Spufford was trying to justify the ways of God to Man, and how far he was simply trying to describe his own experience of faith. A bit of both, perhaps, and perhaps collapsing that very distinction was part of the enterprise too. It did seem to be partly an exercise in justification, since he spends quite a bit of time answering possible objections to his positions (not generally the ones I'd have been interested to see taken on, though I may be atypical); but I'm sure he's aware that, as an argument for religion, Christianity and Anglicanism (like Lewis's Mere Christianity this book zooms in from a distance, refining the options as it goes), Unapologetic builds a fairly skeletal structure, leaving plenty of gaps for the winds of disbelief to whistle through. The answer to the problem of pain, for example, turns out after a long consideration of the options to be simply that there is no good answer, but that one gets used to it, which is a rather unsatisfactory lurch from theological apologia to "report from the field", to my mind at least. Conversely, as a personal confession it lacked much in the way of personal detail. In terms of genre, it's not so much Grace Abounding as Religio Medici.

To make that comparison, though - well, of course, almost anyone would suffer by comparison with Thomas Browne, but it does point up what to me was the biggest problem with Unapologetic, and the one I was least expecting (just as I wasn't expecting H. G. Wells to sound like Ian Paisley with a hangover). It's impossible to read Browne without feeling something of his goodwill, his irenic personality, his joy and excitement in his faith. Spufford attempts that, and there are some lovely passages in the book, but much of the time he just sounds pissed off. Partly it's the way it's written, in an unbuttoned style that had seemed lively in The Guardian but wore pretty thin at book length, with a good sprinkling of mild swear words (“Richard bloody Dawkins”, etc). I suppose it's meant to make the book unstuffy - which is okay, though not my cup of tea - but if it's also meant to be an indicator of Spufford's strength of feeling, then it goes awry. Worse, it often seems to be the conduit for an uncharitable view of people who don't share his views. He naturally feels aggrieved at the straw-man arguments Christianity has been subjected to, not least by the "new Atheists", but he uses the same tactic himself, and not just against the atheists either.

I was particularly interested, as I've indicated above, in how Spufford got from a general feeling that there was more to the universe than physics to Christianity specifically, and even more specifically to Anglicanism. He at least pays atheism à la Dawkins the compliment of taking it on at length, but alternative religious options get very short shrift indeed. The many forms of polytheism, for example, from the Norse pantheon to Hinduism, are dismissed in one paragraph (pp.79-80) as egocentric personifications of human qualities, a view so crassly reductionist that I just don't know where to begin. He is careful too to distinguish himself from "soft-brained purveyors of New Age woo" (p. 71), while animism, which is the only form of religious belief to which I find myself attracted, doesn't even warrant a mention. Coming from someone who demands that his own religion be taken seriously and who takes understandable umbrage at similar dismissals when they originate with Dawkins or Hitchens, this just doesn't look good. In the end, he explains his choosing (or being chosen by) Christianity through a) his growing up in a Christian culture, and b) his recognition of his way of thinking and feeling in Christian doctrine (which sounds an awful lot like a) seen through the other end of the telescope) (pp. 74-75). As a justification of a religion that makes the essentially exclusive claims to truth that Christianity does, this just isn't good enough.

Even within Christianity, non-Anglicans are in for a rough ride. The Quakers, for example, are cowardly hypocrites: "You can refuse the violence all power depends on, as some sects of Christians have always done, and be pacifists like the Quakers or the Amish, but then you end up tacitly depending, for protection and civil order, on those who do get their hands dirty. You become power’s free riders, taking the benefits without paying the price." (182-4) I don't know enough about the Amish to comment, but as a characterization of Quaker history this is both false and offensive. The Quakers are better than that; and so I'd like to think is Francis Spufford.