I really do try to abide by the old rule that a book should not be judged by its cover. But sometimes such profiling is hard to avoid.
For instance, the cover of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford (pictured below), is, as you can see, a damn train wreck. It's juvenile, annoying and off-putting.
And what a shame. For inside the book borders on and sometimes even achieves brilliance. Indeed, it's one of the best explanations and defenses of Christianity I've read in a long, long time. So I urge everyone -- whether Christian or not -- to give this important book a read, despite its cover.
Spufford, a British writer and editor who is a member of the Church of England, is nothing if not direct. In fact, one of his main points is what he abbreviates as the HPtFtU, which I will translate as the Human Propensitity to Screw Things Up, leaving you to retranslate.
It affects us all. And the church, he says, recognizes this propensity and stands with open arms to offer the message that God is always ready to forgive. The church, in that sense, is a community of screw-ups. And it's liberating to recognize that about ourselves.
In a special preface written for this U.S. edition of the book (first published in England) Spufford acknowledges that having a state-established church in the United Kingdom "has demonstrably been a force that has helped wither our religion away, by keeping it ceremonious, and paternalistic, and always someone else's responsibility; while in the United States. . .it's the prohibition on establishment that has helped keep American religion voluntary, and self-organized,and therefore vigorous."
Time and again, Spufford is critical of the church universal and time and again he understands how the current harsh critique of religion by the more aggressive atheists finds an audience willing and sometimes eager to believe ". . .that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities.. .that we don't believe in dinosaurs. . .that we're dogmatic. . .that we're self-righteous." And on and on.
Again, exactly right.
But that's far from the whole story of the church. And it's not even an accurate picture painted by people Spufford calls "the hardcore lobbyists of unbelief."
"Christianity," he says, "does something different. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there is no tomorrow."
Beyond that, he notes, Christianity says motive is important in doing all that. You can't simply do it to earn God's favor. That's not what grace is about, and Christianity is at its essence a religion of grace (though not what German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace").
Spufford is not someone who bought into Christianity early in life and never left it. Rather, he struggled mightily with it. It's the religion "I came back to, freely, as an adult, after twenty-odd years of atheism, because piece by piece I found that it answers my need, and corresponds to emotional reality for me."
The author has no patience for people who think of God as their errand boy, the God they pray to for small favors, the one who answers prayers about dead sparkplugs: "For if God is willing to exert Himself over. . .sparkplugs, but wouldn't get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture would that draw?" Spufford is clear and insightful on the question of theodicy, which is to say the question of why there's suffering, pain and evil in the world if God is good. All theodicies fail, he says. And he's right about that, too. As I've said before, the theodicy question is the open wound of religion.
Christians, he says, "take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don't ask for a creator who can exlain Himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a trial judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair." That, at least, is what mature faith looks like.
Spufford may be at his best in the chapter called "Yeshua," or Jesus. The author's retelling of the gospel story is compelling and brilliant. I would do it harm to paraphrase it or quote a small bit of it. I will leave the whole of it to you, but do not miss it.
Biblical literalists will have trouble with Spufford. He understands metaphor, understands the importance of careful exegetical work, understands that if you take the whole of the Bible literally you aren't taking it seriously. And that includes a literal belief in hell, says Spufford. He even gives Fred Phelps' odious, gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka a slap upside the head along the way.
And, in the end, Spufford understands what the church is and what it isn't: ". ..the church is not just another institution. It's a failing but never quite failed attempt by limited people to perpetuate the unlimited generosity of God in the world."
I have just this small nit to pick with Spufford: He identifies St. Paul as the source of the description of God as "the ground of our being," whereas that phrase is the product of another Paul, the theologian Paul Tillich.
It's a very small misstep in a book full of marvelous insights. Get this book for your friends for Christmas. But paste a selfie over the cover. Or a picture of Spufford. Or something. Or just remove the dust jacket and give the hardback in its raw red and blue form -- especially if you have friends who judge books by their covers.
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A new poll shows the attitude of most Americans toward Jews is improving a bit, but there's still plenty of antisemitism swirling about out there. Come on, folks, grow up. Antisemitism is an ancient hatred that should have no part of modern America -- or modern anywhere.
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RESPONSES TO MY OPEN LETTER TO POPE FRANCIS
As those of you who have read my most recent National Catholic Reporter column know, I wrote an open letter to Pope Francis asking him to remove Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese from office. I believe the continued presence of Finn, convicted in court of failing to report a suspected child abuser, makes it look as if the Vatican isn't serious about cleaning up the priest abuse scandal and, by implication, protecting vulnerable children.
As you might suspect, this sensitive subject has set off a wave of comments on the NCR site and a blizzard of e-mail to me -- so much so that I've been unable to respond with a personal note to everyone who has written. Although I have received a number of complimentary notes, the majority of the e-mail has parroted this response from Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League and, in my view, the Catholic equivalent of, say, Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage when it comes to civil discourse and accuracy.
I am reluctant to respond directly to Donohue at all because I think that simply gives him more publicity. And I do not wish to quibble with Donohue's opinions, such as his view that NCR is "a left-wing dissident weekly." He is entitled to his own opinions but is not entitled to his own facts.
Donohue says that in all my years of writing for The Kansas City Star I never criticized the teachers' union in Kansas for being obstructionist on policies that had to do with protecting children.
The first (and quite minor) implication of that statement is that I live and work in Kansas and, more importantly, that the Kansas public schools are or were my beat to cover or write about as a journalist. I live and work in Missouri, though of course The Star covers both states. Kansas public schools were never in my coverage area, so it would be a complete surprise -- first to my editors -- if I had written about them, just as it would be a surprise if I'd written about, say, car races at the Kansas Speedway. The reason I write about protecting children in parochial schools from abusive Catholic priests and the bishops who have protected them (as well as having written about such clergy and others from other faith traditions) is that religion is my area of coverage.
Donohue also says that in Kansas "there are no laws requiring criminal history checks for public school teachers." Not so. As this story reports, "Kansas has been requiring new teachers to be fingerprinted since 2002, but so far the rule has never applied to those who became licensed before then." The story also reports that "The Kansas State Board of Education is proposing that teachers and administrators who are currently licensed should undergo fingerprint and background checks when they renew their licenses so their names can be checked against criminal databases." Which sounds like a good idea to me, but what I think about that is very much beside the point, just as my opinions about, say, architecture in Vancouver, B.C., are of no relevance to the public.
Finally, Donohue contends this about me: ". . .he writes for a newspaper that championed Anthony Kosnik’s book, Human Sexuality, a work that gave cover to child molesters." First a technical error. I retired from The Star in 2006. As I recall, the last post-retirement freelance bylined piece I did for The Star was on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which my own nephew was murdered. As for Kosnik's book, I had never heard of it before Donohue's note. I looked it up and found it was published in 1976, when I was a reporter for The Star but not yet a columnist. And I found no reference to Kosnik in The Star's online library, which dates back to the early 1990s, though perhaps my search was inadequate. Beyond that, I don't know what he meant by "championed."
(As for this blog, I write it on my own and I own it. The Star pays me nothing to write it. At my request, however, The Star keeps it on its website because editors there believe it offers added value for readers by giving them the additional faith coverage I offer.)
Blaming me for whatever The Star did or didn't say about Kosnik's book would be like me blaming Donohue for something Pope Paul VI wrote that I didn't like.
All of this, ultimately, strikes me as Donohue's attempt to distract people from the main point, which is that so far Pope Francis, whom I admire a great deal, has not removed from office a bishop who, were he a non-ordained person applying to work as a youth volunteer in the diocese he now heads, would surely be turned down as a security risk because of his conviction in court. That's the problem that needs to be fixed -- not whether I'm a big C Catholic, not whether I failed to write about something well beyond my coverage area and not whether the paper I worked for once said something about some book I never heard of.
I hope Donohue and those who were inspired by his posting to e-mail me (several of whom used vile language in their bitter notes -- though I don't blame Donohue for their cruelty and incivility) will focus their attention on getting the church to move forward with the good work it's already done to protect children from predatory priests.
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P.S.: This is your last chance to sign up for an essay writing class I'll be teaching from 7 to 9 p.m. this Wednesday, Nov. 6, through Communiversity. It will be in the Witherspoon room of Second Presbyterian Church, 318 E. 55th St. To sign up, click here for the Communiversity online catalog and scroll down to page 14. Or for a direct link to register, click here. Do it today. The class size is limited.