This book received wide acclaim in reviews for its honesty but received wide complaints in our discussion for its writing style. Whilst a very literary book with much humour, the ideas come so thick and fast, shooting off at tangents with no effective signposting or editing and with some offensive language, that several people struggled to get through these barriers. Some found it more of a theologians' and preachers' book, whilst others needed a second reading to gain understanding.
The main thrust of Spufford's book is that this is not an apology or defence of Christianity based on reason. He argues instead that belief in a God who may or may not exist meets our emotional need. We agreed with his view that neither atheist nor Christian can completely prove or disprove the presence of God. But acting as though there is a God, helps us in those times when fear, despair, anxiety or other crises cause us to cry out, "Hello? A little help in here, please?" It also makes emotional sense for what another of our previous books called 'thin places' where we might experience those special feelings we can get from a piece of music, a sunset, stillness, art, communion or other occasion. Whilst such feelings might not convince an atheist of the presence of a God, Spufford says that his belief is "made of, built up from and sustained by, emotions like this."
After 20 years as an atheist, Spufford returned to Christianity rather than Islam or Judaism. These other one-God religions are based on rules which, though demanding can be kept. Christianity on the other hand he feels is based not on rules but on principles of unselfish behaviour. The principles, such as loving thy neighbour are so challenging that we will all fail in achieving perfection. Christianity, he argues, is therefore more interested in what we do living with our imperfections than in keeping a register of good and bad or 'clean and unclean'.
The 'despite everything' part of the title covers how 'weird' Christians are often perceived in the 21st century and the faith's less than perfect history with, for instance, wars, intolerance and abuse of power. Then there is the problem of prayer, which presents a conflict between the peace, strength and help many of us feel it brings versus what Spufford calls the 'benignly silent' God who seems to allow the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, suffering and frequent natural disasters, without any intervention or evident response to prayers. The book argues against all the common theological arguments used to explain the contradiction of pain and suffering in a world of a loving God. It further dismisses Robert Browning's famous line that "God's in his heaven — All's right with the world" when our daily news bulletins tell us otherwise. Instead, he says that there is no real answer and that we should accept that we live in a cruel world but that in Jesus, we see God here with us.
A strong case was made that we all have the capacity, rather than as the author claimed the predisposition, to mess things up and that most of the ills of the world, including several blamed on the church, were often down to this. We did, however, agree with him that good things were usually under-reported including many achievements driven by Christian beliefs and values.
Whilst we all agreed that the author failed in his aim to build up his arguments simply, he did for many of us show how, despite everything, Christianity does indeed make surprising emotional sense in the 21st century world.
Peter Green — September 2014