Sometimes I answer by insisting that incarnational ministry, embodying Jesus in the real stuff of our lives, requires authenticity.
On a few occasions I’ve turned to Jesus’ warning about practicing our piety for others’ sake: Christians generally but pastors particularly should be without pretense.
Other times I reply that ‘pastors need at least one vice so they can relate to sinners like you.’
Frances Spufford, the author of the dynamite new book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, gives what I think is a terrific response to the same question regarding his writing style:
“Why do I swear so much?
To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.
But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.
I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m fucking embarrassed.”
I am an
Englishman American writing preaching about religion. Naturally I’m fucking embarrassed. Perfect answer.
Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.
Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.
More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world- tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.
The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.
But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.
“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”
Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).
And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:
The Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up.
Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.
Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.