Serendipity. Or not.

Beyond Shahrazad: Feminist Portrayals of Women in The Arabian Nights |  LaptrinhX
“Scheherazade and the Sultan” by the Iranian painter Sani ol Molk (1849–1856)

The journey from Rīga to our home is not-quite-two-hours by car. Inevitably this is a fairly regular trip, which I often while away listening to something – a brilliant adaptation of Arabian Nights, or the BBC adaptations of George Eliot, Andrew Marr’s History of the World, or indeed detective series (I particularly loved the recent re-broadcast by the BBC of an Inspector West story – so redolent of its time).

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So on one particular day I happened to choose an adaptation of a novel unknown to me, broadcast on BBC Sounds – Light Perpetual, by an unfamiliar author, Francis Spufford.

It was one of those books that you wish would expand outside the normal capacity of any covers – like Dr Who’s telephone box, or Unseen University’s infinite library.

I simply wished to go on hearing about the world it depicted, to live the lives of those described in a vicarious way.

The premise is similar (only not) to Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey. If you’ve not read that, go out IMMEDIATELY and buy, borrow or steal (not really) a copy.

San Luis Rey tells the stories of 5 people who happen to die together in the collapse of the eponymous bridge, an Inca rope construction in Peru (this is not really a spoiler, as the book sets out this premise at the very beginning). Wilder writes about them, and the journeys they each make to arrive at that particular locus of time and space together.

As you read, knowing that each of them is moving inexorably towards this fate, you are drawn in to their stories, and the ludicrous tragedy that human life often is. There is a desire to shout at them – no! Don’t step on that bridge! Actually, it reminds me of something Goran Ivanišević said, in an interview shortly before his unexpected victory at Wimbledon in 2001. He said he watched replays of his previous final against Pete Sampras in 1998, when he lost an epic match despite having opportunities to be two sets up. Each time he hoped the ending would be different – and it never was.

Light Perpetual is the inverse of San Luis Rey, in a way. This book starts with a bomb falling on a Woolworth’s shop in a London suburb in 1944, annihilating all those who happen, again, to be in this locus of time and space where unbending death awaits them in a desperately ordinary shop, on a day that, too, is as ordinary as it can be when a war is howling across the world. Spufford then goes on to tell the stories of 5 children who were killed – in other words, of lives unlived, of a parallel world that was never given the chance to exist.

It was a brilliant listen, and I even slowed down in the car towards the end, so that I could listen to the last few minutes. And – my word! I am so glad I did. Because the book ends not with a wish that things were otherwise, but with light, and hope and praise. It took a while to recover from that, for it was a glimpse of glory, of the joy that lies behind and beyond all tragedies, and of the Divine – and all of that, sitting in the driver’s seat of a small blue car.

This discovery, serendipitous or guided by God, led me to read other books by Francis Spufford, and to discover that he does some of his writing in Ely, where his wife is a Residentiary Canon at the Cathedral – one of the most beautiful in England, or possibly the Universe. That already prejudices me in his favour.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

And this brings me to Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Reading more of Spufford’s writings led me to this. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the very few truly original books about the Christian faith of the last few years. In theological language apologetics has nothing to do with being sorry. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it thus:

Apologetics, in Christianity, the intellectual defence of the truth of the Christian religion, usually considered a branch of theology. In Protestant usage, apologetics can be distinguished from polemics, in which the beliefs of a particular Christian church are defended. Roman Catholics, however, use the term to mean defence of Catholic teaching as a whole and identify apologetics with fundamental theology.

Spufford is unapologeticbecause he is not mounting an intellectual defence of anything. Instead he talks about how it is to be in God’s presence, or what it feels like to believe.

Here’s a quote, though, which does seem a bit like a logical or intellectual proposition…..

Follow me closely now: whether God exists or not is unprovable, so for an individual person, whether He exists or not is always going to be a matter of belief. But at the same time, quite independently, He either exists or He doesn’t, irrespective of whether He’s believed in. He’s a fact, or a non-fact, about the nature of the universe. So if you believe, you’re making a bet that God exists whether you believe or not. If you believe, you’re not perceiving God as a creature of your belief, called into being by it, ebbing and flowing as it ebbs and flows. You’re perceiving a state of the universe.

[page 74 in the Kindle Edition]

Towards the beginning of the book, Spufford describes an encounter with the very breath of life that breathes through all that exists, the light that is the source of all light. And this light sees him, and knows him, and continues to shine; a light that never turns away, but from which the author can (and does) turn away, because to be so seen and known, and forgiven, is more than a mere human being can bear for very long. This experience is one that I as a preacher have tried to communicate again and again over the years, and have failed, because I have never really had the tools of language or expression to manage it – not in any language. So reading this was a stunning moment. This – this is what it is like to believe, and to know oneself known, loved and forgiven. This is the experience of being intimately linked with all of creation, while knowing that

This instant at which I sit is as narrow a slice of the reality of the whole as a hairline crack would be in a pavement that reaches to the stars.

[page 61]

This book won’t speak to everyone, clearly – no book ever does – especially, perhaps, because of the scattering of f-words, which in the phrase ‘The Human Propensity to f things up’ (HPtFtU) is aimed, maybe, at shocking us to understand the real gravity of our human dilemma, neatly summed up here:

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.

[page 47]

I am immensely grateful to Francis Spufford, to BBC Sounds, to my little blue car and its sound system, for revealing this book to me, which has led me to laugh, cry, pray and think. And to God, too, for I do suspect that this was not mere serendipity, but God’s infinite wisdom leading me to just the right reading material for this edgy, dreary pandemic time.

Spufford, Francis. Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition.

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