This is a book by Francis Spufford, that has received some positive responses, and I have finally got around to reading it.
The book is a superb exploration of what Christianity means, but written in a very down-to-earth way, with language and tone that is very rare to find in theological writing. More importantly, it does not accept any of the traditional responses to the real and difficult problems that any form of religious faith involves. Rather, Spufford argues the problems through himself. He is as quick to dismiss the "accepted" solutions as he is to dismiss the straw men that people like Dawkins and Hitchins raise.
There are a few particular issues that I would like to draw out - maybe not the most significant, but things that struck me.
Firstly, he draws an interesting distinction between Christianity and the other major monotheistic religions. Judaism and Islam are both faiths that are built on a set of rules. In essence, if you follow the rules for that particular faith, you have you best chance to achieve salvation/nirvana/whatever you want to call it. In many ways, this is a real positive, because however difficult the rules are to follow, you have a system and a structure to manage your life around.
What is more, anything outside the rules is not covered by the rules of the faith, and so is up to you. If The Faith wishes to cover this area, they will produce more rules to cover the situation.
And yet, Christianity is different. Of course, it is not always seem to be different, because some people prefer a rule-based religion. But the truth is that Christianity is not about rules, it is about attitude; not behaviour, but thoughts, emotions, lifestyle. It is all-encompassing. In truth, there is no area outside the remit of the faith, there is no part of life that it does not cover. Which is very much harder to deliver, what is more, it is harder to manage, so The System finds it a problem.
It is this aspect that makes me think that I would have been drawn to Christianity even if it had not been culturally appropriate. There is something about the all-encompassing nature that appeals to me, something about the uncontrollable nature of the faith that works for me. There is something that makes sense to me that, if there is a God, and we are made in Gods image, this seems like more of the relationship I would expect. It is far more who we are at our best, and so (for me) reflects a divine/human interaction that takes the most extraordinary aspects of people, and enhances this.
The second aspect is Spuffords redefinition of sin as HPtFtU - the Human Propensity to F*** things Up. Oh yes, the language he uses is far more related to the language that most people use and understand. That is refreshing for a book on spirituality, because he does not use posh and refined language. He talks in normal language, expressive language.
The thing about the HPtFtU is that, as he explains, this is something common to everyone. There is a tendency to identify "sin" as a whole lost of things that are bad. There are also "bigger sins" and "lesser sins" - which tend to reflect social cultural norms. The point of the HPtFtU is that this idea of "acceptable" issues is gone, as is any chance of criticism or condemnation.
Which is crucial. The HPtFtU means that everybody is as guilty, as much a failure. The delight that groups such as Westboro take in condemning others is misplaced, because they are also as bad. They are also reflecting the HPtFtU. The condemned and the condemners are equally bad, equally good, equal, because both reflect this propensity.
The third aspect is Spuffords description of Jesus life, which is refreshing and honest. It sets his time and work in a different light. Is he accurate? Well, no, because we don't know the accurate details, but this is a way of understanding Jesus life. But it is insightful.
What is more, he draws out an important aspect. The thing about the HPtFtU is that everyone is guilty of it. The thing about this story of Jesus is that everyone is also able to be saved. That means everyone. More to the point, this means those people we don't like, we cannot get on with, we condemn.
What this means is that Westboro are right. Woefully limited and restricted, but right - homosexuals are sinners. However they are not sinful because of their sexuality - they are sinful because of their humanity, because they share in the HPtFtU. And the members of Westboro are also subject to the HPtFtU just as much. Equally.
And the story of Jesus is that about the DPtFtU - the Divine Propensity to Fix things Up. This includes everyone, including the people at Westboro. That is the important part of the story, and that is the one that Westboro - and everyone in fact, to an extent - tends to miss out. We like the idea that God will fix us up, but the truth is, he will fix everyone up.
The final part of the story for me is that Spufford makes a very good argument for having faith. What he argues is that proof of the reality of God is not possible. If you want proof, look very carefully at what you are asking for, that you know what "proof" means. But faith is really about truth that is best - or only - explicable in terms of story, metaphor.
That doesn't mean it is any less important. It may mean that it is more so.