To the head or to the heart: a pair of reviews

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‘Unapologetic’ by Francis Spufford

‘Who do you think you are?’ by Mark Driscoll

On Friday afternoon I wanted something to read over the weekend, I was approaching the end of ‘Unapologetic‘ and knew I had plenty of time to get some reading done. I was handed a copy of Mark Driscoll’s latest book ‘Who do you think you are?‘, and read it fairly swiftly.

These are two very, very, different books, and it might seem a little odd to review the two together. But I think they present two different approaches to a common problem, and while Driscoll’s book does so explicitly, Spufford also provides plenty of material for the formation of Christian identity.

Unapologetic is one of the best books I have ever read. The writing is among the most beautiful I have come across and a few parts are simply stunning. Last Saturday I sat in Starbucks in Greenwich reading the chapter on Yeshua and there was a sharp hint of tears in my eyes as I read the words describing with such painful beauty the journey to the cross. They were words that reminded me why He deserves all that I have to offer, and of why all of that would still not be enough were it not for what He did two thousand years ago.

Who do you think you are? is not in the same league, it’s not in the same ballpark. What Spufford’s work is to good writing, Driscoll’s is to bad. That’s not to say in and of itself that it is a bad book, just that the writing is poor. And in parts it is really shocking. I’m a snob about writing I know.

When the use of quotation marks around a word is used to pejoratively describe someone it is a bad sign. The description of a liberal bible scholar is not given more power by putting quotation marks around the word scholar. You can disagree with the scholarship, you can think it is poor scholarship but using quotation marks not for grammatical propriety but to aid an insult is lazy.

Who do you think you are? could be good, it could be a simple and effective guide to forming your identity in Christ. And in parts it does that: some of the sections are clear and sometimes they provide a useful starting point for thinking about different aspects of the Christian life. But as one reviewer said, this book has been written thirty thousand times before.

When it is not simple, this book is simplistic. And unfortunately that is most of the time. I could pick at some of his theological positions which reach toward the extreme of the reformed part of evangelicalism, but when I picked up the book I expected to disagree with more than I did. Each of the chapters, which are based around an ‘I am…’ statement drawn from Ephesians as part of understanding Christian identity, contain at least one story to illustrate the point. Some of these are engaging and powerful, and they get better as the book goes on, but while purporting to have a more pastoral emphasis all the stories do is present case studies of people who have succeeded in finding a stronger identity in Christ.

The problem, and this is what lets the book down the most, is there is virtually no acknowledgement of the ongoing challenges of becoming a disciple of Christ. That sometimes it doesn’t always work out. That for every story of success there will be others of recidivism. So for a book that is supposed to be pastoral it barely offers any advice as to how to handle the ebb and flow of growing closer in likeness to Christ. It presents a victorious life as too victorious, and unreality doesn’t provide a good basis for constructive discipleship.

Spufford’s book is unlike any other I have read, it was apparently written without research, and that shows. It is stream of consciousness writing, and in this case that makes it very good. In effect it is Francis Spufford telling everyone why he is a Christian. And it inspires me, and it enthralled me. His premise is to avoid the academic arguments often used to justify Christian belief, but to instead for why, despite everything he believes it to be true. He uses rhetoric to inspire and prompt you towards knowing Christ more deeply and more beautifully. It was a book that made me fall in love with God again.

If you are looking for a doctrinally tight book then Unapologetic is probably not for you, he certainly doesn’t tick all the boxes of evangelicalism. Francis Spufford also swears quite a lot, including in his relabelling of sin as HPtFtU (the Human Propensity to F?#! things Up). If you know exactly what doctrine you want then Driscoll’s book will do it for you, but then if you know exactly what you want then there is little reason to read the book except for to confirm your own rightness.

Spufford appeals to your heart while Driscoll speaks to your head. This is the fundamental incongruence in Driscoll’s book, it is a book about identity, and about how we need to have our identity in Christ. And yet it does not affect the heart, it tries to tell the head what to do. If you digest everything in Who do you think you are? You will have acronyms to avoid idols, (IDOLS) and to help your prayer life (yes, PRAYER). You’ll also have a list of things to help you develop gifting and understand salvation.

Counter productively a book written in this way gives us 16 different things to do to understand your identity is in Christ and not what you do.

Unapologetic gets one big thing right, this is an unfinished process. “We’re the league of the guilty after all, not the league of the shortly-to-become-good. We are a work in progress. We will always be a work in progress. We will always fail, and it will always matter.”

A bit like my reading of the book. I haven’t finished it. Almost not wanting to close the back cover on a book that cuts to the heart of the relationship between us and God. A beautiful account of who we are and who God is. When I do finish I am sure it will not be the last time that I read the words between the covers. I’ve taken my time over it, reading it in chunks, and slowly at that. Ironically Driscoll’s book did not take long to get past my reading eyes. I wanted to get it finished quickly. I was disinterested in truths that should be life changing, so frustrated with empty prose that barely warrants the label – almost justifying the use of quotation marks around the word prose.

If you want to know that what you believe is correct then read Who do you think you are? (as long as you believe everything he does). It’s not a particularly bad book, it did not plummet to the depths of my expectations. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was one that didn’t need to be written.

Unapologetic, on the other hand, is a book I would recommend everyone to read.

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2 thoughts on “To the head or to the heart: a pair of reviews

  1. Hi Danny, enjoyed reading this.

    I had to laugh that just after you criticise Driscoll for his writing style you say: “Who do you think you are? could be good, it could be a simply and effective guide to forming your identity in Christ.” (simple/simply) haha!

    I haven’t read either book but I’d really like to read Spufford’s. And to be honest I think I’d probably reach exactly the same conclusions as you if I did read both!

    I don’t know about Driscoll’s book being done “thirty thousand” times before, but I’d say the Freedom in Christ ministry, books, DVDs etc has got it covered!! I can’t imagine Driscoll disagreeing greatly with their theology in any major way. So why write the book? Why not just point people towards Dr Anderson? Does he not even reference them anywhere in the book?

    Coming back to the whole quotation marks thing…in his defence he’s just writing as he speaks. You’d be amazed how many people write like it. Even at university level, the habit had to be bashed out of a few people! Having said all this I do share your frustrations. I would add though that Driscoll isn’t writing for an intellectual audience, and I think his editors would edit accordingly!

    Driscoll get’s a lot of bad press (insulting one of this country’s best Christian journalists didn’t help!) but in his defence I think he is genuinely wanting to help people. And I think the book will help a lot of people. I’d love to know what he’s offering that’s new or different compared to Freedom in Christ though!

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