Reverend Dave Tomlinson, vicar of St Luke’s in Holloway, returns with a follow-up to How to be a Bad Christian. His latest work, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, is a persuasive and life-affirming book, full of anecdotes from Tomlinson’s work as a vicar, recounting stories about the people he’s met and the common humanity he’s observed amongst people from all walks of life – especially those on society’s fringes.
“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a quotation found in the book from Gandhi, and it’s an attitude Tomlinson goes some way to sharing, in his effort to bring dogma-free Christianity to a lay readership (with an inferred apology for fundamentalists of all stripes). As well as affirming gay relationships, finding spiritual intelligence in atheists and dealing with flak from his fellow Christians for taking Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs’ funeral; Tomlinson also has a refreshingly healthy attitude towards sex and sexuality, divorcing our primal urges from the notions of sin found, most especially, in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tomlinson talks about Elton John’s assertion that Jesus was a gay man, dismissing the furore amongst conservatives with the belief that Jesus is for everyone – gay people included. He relates the interesting social study about how people invariably imagine a god that agrees with their political views. Thus right-wingers believe in an angry, vengeful and patriarchal god, whilst liberals… don’t.
This isn’t a book for everybody. Conservative Christians who lobby to fight against equality, for example, will burst blood vessels in denouncing this tome as a work of heresy. On the other side of the spiritual spectrum, confirmed atheists are probably far more likely to enjoy the book and find plenty of passages of interest (disclosure: this reviewer falls firmly into this camp). Despite that, there are a few moments that may send those who pride themselves on their rational scepticism twitching in ire. Tomlinson goes along with the unfairly dismissive view that Richard Dawkins promotes “dogmatic, evangelical atheism,” and later quotes approvingly from snake-oil salesman Deepak Chopra. However, since one of the lessons of the book is that ‘nobody’s perfect’, it would be churlish to dwell on such details when the overall thrust of Tomlinson’s prose is warmly set out and deeply considered.
The question that comes out of reading The Bad Christian’s Manifesto is: will it concern the author that the book will displease as many (if not more) as it delights? The answer is ‘no’. It would be a mistake to think that Tomlinson is trying to please everybody. He’s simply putting forward his view of what spirituality is and what it means to be a Christian, based on his understanding of the faith. As Tomlinson attests in the book, he preaches inclusion, not because he is nice, “but because radical inclusion is utterly fundamental to what Jesus is about.” The best thing about the book, and the reason it deserves to find a wide readership, is that there’s something in it for everyone, and every reader will take away their own thoughts from it. Better still, they’ll find plenty to disagree with, yet coaxed by Tomlinson’s pleasant rationale, they will simultaneously find food for though. The Bad Christian’s Manifesto is the perfect book for a train ride, or better still, for whiling away a few hours in the pub, storing up discussion points to chew over with a pint or few.
The worry some may have is that The Bad Christian’s Manifesto is watered-down Christianity, though there are plenty of biblical references for anyone interested in cross-referencing Tomlinson’s writing. The only real answer to that is to quote from Tomlinson’s suggested manifesto (which reads coincidentally like Richard Dawkins’ New Ten Commandments, some of which he borrows from an atheist blogger, which is found in The God Delusion), when he suggests that we, “follow the way of Jesus rather than rules and conventions.”
For someone who claims that writing doesn’t come naturally to them, Tomlinson’s books are highly readable, and he has a finely-tuned ear for story-telling coupled with the ability to put forward a coherent and persuasive argument. Most importantly, he is interested in his fellow humans, and his passion for understanding what makes people tick shines through every word.
Tomlinson’s voice is an invaluable contribution to the continuing debate about the presence and value of religious faith in an increasingly secular society. The reasonableness with which he presents his faith is the major reason for the power of his voice.