Friday, October 12, 2012

A Good Book for Bad Christians

I've been taking my time reading Dave Tomlinson's "How to be a Bad Christian...And Better Human Being. It's worth the effort, and evidently quite a few people agree with me. It came out just a few weeks ago, but is already near the top of Amazon's sales of books in the "Christian Living" category.

The author, Dave Tomlinson, is an Anglican vicar at a church in West Holloway in the suburbs of London. He has written some other interesting-sounding books, but, full disclosure, I've not read them. I actually sort of stumbled upon the book in the first place, reading over my Dear Husband's shoulder one Sunday morning when I wasn't getting ready for church.

My take on "Bad Christian" is that it is a gentle, user-friendly book aimed at people who've been put off by the church -- good folks and "spiritual but not religious" who are happy enough to stay that way. It supports them in doing the right stuff -- Jesus stuff and just generally taking care of mind, body, and spirit. It says some of the trappings of the church and the Bible are extraneous; God, like a loving parent, isn't going to inflict dire punishment for not adhering to picky procedural details or a church's club membership rules. It suggests some practices that can help people be better -- at least happier -- human beings, inside or outside of church practices.

There is a longish discussion on the "Ship of Fools" website about the book, but it didn't shed much light, in my opinion, and perhaps not coincidently, seems to have been posted before the book was actually published. The more informed comments seem to be based on talks by the author while the book was a work-in-progress. One person commented,
"Still not sure what to make of this bloke [Tomlinson]. But Giles Fraser has called him one of his gods. And as Giles Fraser is one of my gods I should probably give it a go."

The main complaints seem to be that Tomlinson covers old ground and that he is simplistic. But that was not my reaction, nor the reaction of friends who've read it. Tomlinson acknowledges his passion for bridging the gap between academia and popular culture. People in the former camp might indeed find this book simplistic. But my immediate reaction was, "Wow. I want everyone in the church around here to see this." I've felt for a long time that I was a lone voice in my community, arguing that the church didn't read, listen to, or understand people outside the church -- and those leaving the church or discontent within it. The information might well be out there, but lots of people don't know about it.

So, if you are content and find yourself in a happy benefice, that isn't hemorrhaging members, closing churches, and is actually facing and effectively dealing with difficult, probing, heart-felt questions and conflicts -- this book isn't for you. Yes, these things have been said before and if you read progressive theology or live amidst such a community, you probably know all this. Similarly, if your faith (or lack of it) has already provided all the answers you need -- again, this book isn't for you.

But if you find yourself at odds with the church, the Bible, God, life, and/or pat answers you've received from them, "How to be a Bad Christian" might be reassuring. You're not alone. Here is an actual ordained priest who confesses that churches often crush spiritual development. Here's another soul who thinks you might bump into God anywhere--who says the church is hardly the only place to encounter
"...this incredibly benevolent force in the universe, a God who is intimate, intense, and immanent -- ingrained in the very substance of the world ... a radical presence in everything ... the mystery at the core of ordinary reality. God is everywhere and in everything; or to be more precise, everything is in God. So we don't need to ask God to draw near ... God is already there."
This might sound like a confident assertion of the nature of God, but Tomlinson also writes, "We are all blind when it comes to comprehending the Divine." Here is a Christian who acknowledges that aspects of his religion may be "guff" -- and there is much to be gained by listening to the wisdom of other faiths, and even the wisdom of neuroscience and psychological practices (such as the enneagram and mindfulness).

Tomlinson's approach in many chapters is to introduce readers to the holy people he's encountered outside the church who were living exemplars of aspects of Christian faith. This is similar to things Rob Bell and others have written and preached about -- the idea that amazing, heavenly things are going on out in the world. The church doesn't have to march out and proclaim the glory of God to the heathen world; instead it needs to keep its eyes and ears open out there to see what He's up to -- how little bits of heaven -- "Kingdom" -- are at hand.... Easter eggs out there to be found.
"The Church would do far better to stop trying to pump the gospel into people's lives, and recognize that God is already there -- named or unnamed."
If this idea of kingdom-spotting sounds like old hat to you, I'm sorry to say it hasn't made it to all quarters of the church yet. I know a remarkable candidate for the ministry who went up for selection by the Church of England a few years ago and was subject to derision by the selector-priests for being a "Reverse Evangelist" -- espousing the idea that God's love and Jesus' ways can be found, affirmed, and encouraged out there in the world, beyond the churchyard walls, and then even brought back to the churched to encourage them to join in.

This book was also right up my alley in its suggestions of basic, helpful approaches to a happier life, drawn from a variety of sources and expressed in terms that even non-believers can buy. For example, Tomlinson encourages the cultivation of "spiritual intelligence," including self-awareness, spontaneity, empathy, humility, curiosity, flexibility, resilience, and receptivity.  Many of these notions are promulgated by the nonsectarian Happiness movement and positive psychology.

Other recommended directions are to cultivate contentment and compassion; purge guilt; laugh; wake up intensely to life and enjoy. Even if you're not sure about God, prayer is useful as
 "a way of connecting with the profound, the deepest part of us ... that yearns, hopes, delights, hungers...[rather than just] skat[ing] over the surface of life."
 Tomlinson extends the concept of prayer beyond words to include "almost any human gesture or activity" -- such as a cup of tea, an arm on a shoulder, or an email.
"...when the surgeon feels compassion for his patient before inserting the knife, that is a prayer."
The chapter on the Bible urges it be read "both critically and receptively." Tomlinson admits to mixed feelings about what sometimes can hardly be called The Good Book. It should never be read as a book of instructions or "straightforward guidelines on complex contemporary ethical issues that never arose in the 1st Century" A.D., he writes.

In his chapter on church, Tomlinson doesn't solve the "Wicked Problem" of how to reboot or rebuild the church in the 21st Century. Maybe that's in one of his previous books or will be his next book. In Bad Christian, Tomlinson points out that Jesus never set out to create a church, but rather sought God's will in the world -- justice and fairness, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, replacing conflict with reconciliation and hatred and revenge with love.

Ideally, churches would lead the way in such efforts, replete with "table fellowship" -- sharing meals with the outcasts, poor, marginalized, and sinners--reframing lives in the context of God's love. Tomlinson says the church should offer refuge, hope, laughter, rebirth, acceptance, friendship, support, and healing for every category of person you can name. He finds immense satisfaction pursuing these in the context of his church community and issues the invitation to readers to "have a go" -- but, perhaps knowing that many people won't find these things in their local church, he doesn't peddle church any harder than his non-church suggestions.

In the last chapters and appendix, Tomlinson offers tools, tips, links, and encouragement to help people be true to themselves and to pay close attention to their inner selves and the surrounding world--for it is in that space where Tomlinson's God is to be found, along with love, awe, grace, and acceptance; where you can reinvent yourself, find vocation, and initiate small acts of compassion (alone or in concert with others) that give life meaning--and may ultimately change the world.

Tomlinson's confession that he is a "Bad Christian" acknowledges his ever-growing list of difficult questions in life, his faltering faith, frequent doubts, despair over the state of the Church and Christianity, and horror at the thought of being viewed as a member of an exclusive club of the righteous. "I feel more at home in a pub with honest 'pagans' than I do in many churches," Tomlinson writes. What keeps him coming back, he says, is the figure of Jesus--what he shows about the nature and love of God, and the shape and meaning this brings to his world through its vision of justice, love, reconciliation, hope, and freedom.

If I had any criticism of the book, it would be that it could use tighter editing, an index, and better referencing. As befits a book that is not intended for a scholarly audience, footnotes are kept to a minimum. But there are a few precious ones. I was happy to see my all-time favorite book (The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck) brought back to light. And I was delighted to finally learn the source of one of the great pieces of wisdom I was given long ago -- "You can never get enough of the things you don't really need." Well, that was the way I learned it. Tomlinson quotes philosopher Sam Keen:
"We always discover that what we were blindly running after was love, and that all we ever caught was a poor substitute. And it didn't satisfy us because we can never get enough of what we didn't want in the first place."
In the smattering of instances where Tomlinson sticks a toe into science, I wasn't entirely confident that he appreciates the potential shortcomings of psychology and neuroscience as fully as he comprehends the limitations of religion. But he does the latter extremely well, and that is what makes the book worth the effort for anyone who has ever felt that becoming a better human being is at odds with being a "good" Christian.

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