Part self-help book and part the distilled wisdom accrued during his years as a vicar, Dave Tomlinson’s How to be a Bad Christian is a heartening, life-affirming volume about how to get the most out of your existence.
Tomlinson’s prose is as conversational, warm and welcoming as you would expect the man to be in person. It’s no easy task capturing such character traits on the page, but Tomlinson succeeds with well-timed anecdotes, enjoyable rhetoric and interesting topics. You will find sections such as “Dumping the guilt trip: how to forgive yourself and move on,” that contain general good advice, reflected through the prism of Christianity. There’s an appendix on the enneagram – a non-religious look at personality types which every reader will enjoy going through to find their type. Aware that he’s searching for an audience who run away whenever anyone starts talking about their faith, Tomlinson uses few bible quotes, and those he chooses contain positive messages.
What of the impact of the book? I went into reading it a die-hard atheist, and I emerge the same, albeit one who found the wit and wisdom of Tomlinson frequently encouraging and always charming. There’s no off-putting pulpit bashing about why you should believe scripture is true, nor dire warnings of hell for not subscribing to dogma. He tackles the big questions, such as the one that often leads to abandonment of faith – why does ‘god’ allow suffering? In so doing, he offers no easy answers and admits that it is a tricky area for the theologian. Tomlinson touches on moments of humanity and strong faith found even within the walls of Nazi concentration camps. Yet one could just as easily cite Primo Levi, or the carving, “If there is a God, he will have to beg for my forgiveness” found on a cell wall in Mauthausen.
This is to miss the point, because no part of How to be a Bad Christian is a theological argument. It’s not a work of apologetics – such an approach is simply outside of its remit. Instead, what it achieves is to present a sensible and accessible form of Christianity, and one so rarely heard these days on debate shows when it’s invariably the hard-line nutters who are wheeled out. Here you’ll discover there are vicars who are happy to assert that their god is neither a Christian nor a published author, that the bible was written by fallible men and that other religious and non-religious traditions have validity and merit.
By the second chapter, subtitled “how to find god without going near a church”, the gentle Anglicanism that forms the basis of Tomlinson’s faith is readily apparent. He describes a form of pantheism, finding god and prayer without the trappings of organized religion. It all sounds very appealing, though there is the danger that religious concepts become so loosely defined that they can be made to mean almost anything, especially if, as he asserts, one can love god and pray simply by admiring the beauty of nature.
Tomlinson claims to prefer the company of pub-goers to church-goers – a point of view it’s easy to embrace – but How to Be A Bad Christian won’t find much appeal in Christians who prefer the letter of dogma to the spirit of humanity, and they will likely be left fulminating by Tomlinson’s unashamedly inclusive approach to his faith.
Nevertheless, this heart-warming book should find broad appeal and be widely read, by moderate Christians or those who consider themselves ‘spiritual’ but shy away from subscribing to a particular cult and eschew the idea of ritualised observance. Atheists and rationalists will also find aspects to enjoy, taking away some insights into how to live a good life; and Tomlinson’s friendly treatise may persuade those generally repulsed by religion that can also present itself in a palatable form.
End result: if Dave Tomlinson knocked on your door and mentioned his faith, you’re likely to invite him in for a chat over a cup of tea, or better yet, a drink.