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Book Review

A Christian/non-Christian distinction?

Lots of folk are apparently getting fed up with typical evangelical church life and attitudes. They love Jesus and want to make a difference for him in the world, but they get weary of the dogmatic, superior, Bible-quoting and know-it-all attitudes of their fellow church-members.

They have serious questions, but if they dare to raise them they get branded as backslidden, never ‘saved’ in the first place, or dangerously heretical. It was for such people that this book was written: How To Be A Bad Christian…And A Better Human Being by Dave Tomlinson (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-444-70384-9).  

The proposed answer is radical. As the title suggests, it is to demolish the evangelical concept of ‘church’ as ‘the redeemed community’ and find common ground with ‘non-Christians’ on the basis of our both being human beings. No sheep and goats anymore; no wheat and weeds; no ‘once you were darkness but now you are light in the Lord’. We should see the atheist’s ‘no god’ as the equivalent of ‘our god’.

Jesus remains central, with his key requirement that we love all people, including our enemies. But acknowledging him as Lord and Saviour in any meaningful way gets sidelined. The Bible, too, gets short shrift. It certainly can’t be seen as a guide to godly living, except in the broad sense that it tells us about Jesus, who exemplifies godly living. And as for ‘doctrine’, the author apparently has little time for it, whether Bible-based or not. He calls it ‘dogma’ and uses the word in a pejorative sense.

But it’s not all bad. In spite of this radical undermining of the traditional evangelical position, the book has some helpful insights. It challenges, for example, the rigid judgmentalism shown by many Christians and wisely encourages us to be aware of spiritual sensitivity in people of other faiths or no faith.

The author has a house-church background, from which he moved to become an Anglican vicar in London. From personal acquaintance I can vouch for his gracious godliness and deep sincerity. He is easy-going yet deeply motivated—though not by typically evangelical drivers. He will hob-nob comfortably with Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims (as I hope we all would), but he would not dream of trying to convert them to faith in Christ.

You might be excused for thinking that what he advocates is barely worthy of the label ‘Christian’ at all. That would be a mistake, I think. But it’s for you to judge.

I cannot believe that God divides the world between churchgoers and non-churchgoers, or between people who believe and people who don’t believe. What an absurd idea. Surely God has more sophistication to his judgement than this! (p4)

Jesus never wrote a book, never created a creed, never started a church and never intended to begin a new religion. He simply demonstrated the way of love – the golden rule in any religious tradition – and invited people to join him in that. (p6)

Personally, I think that the Church would be far better to stop trying to pump the gospel into people’s lives , and recognise that God is there already – named or unnamed. (p9)

The Church holds that certain everyday elements – for example water in baptism, the bread and wine in the Eucharist – mysteriously communicate the divine presence to those being baptised or receiving Communion. However, the logic behind the sacraments is that the entire universe is a vast sacramental system: everything in the world has the possibility to mediate the divine. (p22)

Many people find their self-esteem undermined in church by guilt at not matching up to certain expectations, or because of a preoccupation with sin and punitive images of God. (p29)

Within Christianity, the sense of unconditional love begins at the baptism of a child, which should be understood not as a reminder of the (mistaken) notion of original sin, but as a symbol of divine grace, of unqualified acceptance. (p30)

Religion and spiritual intelligence should go together, but too often they don’t. Spiritual intelligence allows people to be creative, to explore new possibilities, to change the rules and alter situations, while religion is frequently associated with a rigid status quo, with formality, narrow-mindedness and traditionalism. (p45)

The kingdom of God is a state of profound wakefulness, and to become wholly awake, or to experience even a drop of life fully, is to open oneself to the kingdom of God. (p53)

When I invite people to receive Communion I declare this to be the table of Christ, where all are welcome and no one is turned away. So we affirm God’s unrestricted acceptance by offering bread and wine to everyone present without question or condition. (p59)

As someone who believes in a loving God, and who advocates religion as a cure for the afflictions of the soul, I am infuriated when so-called ‘faith’ multiplies people’s troubles rather than solving them, or when God is presented as some punitive, mean-minded tyrant. (p67)

Don’t we have to do something – repent or whatever – in order for God to welcome us and forgive us? Absolutely not! With God, love is unconditional; forgiveness is unilateral. Like the prodigal, we are forgiven from the moment we go off the tracks, long before we decide to come home. (p68)

I have always had a liking for the Laughing Buddha, the rotund, happy figure who symbolises the ideals of the good life: health, happiness , prosperity and longevity. And I regret that in contrast God and Jesus are mostly portrayed as rather stern, austere figures. (p77)

Christianity is, in fact, intrinsically a multi-faith tradition, a synergy of large aspects of Judaism with ‘baptised’ elements of other ancient religious and pagan cultures melded together around the figure of Jesus Christ and what he uniquely brings to the world. (p102)

I am a Christian. I am part of a tradition that understands God as revealed in Jesus Christ . This is my faith. It’s how I know and experience God. I stake my life on it. (p103)

I have no doubt that there is more to our existence than this mortal coil; I believe in something I call ‘the beyond’. But I have no idea what this actually means. Nor does anyone I know. Not really. (p111)

The kingdom of heaven, for me, is a state of consciousness – a different way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that anyone may sense from time to time. (p111)

The most basic way to make sense of suffering is to be honest with yourself and God. Discover a religion of the gut, not of the mind. It’s no use pretending, no use saying the ‘right’ words, no use contorting our emotions or simply trying to adopt a good ‘Christian’ outlook. We have to be emotionally authentic. (p127)

Well, I have seen enough minor miracles in my life not to discount them. However, I don’t think prayer is like ordering on the internet: you choose your product, then sit back and wait for it to arrive. (p141)

The Holy Spirit is the inspiration behind many ‘books’ – whether religious texts such as the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita , or other spiritual writings such as Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, or music, painting, sculpture, poetry and mainstream theatre, films and novels. (p151)

The Bible, like other religious texts, can add to or help to alleviate our problems. If it is applied in a literal, dogmatic fashion it will add to the factious discord of our broken world. We must draw on the wisdom traditions in our faith communities , discover a common global ethic and cooperate to bring healing and reconciliation to the world. (p155)

The Bible is a window through which we hope to see God. The window is far from being entirely clear. It has fly specks, dust and the odd crack here and there that distract and obscure our vision. And it is only one window. But if we look through it, rather than at it, we may expect to glimpse the unimaginable wonder that we call God. (p160)

I believe that every child enters the world in a state of grace : with an openness and receptivity to divine love. Later experiences of rejection and fear choke this with feelings of guilt and failure when we get things wrong. (p193)

I don’t believe God divides the world between Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers. God would need to be stupid to do this, and I don’t believe God is stupid. (P206)

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