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Black Sheep and Prodigals by Dave Tomlinson

12 May 2017

Andrew Davison on a zeal that targets some Christian caricatures

Black Sheep and Prodigals: An antidote to black and white religion
Dave Tomlinson
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
Church Times SPECIAL PRICE £12.99


I FINISHED Black Sheep and Prodigals impressed by the work of Dave Tomlinson, and I would be a difficult person to win over: here is a priest who celebrates holy communion with Hobnob biscuits and communicates the unbaptised, who is ambivalent towards the life of the world to come and lukewarm about the bodily resurrection, and who dismisses the atonement by attacking the crudest account going.

Still, what shines through is Tomlinson’s commitment to people whom the Church has missed, or grasped all too eagerly and burnt in the process. Tomlinson has been a shepherd for 25 years to these “black sheep” and “prodigals”, deterred by associations (or experiences) of fundamentalism, or by a crushing, legalistic moralism. That was Tomlinson’s own background, and it has left him zealous to demonstrate a different way. We might wish for a thousand more like him.

The experiences that motivate him, however, have also coloured his understanding of what he does not stand for. Some particularly odiferous tar is spread with a particularly wide brush. The talk of resurrection which we are urged not to let “distract” us amounts to the mere resuscitation of a corpse, which is hardly the faith of the ages. The atonement comes into Tomlinson’s cross-hairs, but he will concede no more subtlety to that doctrine than penal substitution of the crudest sort. Christology (or “fourth-century convoluted arguments about the deity of Christ”) bores him, but “God in a man-suit” hardly does the Patristic-medieval-Reformation consensus justice. Chapter by chapter, central planks of the Christian faith are treated in this way.

Tomlinson sees the incarnation as something temporary, which the “Cosmic Christ” was glad to shake off, “now liberated from the limitations of one single human body”, with all its particularities. Tomlinson wants us to find God “in the depths of the material world”, in all its “dirt and passion”. For my part, I find a more startling sense of that in the “fourth-century” proposal that God became a creature (in a certain sense, particularities included) for all eternity, than in talk of the incarnation as something to be shaken off.

Throughout the book, Tomlinson makes a good case for prizing belief that is integrated with life, and “thought about and integrated”. He seems close to St Ignatius of Loyola here, and when he writes that “Education should not be about creating good hoop-jumpers,” I was reminded of Luigi Giussani’s Risk of Education. Tomlinson is surely right, but I am less convinced when he says that our problem is teaching people too much. It hardly looks to me that the Church of England is suffering from a superfluity of contentful catechesis at present.

This is a book in praise of “authenticity”, with very little time for obedience. Fair enough; but the other side deserves an airing. Tomlinson opens with a gentle association between militant Islam and religion as something to submit to. Anglican that I am, I ask, in return, whether the world wouldn’t be a better place for widespread acceptance of 20th-century papal encyclicals on peace, or on the treatment of workers, or on the environment: obedience to them, even. And what are those stories of young Western men and women embracing jihad but tales of a search for “authenticity” and “discovering one’s own truth”?

Tomlinson is a “post-Evangelical”. He popularised the term; he may even have invented it. He is also a hyper-Evangelical, embodying the contemporary Evangelical impulse towards what is called either restorationism or primitivism: the idea that you have the Bible, and today’s experience of God, and the rest is irrelevant at best or, more likely, a corruption. Tomlinson is an Evangelical restorationist, who denigrates tradition, or “hand-me-down information about God and Christianity” as he calls it. (As a translation of traditio that works beautifully.)

This book is quite literally a personal credo. Each chapter begins with the individual fervour of “I believe . . .”. That aligns Tomlinson with the opening of the Nicene Creed in Latin. In the Greek original, however, we find “We believe”, and an emphasis on the “hand-me-down” commonality of the faith. We need both.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College.

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