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Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea, by Graham Tomlin, and How do I Look? by Dominic White

by
19 February 2021

Jennie Hogan reviews two books about self and self-image today

“DOES being a Christian change how we look at others?” asks the Dominican theologian Dominic White at the opening of his creative and rigorous How Do I Look? He offers a vast number of original approaches to exploring the theology of the gaze in great and uncompromising depth.

In contrast, Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington, opens his punchy, almost trendy, book, quoting a poem from an online clothing website whose closing lines are “Don’t dare doubt your worth Or the beauty of your truth. Just keep on shining like you do. BE YOURSELF.” Tomlin seeks to challenge such banal notions, which the capitalist world is so keen to sell us. Ingeniously, he does so in ten snappy chapters, beating the self-help racket at its own game.

Tomlin’s leitmotif is undergirded by Luther’s critique that “our nature has been deeply curved in upon itself.” Other theologians, such as Kierkegaard, enable Tomlin to convince readers in a humble and gentle tone to turn and look outwards at the world afresh with eyes transfigured by love.

This is not to say that fundamentals are abandoned for the sake of popularity. On the contrary, in one chapter “Why the Big Bang has a face”, the argument for the existence of God is tackled with great skill so as to enrich those who may be familiar with such theological dilemmas, as well as enlighten those who have never read a book of theology, nor even stepped into a church.

There is a hint of provocation in chapter headings, “Why everyone needs an identity crisis” and “Why freedom is not what you think it is”; but Tomlin skilfully combines complex ideas with simple language and personal insights. He describes his involvement in the Grenfell Tower disaster movingly and harnesses his own experience with a deft analysis of the existence of evil.

The book’s title may sound frivolous, but this is a sound theological primer, perfect in a parish or chaplaincy bookshelf or for a confirmation group. Tomlin does a fine job in finding a simple structure in which weighty theological conundrums can be tackled without defence or triumph. I hope that it will find a place on self-help shelves and in airports, giving encouragement that being yourself need not require more aftershave or a new lipstick.

Tomlin’s book paves the way for Dominic White’s approach to the ways in which we may see ourselves and others. This is a work of formidable scholarship, diligently researched, with fresh and invigorating insights. He seems at great ease incorporating feminist film, psychoanalytic theory, and much more into his quest. Cagney and Lacey even get a look in. His inclusion of certain French philosophers might be challenging, and yet White’s aim is to investigate deep and wide so that we may see, and be seen, anew.

Biblical analysis is by no means excluded. White reveals great fluency, seeking scriptural gems to widen his scope. For instance, he approaches Greek grammar and reveals how the use of the “middle voice” draws out an experience of mutuality between the viewer and the viewed. While this may sound technical, it is fascinating, and important in unearthing what makes a Christian’s experience of the world look distinctive. Further, White unveils the implications of different Greek words used for seeing in the Gospels: Jesus gazes, beholds, contemplates, considers, looks, and, indeed, invites others to “come and see”.

In addition, White draws on various approaches to the gaze of God in the eucharist, and highlights the liveliness of icons that see us. I was particularly struck by the chapter on the erotic and celibate gaze. We learn here that the erotic gaze need not at all be dangerous, but has the capacity to become theotic, that is to say, “divinizing”. Thus, seeing others has the capacity not only to delight, but to transfigure.

White also adds a postscript, “The gaze after COVID 19”, and makes a sound start in our understanding of how we see ourselves and others when horizons have shrunk and faces are shuttered by masks. His hope is that this crisis will, as Tomlin wishes, turn us outwards so that our gaze, formed and transformed by God, may be a healing one.
 

The Revd Jennie Hogan is a psychotherapist and is Associate Priest of St George’s, Bloomsbury, in London. She is the author of This Is My Body: A story of sickness and health (Canterbury Press, 2017).

 

Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea: And other counter cultural notions
Graham Tomlin
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-08179-0)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

How Do I Look? Theology in the age of the selfie
Dominic White
SCM Press £25
(978-0-334-06001-7)
Church Times Bookshop £20

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