The light by which we see: Scrivener, Tomlin and the case for Christianity

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”

C.S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory

One of the challenges of apologetics is to ensure you are answering the questions that people are actually asking; addressing the ache that people are actually feeling. In the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed reading two books that do just that. They each make a strong case for Christianity, in a way that resonates with the longings of this cultural moment, and redirects them to the One who can satisfy. Those books are The Air We Breathe by Glen Scrivener, and Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea by Graham Tomlin.

There are many similarities between these two books. Both are well-written, engaging, and timely. Rather than discussing abstract theological or philosophical ideas, with only a tangential connection to people’s everyday lives, both books dive headlong into some of the most pressing questions people are asking right now, and demonstrate how Christianity provides a compelling answer. Both show – successfully, I think – how many of the assumptions held in our modern culture actually strengthen rather than weaken the case for the Christian faith, and how – as Lewis noted – Christianity is the light by which we can see most clearly.

The Air We Breathe

The Air We Breathe is a breath of fresh… I can’t bring myself to finish the pun. But it really is. It’s a punchy, compelling case for the credibility and relevance of the Christian faith. Well-researched, well-written, and my copy at least is covered in notes and highlights!

The big idea is that whilst the Western world is often antagonistic towards Christianity, it is deeply indebted to the very faith it has rejected. Like fish in water, or humans breathing the air, we don’t even notice the influence Christianity has had – and continues to have – all around us. Many of the cultural values we prize so highly, such as freedom, kindness, progress and equality, have distinctly Christian roots. So rather than simply arguing that Christianity offers compelling answers to the questions our culture is asking, Glen makes a deeper case, namely: we wouldn’t even be asking those questions in the first place, were it not for the influence of Christianity.

Glen is not the first to make this claim, and a few (myself included) have lovingly labelled his book ‘Dominion for Dummies.’ But that’s not entirely fair. Firstly ‘dummies’ is too pejorative since this is a rigorous book that requires thoughtful reading, but I’ve yet to think of a better alliterative alternative. And secondly, this is not just a popular-level rehash of Tom Holland’s Dominion; it is a great book in its own right. Glen builds upon Holland’s work and applies it directly to our cultural moment, with all the heart, skill, and anointing of a Christian evangelist.

For anyone who is tempted to dismiss Christianity as being regressive, oppressive, anti-science, anti-women, etc., this book will challenge some of your preconceptions, and demonstrate how the very things you long for – freedom, equality, and compassion – can be found most fully within the Christian story. This is not to deny that many of those negative traits are present in the history of the church! But where they are, they are an aberration, and don’t reflect the true beauty of the Christian faith.

One of the things I loved about this book was how well-written it was. Glen has a great way of reframing concepts in a counterintuitive way that makes you laugh out loud, and then pause to reflect deeply. At moments it felt like I was reading G.K. Chesterton. This book is both playful and provocative; deep but not dense. And there are certain chapters I’m already looking forward to re-reading.

Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea

In a similar vein, Graham Tomlin’s book Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea takes a look at some of the messages that abound in our culture right now, and probes them a little, to see whether they really hold up. What follows is a delightful exploration of themes like love, wonder, justice and freedom, through chapters with playful titles like:   

  • Why ‘being yourself’ is a bad idea
  • Why love is and isn’t all you need
  • Why evil exists and why it can’t be explained
  • Why justice matters and why we don’t really want it
  • Why everyone needs an identity crisis

I really enjoyed the tone and scope of this book. It blended current research, cultural observations, and biblical wisdom, presented warmly. It was provocative, but compassionately so; not overly critical of our culture, but re-directing our human longings away from clichés, and towards a source that can more-fully satiate them.

The chapters aren’t just standalone topics, but build nicely upon each other, constructing a coherent and compelling case for a faith that is intellectually, emotionally, and existentially satisfying. It didn’t shy away from delving into some meaty areas of theology, but always explained them clearly and accessibly, grounding big ideas in a way that appealed to people’s felt needs. If Scrivener has given us ‘Dominion for Dummies’ then Tomlin has written ‘Spufford for Simpletons’ – a more orthodox and far less sweary alternative to Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic.

I feel conflicted about saying this, but the topic I felt was lacking was sex and sexuality. There’s a catch-22 for Christians, in that we’re often accused of ‘banging on about sex and sexuality all the time’, but then when we don’t address these topics we’re accused of dodging them! But since these are such huge areas of discussion right now, their absence from this book felt notable. Certainly, some of the chapters sowed important seeds of ideas around love, identity and freedom, but I would have been fascinated to see how the author applied them explicitly to some of the cultural claims around sexuality and gender identity.

But that aside (and one other gripe, which I’ll mention in a postscript), it’s a great book, and helped me rethink some old ideas in fresh ways. I’m excited to see how Graham’s new role at the Centre for Cultural Witness develops, not least because it crosses over with some of my own work, and I’m looking forward to reading his new book on generous orthodoxy.

To get a sense of how accurately Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea speaks to our current cultural mood, consider this quote from Taylor Swift’s speech at New York University last week:

The cultural claim that we can create our own identity and be exactly who we want to be sounds like it should offer us freedom. In reality, it’s a crushing burden. Tay Tay should read Tomlin. As should you.

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.


Two final notes.

Firstly, I was kindly given a pre-release copy of Glen’s book by the publisher. I don’t believe that influenced my appreciation of it. I would have been just as positive had I paid for it!

Secondly, I didn’t want to say this in the body of my review, because I didn’t want to detract from my overall point that Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea is a very good book indeed, but the formatting of the book is awful, and a real impediment to enjoying it. The text is pushed to the margins, giving little space to breathe or scribble notes, and there are countless pages where pull quotes sit directly next to the same quote in the body text, disrupting the flow horribly. You can see a few examples here.

Personally, I rarely find that pull quotes add much to a book other than reminding me that we live in a shallow and twitterfied world where publishers want and expect readers to share soundbites. I thought it was telling that the chapter on the problem of evil contained the fewest number of pull quotes – one near the start and one near the end. As a result, it was by far the most readable chapter, and illustrates the point that important arguments cannot and should not be reduced to soundbites.

Again, to be clear, the content of the book is brilliant, but the publisher/typesetter has really let the author down by treating his great copy as if it were magazine content. I’ve not read many offerings from SPCK in recent years, but I’ve been told this isn’t uncommon in their books, and it certainly would make me think twice before buying from them in the future.  

Photo by Daoudi Aissa on Unsplash

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