Why Being Yourself Is a Bad Idea and Other Countercultural Notions
By Graham Tomlin
SPCK, pp. 192, $15

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Review by Stewart Clem

You might not guess from the title of Graham Tomlin’s Why Being Yourself Is a Bad Idea and Other Countercultural Notions that it has anything to do with Christianity. This was possibly a deliberate choice by the author, who is the Bishop of Kensington in London.

But make no mistake: this is a book that’s not only written from a Christian perspective — Christianity is the subject matter. This slim volume is, in fact, a cleverly disguised book of apologetics. Granted, it’s not the ‘how to beat your atheist neighbor in an argument’ sort of apologetics, but rather it offers an apologia, a defense, of the Christian faith for the skeptical or inquisitive reader.

It belongs to that venerable legacy charted by C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. One feature that sets Tomlin’s book apart is that it is unabashedly of the moment. For example, it describes the profound effects of social media on our lives, and there are more than a handful of references to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the pandemic has drastically slowed all channels of publication and distribution, the publisher must have worked fiercely to get this book in print as quickly as possible.

The book opens with a rather brilliant deconstruction of one of our Western culture’s most sacred precepts: “be yourself.” There are countless variations of this mantra, which has become so platitudinous that it is almost meaningless. The specific iteration Tomlin has in his sights is the claim that authenticity provides a guaranteed path to freedom.

In other words, as long as you are following your heart’s desires, and as long as you are not merely trying to meet the expectations of other people, you will find happiness. Tomlin dismantles these false promises of authenticity and self-acceptance by showing that they set us on a path that ultimately leads to nowhere.

The truth, Tomlin explains, is that even when we finally tune out all the haters, when we gain the confidence to accept who we really are and discover our true selves, we will still have that nagging feeling that everything is not okay. And the reason for that feeling is the simple fact that everything is not okay. What he describes is what St. Augustine discovered many centuries ago: our hearts are restless until we rest in God. We are seeking something beyond ourselves, even if we can’t articulate what that something is.

Readers might suspect that the book has a generational slant, and indeed it does. While Bishop Tomlin belongs to the Baby Boomer generation, the concerns of this book — as well as its tone — seem most clearly oriented toward Millennial and Gen Z readers. Thankfully, I didn’t detect any pandering or any cringe-inducing “How do you do, fellow kids?” pleas, but the writing speaks most clearly to those who are still trying to find their bearings and figure out what kind of person they want to be. This is evident not only in the frequent references to social media and pop culture, but also in Tomlin’s (correct) assumption that the younger generation, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, is increasingly unchurched and uninformed about the actual teachings of Christianity.

While many of the questions are perennial and have been tackled by countless theologians and apologists already, Why Being Yourself Is a Bad Idea is unique because it speaks in a contemporary idiom that affirms what is good about contemporary culture while also pointing out what is missing and what it gets wrong. For example, in the chapter “Why Justice Matters and Why We Don’t Really Want It” Tomlin explains that our sin, our propensity toward evil, cannot be ignored if we really want to talk about fixing the world’s problems. There are spiritual realities at play that can never be addressed adequately by social engineering alone.

Similarly, in the chapter “Why Freedom Is Not What You Think It Is,” Tomlin dismantles the widespread notion that the absence of coercion is the essence of freedom. If freedom ultimately means that I am not bound by any obligations or responsibilities to others, then solitude is the pinnacle of human existence. But this clearly flies in the face our social nature, which inherently longs for community and belonging. To be truly free, Tomlin argues, is to be given the ability to live as we were created to be: to be in fellowship with others and to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.

The rhetorical purpose of these chapters is to reorient the reader’s mind toward a fundamental truth about reality, namely, that each of us experiences a fundamental longing for transcendence. “Being yourself” is a dead end, because it can only turn us inward when we need to turn outward. This setup allows Tomlin to introduce Christianity as a narrative that is primarily about the reconciliation of God and humanity, and he does this very delicately, without delving into minutiae or controversial topics. His presentation of the faith is winsome and devoid of the smugness and triumphalism that so often turns people away from Christianity.

There are almost no new ideas in this book, but that is not a criticism. In fact, it’s probably one of the book’s greatest strengths. It was not written for theologians or spiritually mature Christians. Nor was it written for those with serious philosophical objections to Christianity who have thought and read a great deal about their objections. It was written for the millions of people who know little about the Christian faith (or who think they know about it, but don’t) and need to hear the evangelion — the ‘good news’ of the Gospel — afresh.

And while clergy are not the primary readership, I would still recommend it as a source of helpful preaching and teaching illustrations. Tomlin has a real gift for explaining complex ideas with simplicity and clarity, and church leaders would do well to emulate his communication style.

It’s fitting that this volume is published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The SPCK is the oldest Anglican mission agency in the world, and Tomlin’s book embodies that mission. It’s a timely and (as the title suggests) countercultural book, and I hope it is read widely.

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology and priest associate at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis.