Book Review: Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea

Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea

I’m always on the lookout for books that articulate basic Christian belief in ways that are intelligible to people who wouldn’t call themselves Christians. I’m also always on the lookout for books that challenge big lies that either Christians or our culture believe. In this book, I think I’ve found something that does both. In the past I’ve been very impressed with Graham Tomlin’s writing (I liked his book on Luther’s gospel), and I have been looking forward to reading this book ever since I first heard about it*. Graham tackles head on something we hear a lot, but is actually a rather odd thing: ‘just be yourself’.

This is a book that blends cultural awareness, theological acumen, and a readable and arguably beautiful writing style. Graham starts with a penetrating observation: “You would have thought that Western countries with a strong ethic of personal fulfilment and economic wealth would be the happiest, yet according to the ‘Happy Planet Index’ – a survey that ‘tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives’ – the USA is 108th and Sweden (for example) is 61st out of 140 countries surveyed“. There could be any number of reasons for this. One might be the polarization that concerns many: “Everyone says these days that we live in a more polarized world. Contrasting visions – left and right, progressive and conservative – compete for political and social power, whether in the USA, Europe or in parts of Asia and Africa.“. I’d recommend James Mumford’s excellent book Vexed (he also endorsed this book) as a good tool for breaking through that ‘left/right’ divide in an intelligent and entertaining way. Ultimately, though, I think Graham is right when he observes:

Both sides are locked in the well-known culture wars, but what is often not recognized is that, underneath, they want the same thing. They are both focused on a view of human beings as rights-bearing individuals, free to fashion their own version of the good life. Both see the goal of their political programme as liberation of the individual from the shackles of either state control or social taboos, to be and do what they choose. Both assume that we are all essentially individuals in need of liberating from other people who make demands on us, so that we will be free to chart our own self-chosen path through the world.

I think that is a really helpful observation – and on one level Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea is in part a book about freedom, beyond the political and social binaries our world is obsessed with. Graham also hits the nail on the head in talking about individualism and ‘rights’:

Rights language, however useful in its proper place, can easily become the fence we build around our sense of self, our autonomy and independence. The result of this combination of the cult of authenticity, the imperative of self-determination and the language of rights, is that no one has the right to question another person’s choices. Or if they do, the inevitable response comes back: ‘Who gives you the right to tell me what to do?’

It is at this point that Graham poses the question I think everyone needs to consider: “What if we find our true selves not by looking within but by being drawn out of ourselves by something outside?” – and yet a question that it seems to me is not often asked. That is the genius of this book – the author diagnoses a number of problems with our culture, and suggests that the Christian story, warts and all, might actually be a helpful and life-giving way of moving forward.

Rather than starting with ‘the Bible says…’, Graham starts with the above and other observations that I think are right on the pulse of how a lot of people think – both inside and outside of Christianity. For example:

Life itself is both mysterious and fragile. To have lost a loved one is to recognize how tenuous is our hold on existence. To realize that a spouse or parent or child is no longer there is to recognize the fragility of life. At the same time, the thought that those we love and who remain alive around us might one day not be there usually increases a sense of gratitude, and even wonder, that they are there at all.

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought that reality to the fore – but it has always been there. And so I hope that readers from all perspectives will give Graham’s book a hearing. It’s a challenging read, at times, but one that I think displays both theological acumen and accuracy, and pastoral and cultural sensitivity. A lot of what he writes is explosive, forcing the reader to think. For example: “You never find in the Bible an argument for the existence of God. It just assumes God is there and develops a picture of the world based on that assumption.” Amen! We often hear that ‘love means love‘ or ‘love is love’, but Graham helpfully subverts that by observing pithily that “Love demands wisdom“. And this love, this wisdom, is for Christians bound up in the person and teaching of Jesus, of whom Graham rightly observes: “People often think of Jesus as a great teacher, whose ideas are the most important thing and the miracle stories are just a bit of ancient myth, which you can take or leave. Yet the way his story is told in the Gospels doesn’t work like that.

With Jesus, there is always something else going on.

This review could be a lot longer, but I’m going to speed up and just touch on three key areas. Firstly, what I’d call ‘Theological acumen’. Graham is a Bishop, and he’s also a Bishop with a PhD in theology, who’s taught theology. Compared to some BIshop’s public pronouncements or published work, this shows – in a good way! For example:

  • On the problem of evil: “To rationalize evil is a typically modern strategy – to think that everything can be explained if we think about it hard enough.
  • On Original Sin: “This is the story that the book of Genesis tells. You don’t have to believe in a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Adam and Eve or even a talking snake to get the point of the story, the deep truth that it tells about the human condition
  • On the person and work of Jesus: “When Love enters a world in which evil is rampant, it is bound to lead to trouble… His was a life of self-giving, which culminated in the supreme act of self-sacrifice, voluntarily submitting himself to execution on a Roman cross... the Resurrection of Jesus that means the possibility of life beyond this one for each of us
  • On how Christianity speaks to our desires and the issue of love: “Christianity does not aim at the elimination of desire – in fact, it says that desire for God and desire for those we love is at the heart of the mystery of existence. We never get beyond desire and love, be-cause they are what life is all about. There is a kind of transcendence of the self in Christianity, but it is a reorientating rather than extin-guishing of the self towards love for the neighbour, by enabling us to begin to feel the glimmers of delighting in them, however unlike-ly that may seem to start with.

I’m not suggesting that I agree 100% theologically with everything Graham writes, but I’ve got less caveats than with, say, Francis Spufford’s extraordinarily readable ‘Unapologetic‘. This theological acumen is also (and again, not always the case for bishops, or church leaders in general!) married to what I would see as meaningful ‘Pastoral acumen’. This is a book written by a human for humans – not by an academic in a bubble seeking to dominate the proleteriat, or a demagogue with a Twitter account seeking to whip up a crowd. I think what and how Graham writes have a lot of resonance with normal people. Some examples:

  • On the Problem of Evil: “The problem of evil is not just a philosophical problem. It is a deeply personal one… Christians don’t believe in God because they have solved the problem of evil. It’s just that they have discovered something that stands over against the problem and makes them believe anyway.
  • On identity and following Jesus: “To become a follower of Christ was not just a lifestyle choice, adding an extra activity to a busy sched-ule, such as enrolling for a yoga class or becoming vegan – it was like becoming an entirely new person.
  • On what neighbour-love actually looks like: “When Jesus was asked the question, ‘which is the greatest com-mandment?’ – in other words, ‘what is the most important thing to do in this life?’ – his answer was not ‘be yourself ’ or ‘follow your dreams’. It was simple: love God and love your neighbour. The pur-pose of our being born into this world is to become the kind of per-son capable of loving God in thankfulness for all we have been given and to love our neighbours – the people God has placed alongside us in the next-door house or desk or classroom or office.
  • On the reality of what is shaping us: “the Church is not the only religious commu-nity in town. Like the shopping mall, the university and every busi-ness, it has a goal of the kind of person it is trying to produce.

I think, in addition, Graham nails it on freedom. This is an excellent book. One feature that struck me was that he has provocative chapter titles that actually answer the problems people have. What if the problem is not really the answer, but the questions we are asking? I should note that for some readers the language (mild, but occasional) might be a problem – but I think it is fine for the intended market of normal people. I love what Graham writes in this book, and end this review with a couple of quotes. Firstly, in this time when death is scared, it is true to say that “Death may have been defeated on Easter Day, but it refuses to go quietly.” From that noise, though, Graham beckons us to consider the claims of Jesus, and his offer: “a new self, born out of love and made for a radical reorien-tation around the love that drives the world towards its future. It is living as if it is true that Jesus is risen, that death and the powers that diminish and will destroy you have been defeated.

If this review has piqued your interest, you might also find my reviews of some other books interesting:

*This book is published by SPCK, for whom I work on IVP books. I don’t have to like what either SPCK or IVP publishes, and this is a welcome book to review after the disappointments of The Lost Message of Paul, Love Means Love and Equality is Biblical.

2 Responses

  1. Celia

    It sounded an interesting title for a book… But I don’t want to read it, sorry. I already have ideas on the issue!
    I thought “not being myself” means pretending to be something I’m not (in order to please others or avoid offending them), which is difficult, deceptive and dishonest. If God wants me to ‘deny myself’ surely that doesn’t mean denying who I am or the way I am. I thought ‘being myself’ is more honest although it is not always wise to express myself in case what I’m thinking seems silly to others and they laugh at me – or that I may offend them with views that are not conventional, not politically correct or not very well thought out!
    It’s interesting the review says particular groups want to ‘produce particular kinds of people’ which means changing them from the way they are to something else – I suppose in order to fit in and promote the purpose of the group… Anyway I recently came up with a song about how hard it is to not be myself called “The Square Peg Song” where others want to knock the corners off to make my peg round, but they keep on growing back because “squareness is in my DNA!” There should be holes of every shape to suit pegs of any shape (!) Surely God accepts all sorts of people without expecting them to change personality and cultural preferences etc? I think he wants us to be ourselves but also try with his help to become a “better version” of ourselves (not just by copying other people to try to be more like them)! Perhaps it’s not “being yourself” that is the problem but “being obsessed about yourself”!

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