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Black Sheep and Prodigals

If you like uplifting anecdotes of faith this book should be your bedtime read  

Black SheepBlack Sheep and Prodigals
by Dave Tomlinson 
Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 978-1-473-61102-3
Reviewed by David Stuckey

Is religion puzzling to you? Is nothing clear, in black and white? Rest assured – doubts and questions are as much a part of faith as is worship and songs of praise. And our traditional holy patchwork of denominations is more a sign of a secure and ever-seeking community than a relic of dissention and disagreement.

So says Dave Tomlinson, pastor of a church in north London, and he is not afraid to push boundaries. He made his name by founding Holy Joe’s, a church in a pub in Clapham at the request of disaffected churchgoers, and he made his literary mark with How to be a Bad Christian. But his approach is truly far from ‘bad’ … he suggests that divine revelation can strike where you least expect it – in the natural world, in the arts, in the sciences ... in short, faith is alive and not embalmed.

Tomlinson’s prose often makes the reader smile (it sometimes made me laugh out loud) but it also makes us think. He has little time for those who concentrate on the rituals of worship rather than the enjoyment. And if others baulk at what they see as frivolity over tradition, he will suggest there is more than one path to God.

He sees himself as a liberal evangelist, and is not a fan of ‘black and white’ religion. We hide behind age-old sayings and aphorisms that can mean little to those outside our ‘magic circle’. He’s not afraid to surmise what could have happened in a parallel gospel universe – for instance he suggests if there had been Three Wise Women they would have baked a cake, cleaned the stable and been more of a support and comfort to Mary.

So Dave is different from your average Christian author. He describes himself as a bad Christian but a better human being for believing in Jesus. He suggests he’s a liberal evangelist against a ‘black and white’ approach to faith, which he reckons can lead to a ‘them and us’ mentality, which in turn can tear the Christian faith apart.

Too many Christians, he believes, seem eager to concentrate on ritual rather than enjoyment – and that makes him sad. There is much to worry average folk today – but there is more than one way back to God, and finding enjoyment in worship can bring that warm glow of ‘life before death’.

And talking of death, one of his anecdotes goes back to wartime in France where a group of soldiers brought a dead comrade to a country churchyard for burial. The priest asked if their friend was a Catholic and they did not know (or particularly care) so a grave was dug and he was buried outside the confines of the graveyard. The next day those soldiers returned to put flowers on the grave and were amazed to find their comrade now buried inside the graveyard – the priest had moved the fence for this to come about. 

'This, to me, is an excellent picture of grace,' writes Tomlinson, 'where God’s love ultimately encompasses all, includes all, reconciles all.'

If you like uplifting anecdotes of faith this book should be your bedtime read. 

David Stuckey is a journalist and member of Maghull Baptist Church

Baptist Times, 06/10/2017
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