Useful Wisdom – Anthony B. Robinson

Useful Wisdom

Book review by Richard Topping

Letters to young (and not so young) ministers
by Anthony B. Robinson

“Would you write us some letters with your advice about a bunch of things we are trying to figure out?” This request from two United Church of Christ colleagues, including his daughter, are the genesis of this wise, humourous and theologically astute book by Tony Robinson.

I loved: (1) the interaction with Ron Heifetz throughout the book – “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can stand;” (2) the centrality of joy and delight for ministry that animates Robinson; (3) the clever turns of phrase and aphorisms that, proverb like, convey wisdom – “God is other people” to “God is other, people” – and, most of all; (4) that his hope for the church is rooted in scripture and God and God’s real agency in the church and the world. “It is about God’s renewing, healing, liberating, and transforming work in people’s lives and in the world. And it is about us participating in God’s mission in the world.”

Here are a couple of excerpts that convey the heart of the book.

“One thing I notice in many churches that might be described as “stuck” is that the church itself has become the primary focus . . . When “our church” has become the focus, you are likely to hear people talking a lot about their particular church and how wonderful (great/important/unique/special) it is.”

“But what I notice about churches where there is greater vitality is that the focus is less on the church itself and more on God (Jesus, Holy Spirit). In such churches the church is not an end in itself, but a means to a larger end. The church has a sense of purpose or mission bigger than its own survival. It has a lively sense that God has called it to this venture and that God is with them in it.”

Two points of discussion that the book opened for me are these.

The first about the narrative of decline. I think our hope is in God, as Tony says. I also wonder if some of this narrative in the West is related to the fact that the mainline (formerly) church tends only to count people who come from Europe when they articulate this narrative. There are 500 seminaries in Indonesia. Almost half of all the Christians that have every lived have lived in the last 100 years. 40% of all Christians live in Africa. That’s just amazing and encouraging. When we figure the future of the church we should also figure in the global church.

The second point of discussion for me would be around the chapter on reason. I get it. I think it’s true. Reason and intellect tend to overshadow. I am a Presbyterian. I know. How does that poem “Among the Intellectuals” go? “They preferred the name of the tree to the taste of the apple.” However, we live in a world where often affectivity has triumphed and apophatic theology in some instances is code for agnosticism. If modernity steered into reason, post-modernity seems to steer into affectivity and suspects reason, almost always. I wonder about reason as a tool, converted and as a disciple of the gospel. Faith seeking understanding still seems to me important. It is one thing for Thomas Aquinas to say his theology is like straw, it is another when a first response to a first reading of a first theological text is, “I just think God is a mystery.” We could try a little first. God is infinitely recessive and also competent at revelation.

Dr. Rev. Richard Topping is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the Vancouver School of Theology. He also is the Professor of Studies in the Reformed Tradition.

Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and Not-So-Young) Ministers
by Anthony B. Robinson
Cascade Books (2020) – IBSN: 9781532683435