Anthony B. Robinson’s brand new book, Common Grace, has been nearly a lifetime in the making. He’s earned the right to say these things, since he’s lived them, and has been compiling these brief essays, at least in his heart, for decades. Some are recently written, apparently for this lovely book, and others previously appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer were he lives. A few may have been in The Christian Century.
My recent posts have been about pop culture, the subculture of the Christian music scene, my role in the Purple Door festival. If one wanted a good description of the theological principle behind an appreciation of the popular arts, one would do well to read the excellent and wonderfully-titled He Shines In All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Fuller provost, Richard Mouw (Eerdmans, $13.00.) (I said in a review a year ago of Mouw’s book Calvinism at the Las Vegas Airport, that I would read anything he wrote, he’s that good!) In He Shines… Mouw asks if God really cares about ordinary human flourishing, if there is, as it has come to be called, a common kind of grace. Not just a human-ness, or goodness or beauty, although these are a kind of grace, I’m sure, but a divine presence and concern amidst the stuff of ordinary life. Mouw gets it spelled out as well as anyone, I think—-including owning up to and unraveling some thorny doctrinal questions that in my enthusiasm to affirm that, as that same hymn puts it, “He speaks to me everywhere”, I might be likely to gloss over. Mouw’s the man.
Tony Robinson’s book uses that same phrase. My, my, my, I have not been so taken with a book in ages. Nearly every chapter just sings, builds (the way the artful essay can) and delivers. He is a fine writer; his previous books I’ve touted here, Transforming Congregational Culture (Eerdmans; $18) and What’s Theology Got To Do With It (Alban; $18) and they are, for these kinds of instructional books, very nicely done, loaded with insights, and very useful. I was delightfully surprised—-not shocked, since I know Tony just a bit, and knew he had a poet’s heart—to see him in this different genre. I find it hard to sell collections of good essays, as folks either think of lengthy, academic and overly detailed articles or they think of saccharine sweet “soup for the soul” bromides.
The pieces in Common Grace: How to Be a Person and Other Spiritual Matters are neither. They are provocative but very pleasant, creatively done, yet somewhat instructional. He tells stories that can break your heart (anyone with aging parents will find his reflections on his dad to be very moving.) He tells stories that can remind us of stuff we’ve long known—-that there are ethical consequences, even to mundane technologies like air conditioners and voting by computer, for instance, or that gender assumptions have blessed and bedeviled parenting tasks, especially since the late twentieth century.
Some essays are themselves very insightful and exceptionally helpful for our civic life (he ponders the difficulties of electing school boards or other local leaders in a setting which views the body politick as a battleground for interest groups rather than with a full and nuanced appreciation for pluralism.) He is caring and fair when he offers his UCC views on homosexuality, and he makes us think—a very good chapter on why racial reconciliation among friends, in the movies, leads us away from the hard work of structural change and renewal of just public policies to overcome this dread problem. I loved the piece about how to recognize a true prophet. And his stuff about being a pastor—well, I hope Sasquatch Press doesn’t mind too much if I photocopy a chapter or two to pass out. They are that good; I want pastors I care about to read him. One or two were almost brilliant, like one on why pastors should be well-read and knowledgeable. Another is on why pastors bestow blessings. His overview of different sorts of Christians and Christian denominations should be required reading for anyone who cares about religion in America, at least. His last chapter—postmodernity and the “hinge of history” is a great overview of that vexing topic. Wonderful ideas, wise insights, marvelous writing.
I found myself scratching my head on just a piece or two, and wished for more in a couple of the shorter ones. None bored me, none angered me. This book is a blessing, and I commend it for a couple of good reasons. It is a great book, well written. It is handsome and well crafted as a hardcover and brings much pleasure to have it. It is–and this isn’t a small thing—a subtle Christian book, well-rooted in good theology (he quotes Calvin more than once for crying out loud, and lines from Merton or Buechner show up occasionally) but published on an indie regional press that isn’t a religiously-oriented house. His editor at first had hoped for something less, well, less Christian. But then he assured Tony that they wanted him to be an authentic writer, to use, as they say, his own voice. And as a dedicated churchman, a serious Christian, a postliberal theologian, a man who cares about his family and community and country because he knows he is beloved in Christ, well, this spiritual voice is who he is.
It is no accident that Rev. R’s title uses that phrase, common grace. He doesn’t study on it the way Mouw does. But it infuses his work, shows up—like grace—everywhere. Whether he is pondering his daughter’s coming of age, his long years of work with the homeless, or his enjoyment of music, he sees God’s hand showing up. From a wonderful reminder of the “social medicine” of forbearance and forgiveness to the shallow way in which we think upon retirement in terms of a materialistic “lifestyle”, to his excellent ruminations on death and funerals (recalling the writings of the splendid Thomas Lynch of The Undertaking) there seems to be a clear sense that God is around; it is God’s good world we live in and there is no need for partitioning off some areas—secular!—-or hallowing only some duties (church, prayer, theology.) Robinson, of course, is a theologian, preacher, and until recently was a working parish pastor and he sees the very real importance of these sacred rituals that happen when the faithful gather for church. But equally, he sees the importance of the little graces and ordinary blesses that constitute a life well lived. Just ponder that sub-title a bit…
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Common Grace: How To Be a Person and Other Spiritual Matters Anthony B. Robinson (Sasquatch Press) $23.95 usual price; blog special $20.00.