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Book review: Bad Theology: Oppression in the name of God by Leah Robinson

01 December 2023

Peter Selby is not quite convinced by a study that falls into two parts

EXAMINERS whose task is to grade dissertations know that they have to take into account the writer’s attention to detail, to the work of previous writers on their subject, and to the adequacy of the issues covered, among other qualities. What they are unlikely to do is rate the product on the grounds of its contribution to the well-being of humanity.

This last criterion, however, is what is engaging Leah Robinson. For her, what makes theology “good” or “bad” is not its academic adequacy, but its moral effect. What she is concerned to offer is a warning: the mere fact that something is theology doesn’t mean that it’s good — in the sense of good for people and good for humanity as a whole.

It was an experience during Robinson’s sojourn in Belfast intending to research peace-building which gives rise to the experience that provokes her to undertake a different theological task: to engage theologically with the question how “bad theology” evolves to promote the opposite of peace-building: violent and oppressive behaviour.

The fruits of her endeavour are set out in the second part of the book in the form of four well-presented case studies: apartheid in South Africa, the puritan colonisers of North America, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Jonestown massacre. In each instance, Robinson shows the “bad” — that is to say, oppressive — theological underpinnings of these examples of violence and destructive attitudes. With similar and devastating results, Christian doctrines such as election, the distinctive vocation of particular peoples, and eschatology have been used to validate and serve violence and oppression.

It is, therefore, the second part of the book that will most meet the expectation that readers will have from the title and subtitle of the book, and they will not be disappointed. Robinson, however, has a further agenda, pursued in the first part of the book: to describe and justify “applied theology” as a discipline and a way of doing theology and as her methodology in the critique of “bad theology”. She does this eruditely, citing many of the best-known practitioners of applied theology and, in the process, claiming that methodology as supporting the arguments that she advances in the later case studies.

That first part may well be of interest to readers even if it is not how the book is presented. The connection between the two parts of the book is less convincing, however: the argument would have been better served had the methodological insights been more integrated into the case studies. As things stand, this seems like two separate books with a title and cover that invite the reader only into the second of them.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester, Bishop to HM Prisons, and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.

Bad Theology: Oppression in the name of God
Leah Robinson
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £16

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