A Review by Dr. Martha Stortz

Michael Shahan (ed.), A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology, A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Benne (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009). xv + 166 pages. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-8028-4863-5.

[1] Someone as prolific as Robert Benne probably ought to have a festschrift every decade, simply to pause and appreciate the intellectual range of this enormously productive scholar. Editor Michael Shahan reached across disciplines and traditions to assemble authors able to address Benne’s concerns: from economics to ethics, to philosophy, to theology, to the church and ministry. Whether they write on the need to address “Big Questions” in higher education (Gerald McDermott and Donald Schmeltekopf/Michael D. Beaty), the mediating role of faith-based institutions in public life (Ronald Thiemann, Paul Hinlicky, Richard John Neuhaus), respect for human life (Jean Bethke Elshtain, Gilbert Meilaender), or the role of hope in civic discourse (Carl Braaten), all of these diverse scholars speak to a single concern: the importance of public theology, particularly the contribution a robust Lutheran theology might make.

[2] In a brief, pithy introduction, John Stumme situates authors within the spectrum of these issues, a crucial piece since some reference Benne’s work and others do not. The book has three parts: first, the context for public theology; then, the distinctive Lutheran contribution; and finally, contested issues in public theology, specifically, civic engagement, higher education, and economics, which is treated by Joseph Swanson. Michael Shahan’s opening essay gives a generous and thorough survey of Benne’s body of work, locating it in the context of important political and cultural movements in the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. As his title indicates, Shahan finds the fulcrum of Benne’s work in his belief in divine transcendence and his awareness of human sin. He presents Benne as a crusader against a “militant secularism” that has infiltrated theological discourse with a “salvationist faith,” a “secularized gospel,” and an unwarrantedly optimistic view of human nature. A good companion piece to Shahan’s is Benne’s own, and for that I commend his intellectual autobiography from dialog, “Brushes with the Great and Near-Great: Fifty Years of Theological Reminiscences.”[1]

[3] Both pieces point to the importance of good conversation partners, some of whom appear in this volume. We are the company we keep. Some of that company has passed on to the communion of saints. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ contribution must have been among his last pieces, for he died early in 2009. From the grave, Neuhaus laments the stand-off between public reason and anything associated with religion. He praises Benne for his efforts in renewing “Christian confidence in providing a morally informed philosophy for a more just and virtuous society in the tradition of liberal democracy” (47). Hinlicky’s essay explains just what that means, retrieving “liberalism” from the dung-heap of popular culture and restoring its complex philosophical commitments. Hinlicky shows how Benne straddles philosophical liberalism and Lutheran theology.

[4] The voice of Soren Kierkegaard echoes throughout the volume, but nowhere more resonantly than in Gilbert Meilaender’s contribution. He repeats Kierkegaard’s warning of what happens when a movement intended as a corrective turns into a norm. Without roots, the movement withers – or turns to theological platitudes. Benne puts it well: “Lutheran perspectives operating without the larger context of the great tradition are finally anemic” (67).[2] Indeed, a chief fear of the contributors to this volume seems to be this rootlessness in Lutheran theology and among Lutheran theologians, making them prey to the winds of secularism.

[5] Another common conversation partner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer nailed the difference between American and French democracies in a way that only an outsider to both cultures could see: “The American democracy is not founded upon the emancipated man but, quite the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God” (97).[3] Hinlicky cites Bonhoeffer to underscore the importance of church in offering people the spiritual community they long for – but all too easily find in a political cause or ideological commitment. Churches offer a community all too aware of its imperfections, as opposed to affinity groups and causes all too convinced of their righteousness.

[6] Of course, the voice of Martin Luther echoes across the centuries and in the heads of these authors, for Luther faced similar struggles over the role of religion in public life. In one of the most provocative essays in the volume, Mark Noll wonders whether Lutherans have actually listened. He offers a rich programmatic essay which outlines the weaknesses of the dominant voice in American Christian political discourse, Protestant evangelicalism. Then, he argues that Lutheran theology has the potential to provide healthy motives for political involvement, healthy priorities for political agendae, healthy attitudes for political action, and sound political goals. Finally, the seering critique: Noll wonders why Lutherans have in fact “appeared to exert such scant positive effect on the course of political life?” (83) Let his answer be the teaser that prompts you to read this fine book.

[7] Neuhaus, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and Luther offer examples of public theologians as “connected critics,” the subject of Ron Thiemann’s contribution. He explores the contrast between the public theology practiced by Charter 77 in the Czech Republic in 1989 and the kind of public theology urgently needed in a post-9/11 United States. Citing the dramatic constriction of civil liberties in the wake of the Twin Towers’ collapse, Thiemann reminds readers of the corruptibility of any political regime – even democratic capitalism. He calls public theologians to be “connected critics,” moving fluidly between “the poles of critique and connection, solitude and solidarity, alienation and authority.”(112) Churches are uniquely suited to the role, because, unlike organizations that emerge out of a particular confluence of historical forces, churches are part of “the continuing long-term permanent fabric of civil society….” (111) Thiemann does not close by citing Luther – but he could have: public theologians are to be in, but not of the world.

[8] These authors are ordinary saints in conversation with those in the communions saints. Nor is the training of future saints neglected. Benne’s work in and for higher education is honored by the jointly authored piece by Donald Schmeltekopf and Michael Beaty, who expose the generational divide between a student body haunted by “Big Questions” and a faculty that shuns such questions as overly “subjective” and “moralistic.”[4] For faculty searching for appropriate ways to reach students who are spiritually hungry, Gerald McDermott argues the difference between indoctrination and persuasion, arguing for a return to the fine art of rhetoric.

[9] A single review cannot do justice to the quality and scope of these essays, nor can a single reviewer – except perhaps Robert Benne himself. As noted, I would have appreciated his voice in this volume, in particular inclusion of his intellectual autobiography from dialog (2003). Let me notice two other lacunae, one in substance, the other in tone.

[10] Mark Noll observes that American political theology has been more shaped by a Reformed sensibility than a Lutheran one. That means it has grown out of a deep sense of the sovereignty of God, rather than the more complex dialectic of God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence. Humans are simul justus et peccator, an insight that would certainly play into the difference between these two sensibilities. But so would understandings of God: transcendence and immanence form a divine simul…et…. The difference between a political theology shaped by divine sovereignty and a public theology shaped by divine transcendence/immanence is noted – tantalizingly! – but not explored.

[11] As the authors point out, you cannot easily map Two Kingdoms doctrine onto this dialectic between transcendence and immanence, but what is the relationship? And how would it shape public theology?

[12] And that leads to a second lacunae: divine immanence. With characteristic beauty and bluntness, Braaten underscores the role of resurrection in public theology, but this volume needed more attention to incarnation and creation. It would have meant distinguishing between secularization, the need to deny God entirely, transcendent or immanent, and saeculum, the realm of God’s creative activity. It would have meant showing Richard Rorty, famously dismissive of belief and believers, more charity than Rorty displays in return. It would have meant finding the “grain of truth,” even in the work of opponents.

[13] This is also a substantive lacunae, but it leads to a troubling tone in this volume. Many of these authors feel under siege. The title of the book draws on a military metaphor: A Report from the Front Lines. We aren’t talking about the lines at the local cineplex.

[14] Eerdmans plays along, dubbing the book “A thought-provoking corrective to cultural pathologies distorting discussion and rationality in the public square.” Them’s fightin’ words!

[15] And they ignore the qualities of modesty, humility, and civility that the same authors call for in public discourse. Moreover, a Lutheran dialectic demands this dispositions. Noll underscores their importance in public life: “… the best political actions fall short of divine standards…and that the worst political actions contain something human (because they too have been made possible by God and preserved by his providence)….” (82) Could the same not also be said of public theology and public theologians?

[16] Final counsel to the reader: Proceed with generosity – even if you be counted among the “cultured despisers of religion!” Overlook the agonistic title of this book and combative tone of some of its essays. You will be richly rewarded.


[1] Robert Benne, “Brushes with the Great and Near-Great: Fifty Years of Theological Reminiscences,”dialog 42 (Spring, 2003): 86-90. Thanks to Gil Meilaender for mentioning this. I wish it had been included in the volume.

[2]Robert Benne, Ordinary Saints, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 18.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. E. Bethge (NY: Macmillan, 1975), 102.

[4] The term is a concern of the Teagle Foundation. Cf., W. Robert Connor, “The Right Time and Place for Big Questions,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 June 2006, B8. Alexander Astin and his associates have published companion studies on the spiritual life of college students and faculty: The Spiritual Life of College Students: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose (UCLA, Higher Education Research Institute, 2003); Spirituality and the Professoriate: A National Study of Faculty Belief, Attitudes, and Behaviors (UCLA, Higher Education Research Institute, 2005), 3.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).