A Review of Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life by Dr. Robert Benne

[1] Professor Robert Benne was probably the best seminary professor I had. One of the great joys I had, as a seminarian student was a course taught by Benne called “Introduction to Church and Society.” This course coupled with Benne’s passion, its methodology, and readings confirmed what I experienced as a church worker in the late 1960s. In order to do meaningful ministry, especially in urban context, one had to become familiar with the structures of authority in that place. Benne provided a useful framework for articulating social ethics from a Lutheran perspective.

[2] And that is what makes Ordinary Saints an exceptionally useful text for some contemporary Lutherans. In a tightly written text, filled with personal stories, Benne introduces the reader, principally college students, to the basics of the Christian life nuanced by Lutheran theological understanding. The book is organized into three parts: the call of God, the calling of the Christian, and the callings (or places where the Christian exercises his/her callings) of the Christian. Each chapter begins with an epigram from the Bible (two from the Hebrew Bible and eight from the New Testament). Each chapter ends with a set of questions and recommendations for further readings.

[3] While other contemporary ethicists spend time crafting Christian ethical theory of some kind or another and then applying that theory to specific issues in society, Benne chooses a different strategy. The first six chapters unveil the framework of what Benne is proposing. The last four chapters are related to specific “places” in which the Christian lives out his/her calling. In an intentional way, then, Benne accomplishes his purpose: to sketch the Christian life (xii).

[4] What is the fundamental problem that motivates Benne to revise this previously published text on the basic ingredients of the Christian life? The first is the confusion and moral fragmentation of society especially as it is embodied in college students. Many students are unclear about why they are on this earth and lack knowledge of the Christian heritage.

[5] The second observation we’ve heard before. It is the combination of fragmented life styles and moving away from the classical understanding of the Christian faith. One of the consequences, in Benne’s view, is that people become lonely and disconnected. Secondly, they then join “communities” based on race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation (12). A consequence of this behavior is that these new “tribes” challenge and disassociate themselves from the grand metanarratives developed and associated with what Robert Bellah and others call the biblical and republican narratives.

[6] This is an interesting description of the fundamental problem in America. As one of those “elite multiculturalists,” (I guess I would be so identified because of my education and the “place” where I “work”), I would want to probe a little more Benne’s assessment. One of the consequences of the Enlightenment project was its emphasis on the individual. Individualism (i.e., a life style, belief system, and moral principles that emphasizes self-interest) is the dominant spirit of this country and the church. Individualism does lead toward disconnecting from the biblical and republican narratives. That much I agree with. Our market economy sees to that. For example, some African American theologians and ethicists would make the same argument. Even the sainted cultural critic and philosopher Cornel West would argue that point (see his popular book Race Matters).

[7] On the other hand, I think this is an incomplete reading of the social situation in America. It seems to me that people who had nothing to do with how they were created by God are interested in what I would call individual striving. Persons excluded from the history and story of the church and society are interested in pursuing the full development of the gifts God has blessed them with. Individual striving, then, is a consequence of those communities defined by race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation who experienced the gospel, sacraments, a spirituality, and oppressive practices that denied their humanity and fulfillment as God’s people. Individual striving is a goal of the community (the church) which proclaims an alternate shared identity and means of responsibility and accountability.

[8] Here I should make a confession. I, too, experienced much of what Benne experienced as a young person in a Lutheran congregation (see pages 32-36 for Benne’s description of his formation in the church). That congregation was an “integrated” congregation that grew and was proud to be self-supporting. It had all of the same programs as Benne’s congregation. And, I had several Sunday school teachers and pastors who thought I would make a good pastor and encouraged me to pursue that vocation. It was a model “integrated” middle-class congregation because African Americans and whites were able to build a church together.

[9] However, in many urban congregations, as people of African descent began to assert themselves (i.e., they began to push for individual striving) in the church and society, the white members began to leave. By the early 1970s these congregations were identified as African American congregations not by their own definition but by the definition of others. It seems to me that this is not a case of African American people “joining a ‘community’ because of race and being lonely.” This is a case of white members failing to believe in the justifying grace of God and being stretched to express their faith in active love toward their brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not held accountable by the community for their confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

[10] And this brings me to what Benne identifies as the central chapter of the book, Chapter 6. Employing the biblical story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), we learn that three qualities make up the Christian life: faith, hope, and love. Christians in their places of responsibilities (family, work, public life, and the church), through the gift of the Holy Spirit, will manifest these qualities.

[11] There appears to be some inconsistency in what Benne says he is going to do in the last four chapters. Earlier in the book, Benne tells us he is not going to deal with “issues.” However, in the chapter on “Marriage and Family Life,” the reader is treated to “Related Issues” including homosexuality (147-158). However, when one reads the chapter on work, Benne fails to identify any issues related to work like race or the fact that corporations are choosing to leave urban communities and relocating outside the North American continent.

[12] Ordinary Saints concludes with a chapter on the church. In a lucid and wonderful manner Benne describes the church as another place of responsibility. Traditional Lutheran emphases are maintained. As a seminary professor who at present encounters students in the “Introduction to Church and Society” course, I found this to be especially heart-warming. Some seminarians are unaware of the Lutheran tradition of social ethics. Thus, Benne’s presentation of how the church’s service is manifested in society is helpful. The distinction between social care and social action is useful (212-215).

[13] Finally, several other observations are needful. One wishes the publisher had chosen larger print for the book. Those advancing in age may find reading the book somewhat difficult. It will take several sittings to read the book. And, those who consider themselves to be “postmodernist” or “multiculturalist” in their orientation may be disappointed in the book. While some women authors are listed in the “Further Reading” sections, there are no identifiable people of color listed. One could imagine, for example, how the presentation of the Christian life would look had Benne engaged ethicists like Samuel K. Roberts (African American Christian Ethics, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press: 2001) or Rosetta Ross (Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). Maybe that is the book to come.

[14] I would highly recommend Ordinary Saints for college students and adult study groups. I would also recommend those audiences to read texts like those I mentioned above to gain a more fuller picture of what the Christian life is all about.

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Dr. Perry is a member of the Advisory Council for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, represents the Lutheran Ethicists Network on the Theological Roundtable, and serves as convener of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL, USA).