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


[1] I will not reiterate, not for too long, anyway, my appreciation of Robert Benne's Ordinary Saints, well-written, sound, and purveyor of the comprehensibly complex.  I would certainly recommend the book to some members of my congregation seeking to live faithfully and thoughtfully in a complex and demanding time.  

[2] The book is heavily flavored by the social location of the author in a disarming sort of way.  At the beginning of the book he is refreshingly frank about his experience and religious beliefs.  As he glorifies qualities of the small town life that marked his childhood, he simultaneously recognizes its shortcomings as emotionally unexpressive (though I personally don't have a problem with that), parochial, judgmental toward others, utterly uncompassionate toward those who "deserved" their plight, and defensive about its own smallness and anonymity.  That frankness gives us an indication of what is to come-but because of that flavor, I would not necessarily recommend this book to everyone in my congregation.

[3] Benne is fair and he is consistent, and these are clarifying and valuable, not to mention rare, attributes. His attitude frees him to make social observations that someone bound to a particular view of society (or political party?) would not make.   I may not agree with every analysis Benne offers of our social ills-actually, I frequently heartily disagree-but I have to respect the bold impartiality with which he pronounces judgment.  Witness his observation that the real problem in our society is not people living on welfare, but our indifference to their plight.  And his comment that "Every group has its sacred conventions," (88) which make being pro life or pro-President Clinton equally hazardous to the career, depending on the context. 

[4] But the real benefit of this book to the church in which I serve, I think, is the way that Benne is able to describe the questions and quandaries of a middle-class American in terms of faith.  The greatest gift Benne brings to the discussion of the Christian moral life, besides a structured, fully reasoned view of the life of faith, is a strong emphasis on its ambiguity.  Benne uses the orders of creation to much enlightenment of the human predicament. 


"Finitude means limits on what we can accomplish.  We can love only a few people and oftentimes poorly at that.  Surplus energy beyond our strict duties is shockingly low.  Necessities of life seem to suck up our time and energy.  We are buffeted this way and that by too many claims to handle adequately.  Much of what we are able to do seems flawed and half-hearted.  The meaning of our work evaporates like a bubble on a stream.  We get confused about what we should do with our lives."

P 38

[6] How well this speaks to the day-to-day reality of my life and struggle to be both faithful and responsible. The Dietrich Bonhoeffers of the world are rare birds, and others of us may be more limited in the way of talents and resources and possible impact on world events. I, for one, find that realistic expectations free me from the being mired in the anxiety of knowing that I will never measure up to even the standards the church sets for me-a Lutheran move if there ever was one.  As a citizen of a democratic political and economic powerhouse, I find myself well-nigh beleaguered by claims of responsibility, all of which I could not possibly fulfill.  Benne does not release me from those responsibilities, but rather acknowledges their number and reasonably suggests focusing activity in a few areas. 

[7] I find much that, if carried to a logical conclusion, could benefit all people and not just those who share Benne's social location.  Benne's reminder on page 112 that we are not called to be Christ, to represent and redeem all creation, could be a liberating construct for those encountering the social structure from below.  How often are the suffering told to model their lives on Christ, in misguided romanticization of powerlessness? Once again, Benne uses the fact of our finitude to reveal a Christian perspective on public life.

[8] What are the weaknesses of Ordinary Saints?  There is a practical assumption underlying the book--that people have access to all spheres of activity-that can make this model nearly meaningless for some. The students Benne encounters at Roanoke who have enough primary education to gain entrance to a liberal arts college, and have access to the almost $30,000 a year they will need to spend to attend probably have access to all spheres.  But some segments of society have been completely alienated from one sphere of responsibility or another.  People who come from a background of generations of unemployment or underemployment don't have enough access to the sphere of economic activity to reach responsibility.  If more than a quarter of households of families only have one parent present, can we still call the family a basic structure of society?  Does this throw the whole structure into disrepair, or does this fact call our attention to the imbalance and ask us to right it? 

[9] My disagreements with Benne on social analysis lead me to what I find to be another weakness.  In the course of relating faith problems to their social manifestations, Benne concludes that passivity is, at its root, a religious problem (75).  But if whole classes of people are relatively passive, is it not a social condition as well?  And has the church not at times participated in enforcing passivity, sending women back to abusive marriages, enforcing racial segregation and class differences?  Occasionally Benne's ability to relate the sacred and secular result in bumpy transitions from one to the other, and judgments of causality that I would call into question.

[10] Of course, and this Benne makes clear at the beginning of his volume, this book is written by a particular person in a particular time and place, and it reflects that.  I was surprised to find myself lumped with militant feminists who questioned whether marriage was just one more form of oppression of women.  I find that most of the objections I raise come from my experience that the world is not as equal as he describes, and that I see no remedy for that inequality in Ordinary Saints.

[11] To continue out of my personal concern, I find it less than helpful that Benne chooses to restrict the work done at home (mostly by women) to the family sphere.  It is a choice that simplifies the scheme, and is in many ways comprehensible.  Yet the consequences of this historically are less than satisfying, alienating women into private, home life, keeping them out of public view, fortifying arguments that their character is more suited to raising a family than leading a nation.  To suggest that work at home is strictly in the familial sphere is also to neglect the public aspect of both marriage, as an example and support to others, and child-bearing, as raising future citizens (as well as faithful Christians). On the other hand, as a working woman I find it incredibly soothing that all Christians can be called upon to strike a balance between work and home.  "Christians should not fall prey to the illusion that the nurture of children is less a priority than having a paying job, achieving a promotion, or acquiring a higher standard of living."  I think that Benne means this to apply equally to men and women.

[12] When Benne describes in marriage "a kind of complementarity to which each partner assents out of equal dignity and strength," (145) I cannot but guffaw at the idea that as a rule men and women are operating from positions of equal dignity and strength.  I am an educated, economically self-sufficient woman, but I see equal dignity and strength as a goal, and hardly a starting point.  I find it difficult to accept an argument which assumes an equality neither I nor my educated contemporaries have experienced.  Likewise, I imagine a person of color would find his assertion of racial equality in discussing racial quotas highly questionable.
[13] I sense two things lacking in the structure Benne has described:  a place where the experience of inequality or lack of access is recognized and movement is made towards righting that inequality and lack of access, and a place for dreaming and proclamation. We may be called to the prophetic far less than we believe we are, but there is little in Benne's scheme which allows this as a possibility. Where is the rightful place of a vision of newness, and of recreation after forgiveness, for the kingdom that is "already," as well as "not yet"?  We are not all Bonhoeffers, but a few of us are, and when our places of responsibility require us to step away from stasis, we need help to do that faithfully. 

[14] Complaints aside, I cannot help but admire Benne's comprehensive vision and his ability to systematize the complexity of faithful modern life.  I might place my emphases in different parts of the structure, but I still believe Benne has defined a standard worth heeding, as well as one to which many could make an appeal by virtue of practical exclusion from one sphere or another.  The question to be resolved is by what mechanism they would seek change.



© February 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 2