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.
 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.
 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
 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
"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."
 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.
 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.
 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?
 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
 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
 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.
 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
 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.
 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.