I was thoroughly blessed through reading the recently published memoirs of Dr. Robert Benne. Many thanks to Dr. Benne for writing them and to the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau for publishing them. Reading Dr. Benne’s memoirs reminded me of when I saw the 1989 movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.” While watching that movie, and while reading Dr. Benne’s memoirs, I felt like I was reliving several of the years of my own life.
I was born ten years after Dr. Benne, but like him I grew up in a culture that supported and encouraged the Christian faith. He grew up in a small town in Nebraska. I was born in Minneapolis and spent some of the formative years of my life in a small town in Iowa. At that time the world was trustworthy and safe, America was great and good, and right and wrong were clearly defined (page 77). Bob Benne met his first black persons in college. I had my first Asian friend in seminary.
I experienced and was dramatically changed by the same social and cultural dynamics that strongly affected him, though at an age of ten years younger. We were both influenced by the liberal idealism of the early 60’s. Like him, I came to view the church mainly as an instrument of social transformation (page 83). I identified with his self-description, “I tried to swim with the radical tide” (page 88). I was amused by his comment, “I became a ‘social justice warrior’ before the term had been coined” (page 106). He mentioned that while teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago he worked with the Ecumenical Institute, an organization that offered introductory courses to the Christian faith, workshops on anti-racism, and training in community transformation. I remember while attending college near Chicago hearing a presentation by one of the staff members of the institute. I was stirred by what he said and was determined that that is what I wanted to do after graduating from seminary.
I could identify with Dr. Benne’s then sharing the story of how he came to realize the spiritual bankruptcy of that view of the mission and message of the church. He described himself as a “wanna-be radical” who got “mugged by reality” (page 90). He came to see how, by viewing the church primarily as a vehicle of social transformation, he had reduced its transcendent message to merely human efforts (page 89).
I greatly appreciate the way in which Dr. Benne shares so personally, openly, and honestly the story of his own spiritual and ministry journey. He feels deeply and articulates boldly and clearly the seriousness of the departure of much of American Lutheranism from the historic Christian faith. He feels the pain, and he can articulate the issues.
In the final pages of his memoirs he describes the events of the last twenty years, including the formation of LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ), Lutheran CORE, and the NALC (North American Lutheran Church). He states wisely and accurately, “Though church schisms are undoubtedly serious matters that should be undertaken with trepidation, it has seemed clear to me that the schismatic party was actually the ELCA. It simply collapsed before the ‘progressive’ American culture, as did other mainline Protestant denominations. . . . The ELCA bishops, whose first duty was to defend the orthodox truth, failed miserably” (page 167).
I am very grateful to Dr. Benne for writing these memoirs and am very thankful for the opportunity to read them. I also want to thank Dr. Benne for the role he has played in the formation and life of Lutheran CORE and the ministry that he continues to have.
Dr. Robert Benne currently teaches Christian Ethics at the online Institute for Lutheran Theology. He was Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Roanoke College in Virginia for eighteen years before he left full-time teaching in 2000. He founded the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society in 1982 and directed it until 2012. He continues at Roanoke College as a research associate in its religion and philosophy department. A link to the ALPB (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau) website where you can order a copy of his memoirs can be found here.