John Driver, Radical Faith : An Alternative History of the Christian Church. Edited by
Carrie Snyder. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1999. Pp. 334. ISBN 84-89389-08-X.
(Translated from the Spanish: La fe en la periferia de la historia. Guatemala: Edicione
Clara-Semilla, 1997). Reviewed by Neal Blough.
Edgar Stoesz and Muriel T. Stackley, A Garden in the Wilderness: Mennonite
Communities in the Paraguayan Chaco. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1999. Pp. 210.
ISBN 0-920718-63-9. Reviewed by Gundolf Niebuhr.
Robert S. Kreider, Looking Back into the Future. Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1998. Pp. 302. ($25.00 -- paperback) ISBN 1-889239-00-3
In 1998 Bethel College sponsored a symposium in honor of Mennonite elder statesman Robert Kreider. Its theme "Walls and Windows: Creating and Nurturing Viable Community" gave wide room for Kreider's many interests, which we find reflected in the articles of this volume. The book was released at the symposium as volume 11 of Bethel's C. H. Wedel Historical Series.
The articles span sixty-four years, beginning with his oration against child labor in America in 1934 when he was a fifteen-year old junior in the Bluffton, Ohio, high school, to reflections on the next generation of Mennonite historians at the inter-Mennonite historical conference in Abbotsford, British Colombia in 1998, where he modestly counseled, "Play to your strengths and gifts, take counsel, and follow your curiosity." (300) In a sense this volume is a biography of the author's many interests and activities. It was a college History of Civilization course that drew him to the career of a historian, giving up the other options of architecture and journalism, but the writings in this volume show that he never really gave up journalism--the curiosity, questioning, probing approach to every situation. And Kreider has been a prodigious reader all his life. The many references to the writings of others, to historical figures ancient and modern, his broad inter-disciplinary interest in wide ranging topics from politics to mental health to spirituality, lead the reader to recognize in him a modern "Renaissance man", at home in almost every human situation.
Because Kreider has traveled extensively most of his life, many articles are based on journal entries. Some, like the account of his and a friend's bicycle tour of Europe in 1938 on the eve of World War II, was published in 1998 and presumably written then. It is a fascinating travelogue, including the journal comment: "My total impression is still that National Socialism is a mild form of insanity" (12). Equally interesting is Kreider's keen perception of political issues when, as a student at Bethel College just back from Europe in 1938, he responded to a pro-Nazi editorial in The Mennonite with his own editorial in the Bethel Collegian stating "We sincerely believe that the Nazi dictatorship is evil, even as the Stalinist state" (14).
Among the many themes considered in this volume, that of peace may be paramount. "1941: The 'Good Boys of CPS'", written in 1991, and "1941: CPS: A "Year of Service" are major contributions to understanding CPS, including the sometimes stressful relationship Kreider, as administrator, and others had with Selective Service and government agencies. So also "The Chains of Conscription" (69), a statement read before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1955, "Letter to Richard M. Nixon" (124) written in 1974, "Vietnam-Little Peace, Less Honor," (138) written in 1975, "A. W. Roberson-Peacemaker" (164), a graphic first person account of an African American in Newton, Kansas, slowly breaking down the barriers of racism in 1978, and "Verbs of Violence" written the same year (169). Also in this peace stream are Kreider's and his wife Lois' reflections on visiting a missile installation east of Newton on a Sunday afternoon: "1979: 'Deadly Force Authorized'" (177). It is clear again from these readings that in his heart and mind and very being the author is deeply committed to peace in all its many forms. Small wonder then that he served as professor of Peace Studies at Bethel College for a decade, beginning in 1975.
Following closely on the heels of the peace theme is a second one -- community and family -- of which the prime example may be "1983: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" (187), excerpted from a longer article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 1983). This is a perceptive, even brilliant, description of Mennonite pluralism as seen through the eyes of a young teenager, initially. The amount of detail remembered is amazing. Community is graphically present in the description of the suffering church in Central America in "1984: Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death." (199), as well as in "1989: Camelot at Sharp's Chapel," (254), a vivid description of a 1989 reunion of 18 members of a Quaker work camp of 1937: "how do you create community -- a product of work or a gift of grace?"
Concerning family, two items: Most impressive is the article "1970: Camping in Europe on Three Dollars a Day" (103), describing how Robert and Lois, with five children ages 19 to 9, spent four and a half months traveling through twelve countries, circling the Mediterranean and finally leaving their camping equipment with friends in Casablanca. Said the youngest "Now I can speak a little bit in 12 languages and a lot in one--English." And second, "1989: Ten Days That Shook My World," when the author had heart bypass surgery. He speaks movingly of a "reversal of roles" when his children surrounded him: "here was an intimation of the Kingdom of Heaven," seeing drama and eschatology where others see only tragic misfortune. Ever the optimist!
Although mention cannot be made here of most of the 66 selections in the volume, note should be made of an unusual one on a theme not often heard among Mennonites: "1976: A Hymn of Affection for a Land and a People". (150). It begins with, "I am critical of America," but soon goes on to describe fascinating aspects of national life that most of us are familiar with but have not taken time to reflect upon. "I listen with respect to a state patrolman who is so gracious as he gives me a traffic ticket." Here is no strident nationalism, or its opposite, but genuine love of the things that make America what it is, like names: Shipshewana, Churubusco, Jim Town, Tiskilwa, Kickapoo, Paradise, Hinkletown. Or ethnic diversity--the names of the World Series players: Evans, Morgan, Bench, Driessen, McEnaney, Concepcion and "beautiful to the ear--Petrocelli, Yastrzemski, and Geronimo. If only there had also been a Reichenbach, Sawatzky, and Tschetter." The article was printed in The Mennonite, January 13, 1976, but reprinted also in the Wichita Eagle and Hutchinson News.
This book cannot be recommended too highly to all who are interested in seeing life and
events through the eyes of a very keen observer with a creative mind, a great gift for
writing, and a loving, caring spirit. Robert Kreider was born in Illinois, but spent his
childhood and early teen years in Goshen, Indiana; Bluffton, Ohio; and Newton, Kansas,
moving back to Kansas in 1975. He has served ably as college teacher, dean, and
president as well as being on many committees where his presence always made a
Cornelius J. Dyck
John Driver, Radical Faith : An Alternative History of the Christian Church. Edited by Carrie Snyder. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1999. Pp. 334. ISBN 84-89389-08-X. (Translated from the Spanish: La fe en la periferia de la historia. Guatemala: Edicione Clara-Semilla, 1997)
Radical Faith is the one of the fruits of John Driver's many years of teaching history and theology in a variety of mission contexts. The book is about "sectarian catholicity," an effort to demonstrate the continuity of radical faith throughout history from the New Testament origins of the church until the present. It is well written, accompanied by quotations from key texts from all the movements included and will be a good textbook in many different settings.
Since no reader is without bias, I should state mine from the outset. This reviewer works for the same mission agency that employed John Driver. Driver was a well appreciated colleague during the years he was in Spain in the 1980's. As did John Driver, I also teach church history in a highly secularized but traditionally Catholic context. Even though the theology of liberation that strongly influenced Driver is less present in the French context where I live and work, I was able to identify with the questions that the book is asking and trying to answer. Before raising questions, I want to say clearly that I think the book is a very good one and deserves to be widely read and used, both in the classroom, as well as by anyone interested in the history of Christianity.
From the outset, John Driver makes it clear that he is operating out of a particular theological bias with well-defined criteria: his starting point is a "version of history found in the Bible, with its vision of the Kingdom of God and His righteousness." This book is not the story of the Ecumenical Councils, of theological debates, of Princes and Popes, or of crusades and conquests. "This is the story of the poor and oppressed, surprised by the grace of God those who, by human standards, have stood outside the institutions of salvation of those called to prophetic mission and martyrdom the story of the Messianic people who live in expectation of the radical restoration of God's kingdom, in all its vigor and splendor." Driver's book assumes a "Constantinian shift," which made the history of most of Christianity, to use Enrique Dussel's terms, an "anti-Christian inversion."
It is because of this perspective that Driver begins with two chapters which set forth this biblical vision (chapter 1 "The Story of the Christian People" and chapter 2 "A Biblical Vision of the People of God"). Here it becomes clear that the book uses these theological criteria (based on Anabaptist understanding of Jesus' life and teachings) as a "filter" but will also highlight the economic and social factors that seem to consistently appear at the origins of the various movements chosen as representatives of "radical faith." The close attention paid to these different historical contexts is one of the strong points and strengths of the book.
Driver's book presents a series of movements and people that represent "radical faith." Early Christianity is represented by the pre-Constantinian church, the Montanists, Monasticism and the Donatists. Medieval representatives include the Waldensians, St. Francis, John Wyclif and the Lollards, and Peter Chelcicky and the Czech Brethren. Sixteen century radicals include Juan de Valdes, Carlstadt, Müntzer, the Peasants' War, along with Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists. From the Reformation period until the twentieth century the following movements were chosen: George Fox and the Quakers, Pietism and the Church of the Brethren, John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Plymouth Brethren, Pentecostalism, Basic Ecclesial Communities.
In some ways, John Driver's effort is similar to James McClendon's attempt to establish a "baptist" tradition which includes (but at the same time is larger than) the direct descendants of the "Radical Reformation." Not all of Driver's radicals baptize adults, nor are they all consistently non-violent. The criteria searched for and the similarities highlighted go beyond some of the traditional attempts at establishing continuity between "marginal" groups in church history. In the end, we find radicals who "direct their lives according to the authority of scripture," who "generally appeal to the poor and marginalized, women, outsiders, the ceremonially unclean," movements where the "doctrine of 'salvation by grace' takes on a deeper significance," groups that "acknowledge the Spirit of the living Christ in their midst," where "common lay persons can become active protagonists in the life and mission of the church," where "the poor are subjects of their own liberation." The relationship to mission is also clearly underlined. These radicals "see themselves as communities of mission, in which every member is called to witness." "These movements do not generally seek social survival, but rather faithfulness in mission." "Many radical movements find the suffering witness of martyrdom to be a strategic alternative to the official exercise of coercive power." Here we have an important reminder that "radical faith" is worth being shared.
John Driver is not the first person to write such a history. Sixteenth century Hutterites attempted to tell their story by tying it into the larger picture of the history of Christianity; so did the Martyrs' Mirror. As time went on, Mennonites in North America no longer seemed to need to see themselves as part of a larger context. Much of Anabaptist history done in the twentieth century has been written using the sixteenth century Reformation as the immediate backdrop and context. Such an approach has the advantage of helping to understand Anabaptists on their own terms and to distinguish their concerns from those of the "official" Reformers. It has the disadvantage of forgetting that the immediate context of the Reformation was Roman Catholicism, the failure of several centuries of reform efforts to bear fruit in a satisfactory way, and the splitting up of Western Christendom. We therefore often forget our Catholic roots, having too easily become used to the divisions and denominationalism of Western Christianity and no longer seeing our story as part of a much larger story of continuity (and conflict) with other Christians. Our own story is too often self-sufficient, perhaps because it is about ourselves and our ancestors.
John Driver has worked and taught in contexts where an Anabaptist (or "radical") version of the Christian faith had to be presented and explained to those who were not a part of this story and to whom the story appeared either unknown or so marginal as not to be worthy of serious consideration. It is in such contexts that one becomes aware of the necessity of building bridges and seeking continuity with a much larger Christian past. How many North American Mennonites feel kinship with Methodists or Pentecostals, Montanists or Donatists?
In my opinion, the book nevertheless raises important questions especially in terms of those who are not a part of the story. The Spanish preface quoted on the final cover page says that Driver has "written a history that is an alternative both to traditional accounts and to sectarian interpretations." I am convinced on the first point, but not completely on the second. To many readers outside the tradition, this will still appear to be a very "sectarian" book. But can it be otherwise? How do Mennonites understand themselves in the context of the larger Christian tradition when we presuppose a "Constantinian shift" as a starting point? How do we speak of our history and theology in contexts where Anabaptism is often nothing more than an incorrect and disparaging footnote in the larger story of the Christian church?
Taking church history out of the hands of ecclesiastical institutions (the insiders) has been one answer to such a question. In France as elsewhere, contemporary historians have often taken a more "scientific" approach to the writing of Christian history Such an approach rejects traditional confessional and polemical perspectives and includes all representatives of the "Christian" story as legitimate participants. This has the advantage of allowing Anabaptists (but also all the other groups chosen by Driver) to be a part of the larger story. This is definite progress, but it puts aside an important question that confessional approaches, including John Driver's, ask. Is there a theological "essence" of the Christian faith that can be either lived or betrayed ? Can the historian write of people, groups, and institutions that faithfully represented that which makes the Christian church "Christian" ? Until quite recently in the history of Christianity, it was assumed that such questions should be asked and could be answered. There were a variety of responses, but they all assumed the possibility of a normative perspective from which history could be done.
John Driver successfully incorporates important aspects of "scientific" historiography. He allows the outsiders a voice; in fact, they become the main participants and the center of meaning. He especially highlights the socio-economic conditions in which most of these radical groups came into being. But at the same time he assumes the faithfulness and exemplary nature of these movements. Other historians would have other readings on this question. Many would interpret Driver's perspective to mean that since all Christians have access to the same biblical tradition, certain historical conditions bring about more "radical" understandings of Scripture and therefore produce groups that have sociological similarities. A sociologist friend once asked me: do people who have no power have any other choice than an ideological rejection of power? Are there examples of radical Christian groups coming into being in other (i.e., more favorable) socio-economic circumstances? Are there examples of radical groups maintaining their "radicality" once they find themselves in different socio-economic conditions? If not, what does that mean, both theologically and sociologically?
The question then becomes: are these groups the only "true essence" of Christian history, or are they part of a larger story that also needs to be told ? The biblical narrative highlights faithful individuals and speaks of the remnant, of the "straight and narrow". But it also speaks of failure, of kingship gone awry, of exile, of betrayal, of weakness, of Moses the murderer, of Abraham the liar, David the adulterer, etc. But it's one "big" story of which David (the Old Testament Constantine) is still a part.
I am probably asking too much. John Driver's book tells the story of these groups and highlights their similarities. That in itself is a quite helpful and useful task. These stories have not been told, or they have been told only to show that these people were wrong. My question is: how do these neglected stories relate to the larger story ? Is this the (only) faithful history and the rest only an "inversion" (even though I do believe in "inversions" and unfaithfulness)? If this is the only history of the church, how then do we dialogue with Catholics and others? How do we come to grips with our own failures, with our own cultural and social accommodations to more favorable circumstances? How do we develop a theology of "institutions" and of the "long term" once the first generation martyrdom and enthusiasm is no longer present? Can we appreciate the positive impact of Christianity on Western culture?
Over the last twenty years, Mennonite scholars such as John Driver, Alan Kreider, and
Joe Liechty have been doing creative historical scholarship in quite varied contexts.
Pandora Press should be thanked for making this kind of work available to a larger North
Edgar Stoesz and Muriel T. Stackley, A Garden in the Wilderness: Mennonite Communities in the Paraguayan Chaco. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1999. Pp. 210. ISBN 0-920718-63-9
At the Archive of Fernheim Colony, activity was at high pitch: photographer Mark Beach sorting through what might be interesting scenes from settlement history, and Edgar Stoesz delving into correspondence and minutes of the Colony. Moments were brief when we could discuss the character and structure of the book to be written. "I want to produce a coffee-table book", he responded when I tried to suggest that we need to work toward a scholarly account of our history, since there had been plenty of books and booklets (in German, to be sure) narrating that story in a traditional celebrative manner, as is usual in Mennonite circles. No, Erie Sauder had not commissioned him to do scholarly work, but to write up the story in a way that would appeal to the younger generation of Mennonites in North America. They, not being involved as directly with the Russian refugee resettlement program in Paraguay, might loose track of this chapter of MCC history, and that was to be avoided. So Stoesz does not beat around the bushes in his preface, stating that "This is a celebrative book, based on a celebrative history" and again (p. 4) "The book is deliberately celebrative."
It is an account of Mennonite colonization of the Chaco, written from the vantage point of sympathetic observers, representing the MCC establishment and its role in this process. Thus, indirectly, it may be seen as an evaluation of MCC involvement during the first three decades, chiefly, of pioneering work in this context. A slight uneasiness, or at least some open questions, have lingered on over the years between representatives of MCC and settlement leaders regarding authority structures and decision-making at that time. In the Epilogue, Stoesz signals this, saying, "Dependence inevitably brings resentment" (p. 207). But he builds on the fact expressed by the German aphorism "Ende gut, alles gut" (All's well that ends well) to conclude that, all in all, it was a success story. The Mennonites were successful, economically, politically, and spiritually. Their interaction with other cultures surrounding them - though by no means free of ethnocentric mistakes - may be regarded as exemplary. Their contribution to the country that opened its doors at a desperate time cannot be overlooked today.
Structurally, the book is divided into four sections: 1) History (of Paraguay); 2) Strangers become friends in the Wilderness; 3) Building community in the Wilderness; 4) Today. The narrative form throughout the book is centered on the story of individual persons. This improves the readability of the historical accounts. The "from-to" and "before-now" dialectic is present throughout the greater part of the book, resulting from the aforementioned interest in marking the progress in all areas of communal life. Treatment is indeed comprehensive, health, education, communication, administration, economy, church and mission, recreation, as well as the interethnic encounter, all being reviewed.
For people not familiar with the different groups of Mennonites that came to the Chaco, there is a good discussion of their origins, the causes for migration, and development of their respective settlements.
In chapter 18, perspectives for the future are pondered. To what degree has there been integration? How will it continue? Will there be success or failure in mitigating the economic and cultural gap between Mennonite settlers and the people surrounding them? A warning finger is being raised not to forget Russia, where the failure to recognize "the signs of the times" in this respect contributed to the suffering of Mennonites during the period of anarchy and later under the Kulak purges.
The book, it may be emphasized, does full justice to its stated intention. It provides a panoramic overview of the 70-year period of Mennonite settlement in the Chaco. Not only is this a welcome feature for readers in the USA and Canada, but also for local readers here in Paraguay. Thus a Spanish version of it was projected by the time the first shipment arrived here, and is now ready to go to press. It will doubtless be a convenient addition to the scarce materials available in Spanish.
It can and will not replace scholarly work to be done, on the interethnic question, for
example, or on the relationship structures between MCC and Paraguayan Mennonites,
especially during the so-called "Völkische Zeit" in the early 1940s. For the present
generation, new opportunities to look at our history are opening up. Might it be appropriate
to suggest that local historians now active in Paraguay, cooperate with colleagues from North
America to re-assess this experiment, after it has been stated to be an overall success?