Listen to our prophets

January 18, 2012 | Editorial | Number 2
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Reflecting recently on 57 years of writing as “an icon of Canadian literature,” Ruby Wiebe told an overflow audience at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont., that one of the lessons learned in all of his storytelling was that “Mennonites tended to always view their neighbours—whether in the Ukraine, Paraguay or the western Canadian Prairies—as ‘the other.’ ”

Wiebe was referring specifically to the Mongols during the golden age of Mennonites in Russia prior to the Stalinist Revolution, the Arroyos of the Chaco and the several indigenous bands of native people living on reserves on the edges of Mennonite settlements in western Canada. His gripping stories of cool relations with all of these neighbours, although benign and sometimes compassionate, were characterized by a self-righteousness that kept persons of another culture at arm’s length.

For this candid exposure of one of our spiritual flaws, Wiebe paid a price. It is a well-known fact now, that early in his writing career, with the publishing of his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, he was first severely ostracized in his home community of Coaldale, Alta., and his books were banned in many other Canadian Mennonite communities for years to come. Looking back some 25 years later, he told a group in Winnipeg, as Leo Driedger recounts it in At the Forks, “publishing that first novel became for me both an exaltation and a trauma; it certainly changed the direction of the rest of my life.”

Wiebe was relieved of his duties as editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald and had to leave Canada. “Oh, words have power, power beyond what I imagined in three years of wrestling with them,” he concluded. Reviewer Al Reimer wrote at the time: “Peace was the right novel at the right time, in that it raised crucial questions and long-suppressed issues of Mennonite life and faith, and dared to address them honestly and with creative independence: isolation and the patriarchal tyranny it bred, racial bigotry as the ugly product of Mennonite pride, passive nonresistance, . . . the German versus the English language crisis, sexual repression and subjugation of women, religious formalism and the lust for land.”

All this seems too easy—almost giddy—to recall now that Wiebe, after a lifetime of successful writing, has achieved fame in the larger literary world and has opened the eyes of the wider society to both our warts and beauty as a faith community. We can now laugh with him at some of the silly recriminations suffered because of his work.

But at a deeper level, we are far richer because of him and the inspiration he gave other creative writers to chronicle an ongoing narrative about who we are and how we struggle to be a faithful people. For Wiebe, as the dean of some 23 creative writers listed by Driedger, has filled the role of the prophet in schooling us as a people of God.

In telling their dramatic stories as one of us, they have, in many ways, saved us from ourselves, providing instruction to those of us willing to receive it, just as the prophets of the Old and New testaments warned, cajoled and wooed God’s people as they wandered from country to country, often in captivity and under oppression, and all too prone to fit into the culture of their time and place.

Mennonites, especially, should take their stories to heart, not only for entertainment, but also for self-correction, a sharper self-identity, and, on a lighter note, a good laugh at our cultural idiosyncrasies and ourselves.

For it is their prophetic role that, often in a less ponderous way than our gifted theologians, has guided us through the thickets of our spiritual development. Driedger says it well in summing up the contribution they have made: “As Mennonites became more highly educated and urban, their search for new psychological identities changed as their language and culture changed. Individuals studied and re-evaluated loyalties, emotions and feelings toward their Anabaptist past and traditional rural values.

“In the city, they faced new forms of space, organization, symbols and communication, which required thought, debate, study and evaluation. In Winnipeg, Mennonite creative writers, artists and musicians helped in the process of finding new Anabaptist identities, some of which reflected their 16th-century roots and others reflect the information age.”

Not only in Winnipeg, but also across Canada and beyond. Thank you, Rudy Wiebe and your school of “prophets.”

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