The New Yoder
ed. Peter Dula and Chris K. Huebner. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. 338 pages.
The New Yoder is a collection of essays representing a new generation of reflection on the work of John Howard Yoder. Particular contributions to the volume, however, have very little interest in directly engaging what might be called the “old Yoder” scholarship of a James Reimer or a Denny Weaver. These are essays that try, as Yoder did, to re-think the questions themselves; to challenge conventional categories by working in new or unexplored directions. In part, this is reflective of a characteristic post-structuralist and post-colonial influence that has freed Yoder’s profound epistemological and political insights to become critical springboards rather than positions to defend. In fact, new Yoder scholarship is characterized by a suspicion of such territorial images. The spirit of the book is thus not one of defensiveness or apologetic anxiety, but one of openness and engagement. It enters into conversation with a wide variety of interlocutors including Foucault, Nietzsche, Virilio, Said, Derrida, and de Certeau. What is brought together in this collection, then, is a certain style, a certain mode of engagement and an interest in being repeatedly confronted with the “more” that might still newly speak through interaction with Yoder’s work.
If the book brings together readings of Yoder that are somehow new, however, the essays themselves tend not to be. Two thirds of the contributions are re-printed from previous publications, including a good number from earlier collections of essays on Yoder. Readers might be forgiven for wishing that The New Yoder contained some newer work. On the other hand, that many of these essays are re-prints suggests something about what it is that this “new Yoder” names. As the editors make clear, this newness is not straightforwardly temporal. Though one might be able to identify a generalized shift over the past decade, “old” and “new” Yoder scholarship continues to co-exist. Despite its disinterest in wading into previous terms of debate, one concern that drives the book as a whole is exactly the reception and inheritance of Yoder by contemporary Mennonites. In their varied and free-ranging explorations, the essays in The New Yoder collectively unmask attempts to recruit Yoder for projects that sit uneasily with the spirit of Yoder’s work itself. These would include projects that continue to read him with the Troeltschian church/sect typology in the background, often coupled with wooden and uncomplicated understandings of violence and peace.
It remains fair to say, then, that one of the themes animating The New Yoder is the question of inheritance. What does it mean to receive the life and work of John Howard Yoder? Part of what is new in this collection of essays is the recognition that this is by no means a straightforward task. To inherit need not mean to defend, nor need it require scholarship that isolates exactly what Yoder meant to say. In fact, inheriting Yoder may involve taking his thought in directions he never went himself, or entering into critical conversation with his work. Many of the essayists in this book finally find themselves “for and against” Yoder in constructive and fruitful tensions. Inheritance is not merely about continuity and homogeneity, but about disruptions and surprises. It requires a generous openness that could even be called penitential, a kind of receptivity that necessarily extends beyond Yoder’s work to the many “others” from whom we are called to receive in hospitality. And for those who have contributed to this collection, all this is profoundly Yoderian.
These patient and generous engagements at the margins are everywhere on display in The New Yoder. They are engagements that simultaneously disorient, center, and margin themselves, destabilizing locations that become too fixed and identities that become too solid. It would be a mistake, therefore, to imagine that the essays in this volume pursue the novelty of liminal spaces at the expense of some established core of Christian tradition. The “looping back” that for Yoder constitutes the continuity of the tradition is exactly a perennially unfinished process of being reformed by confessing the Lordship of Christ in openness to the future and to encounters that cannot yet be foreseen. Even so, it is striking to me that the one set of interlocutors largely absent from discussion in The New Yoder are the scriptural voices that Yoder himself engaged so extensively. I am not yet sure what this says about the “new Yoder,” but in light of this volume I do wonder what it would look like to receive the Scriptures themselves as a disruptive “other” at the edges of our communities. Might an openness to its strangeness also rupture and destabilize, drawing new voices and conversations into the organic and unpredictable adventure that for Yoder is faithfulness to Christ?