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Spring 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 1 · pp. 101–104 

Book Review

A Dangerous Mind: The Ideas and Influence of Delbert L. Wiens

ed. W. Marshall Johnston and Daniel J. Crosby. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. 267 pages.

Reviewed by Harold Jantz

In the mid-1960s in Mennonite Brethren circles, a young Delbert Wiens from Corn, Oklahoma, became virtually a household name because of a single article. His essay “New Wineskins for Old Wine” struck a nerve for large numbers, and did so for many in non-MB circles as well, as the late Paul Toews explains in his essay in A Dangerous Mind, a festschrift dedicated to Wiens.

“Wineskins” carried the wish that it might somehow be possible to retain something precious from the church of Wiens’s youth—of the past—while making use of the learnings of the present. As Toews puts it, “It was a ‘call to construct a coherent present as some in the past had done.’ ” In the book Wiens writes, “Grounding ourselves in the past we {102} must learn to do in our own way for our own time what our grandfathers had achieved in their time.”

Wiens’s hope in the “Wineskins” essay was not hard to recognize. Much harder to discover was the direction this might take, as A Dangerous Mind helps explain.

Wiens came to employ two lenses in particular as his thinking evolved. One had to do with the movement from village to town to city. The village represents a coherent vision; community, life as pilgrimage, and a place where sages are important. This was Corn. The city represents fragmentation, loss of community, self-awareness, mass culture, etc. The movement represents loss and pain and yet remains unavoidable. This could have been Fresno or Vietnam. Another lens for Wiens was the one he gained through his studies in classical history and theology at Yale or the University of Chicago.

I think I know what Delbert was feeling. I too grew up in a setting much like his.

In A Dangerous Mind, friends and colleagues of Wiens write how the ideas or observation of their teacher and friend influenced them. Wiens himself contributes four essays, one a kind of Cook’s tour of his life. The book is edited by two friends, W. Marshall Johnson and Daniel J. Crosby, both of whom have taught at Fresno Pacific University where Wiens spent most of his career.

Among others, Salvador Diaz, a Mexican American now teaching in another California college, relates his experience as a campesino growing up in Mexico to Wiens’s experience growing up in Corn. FPU colleague Devon Wiens describes how they developed the “Fresno Pacific Idea,” a program idea that should help introduce students to the classics and big issues in thought, hoping to launch students onto a lifelong practice of “falling forward.”

The book is likely a fair portrayal of what Wiens represents and I would suggest reflects why he did not help the church as much as one might have hoped. There is no doubt about Wiens’s considerable influence, much of it surely for the good. His studies at Yale and the University of Chicago and his work with MCC in Vietnam prior to the Vietnam War had greatly enriched him. He was bright and he knew it. “New Wineskins for Old Wine” was written in 1965, early in his teaching career. He had taught at the Corn Bible Academy, then at Tabor College, and went from there to Fresno Pacific. As he says in one of his essays, where he quotes Nietzsche at length, he was at a stage of life when he was full of “eros,” about to be married, and very taken with great thoughts.

Yet he was genuinely torn. He revered the leaders of the “village” in {103} which he had grown up, men like a beloved Aeltester H. H. Flamming or the “guru” A. H. Unruh. He wanted to keep the values they represented. But it’s never quite clear what it was about them that he wanted to set aside. Was it simply a literalist, naive faith? Was it rules? Or something else? Obviously he knew much more than most of them ever would.

In a talk to FPC faculty entitled “Bowel Rumblings or Bone Roaring or Something,” Wiens describes a 1971 meeting between FPC faculty and Dinuba constituency folks. They were troubled by what was happening to their children and wanted faculty to explain. Wiens describes how the faculty defended themselves and he himself joined in their defense. The “Dinuba brethren” came away with the impression that “we accept and teach a biblical worldview and your enemies are our enemies,” he wrote. But Wiens told his colleagues, “We have not been honest and they know it. For we do not mean what they mean when they say the words we have so far said.”

Indeed, says Wiens, he came to feel his words at the meeting—when the discussion moved to evolution and Genesis—had been immoral, for the real message he had conveyed was “you know nothing about science” and “you don’t know how to read Genesis.” Acknowledging and facing up to arrogance helps explain why Wiens was so attractive to many.

A Dangerous Mind has essays by a number of friends and colleagues. W. Marshall Johnston admires the “dissonances” that Wiens has been processing “to this day.” Paul Toews is especially helpful in setting the historical context in which the “Wineskins” article appeared. He argues that 1965 may be a “revelatory moment for helping us understand the emasculation of the academic class in MB circles.”

Fresno historian Peter Klassen describes Wiens as “the sage among us,” who loved to debate like the early Anabaptists and who, he suspects, would not have been worn out by “weeks, even months, of debate.” Richard Wiebe (son of the former FPU president Arthur Wiebe who hired Wiens) thinks Wiens would have been helped if he had employed a Marxist critique of religion.

An essay by Richard Rawls examines a “rain miracle” during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and how Christians came to use it to rationalize their benefit to the Roman Empire. Dan Crosby describes himself as an “intellectual grandchild” of Wiens and explores a connection between the Delphic oracle in classical history and early Christian teaching. The essays make interesting if at times disconcerting reading.

In an especially challenging essay, FPU faculty member Peter Smith acknowledges Wiens’s contribution to his thinking and then examines shifts in language around “kingdom of God” in the university’s {104} mission statement. He says it has moved from seeing “God as central actor, savior and builder” to casting the FPU faculty “as the heroes and controllers.”

Despite his uneasy relationship to his roots, one is left to wonder what it was it about the Christian faith of those Wiens so admired that he could truly embrace. I think it is a mistake to think that theirs was a naïve faith. An important core number of leaders of the early Mennonite Brethren were gifted, perceptive people. There in Russia, the first MB Aeltester, Heinrich Huebert, was reading the works of John Herschel, a leading British scientist of that day. When P. M. Friesen helped draft the first truly owned MB confession of faith, he had read the confessions of other Christian traditions. He wanted to acknowledge the content of the faith they confessed in common. These were not naive people.

In one of his essays, Wiens suggests that rather than becoming defenders of the faith, choosing pilgrimage ought to be our pattern. Indeed, early Mennonite Brethren often signed their letters “From a fellow pilgrim on the way to Zion.” They were happy to identify thus. But in my study of early leaders, I’ve come away impressed by their confidence in the truth claims to which they wanted to give witness. They had met Jesus Christ and took his reign in their lives as all-embracing. Their lives centered in the church as Christ’s body. They assumed that the Bible could provide them with the guidance they needed to live good lives. They were defenders when they needed to be, also Jesus followers and, as much as possible, evangelists.

In his essay, Paul Toews notes my report back in 1966 that a U.S. West Coast group met and then decided not to reply to Wiens’s “Wineskins” essay. I think they probably did the right thing. No group of theologians or pastors would have matched Wiens in terms of wit or language and they would soon have been exhausted. That would not have made Delbert right, only victorious.

It seems to me that A Dangerous Mind demonstrates that Delbert Wiens leaves a decidedly mixed legacy. Some will certainly have gained from him, but some may also have had their faith undermined. And that too must be acknowledged.

Harold Jantz, now retired, was editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald for many years and later the founder and editor of ChristianWeek, a Canadian weekly newspaper. He recently won an MB Studies Grant to translate letters and articles that appeared in the Mennonitische Rundschau from 1929 to 1930.

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