Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Reading Vernard Eller
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NM (ANS) -- If you’re anything like me, you go through “author phases.” What’s an “author phase,” you may ask? By this term, I mean the yearning to read several books by a particular author to get a sense of the person’s life and thought.
Recently, I’ve begun a new phase: Vernard Eller.
For those not familiar with Vernard Eller, a quick overview is in store.
Born on July 11, 1927 in Everett, Washington, Eller was a Christian author, professor, and pacifist. Writing over 20 books, Eller’s viewpoint is rooted in his Anabaptist and pietistic background. As a professor and clergyman within the Church of the Brethren (one of the three historic peace churches, along with the Mennonites and Quakers), Eller’s world was a mixture of radical biblical thought and practical living.
I’ve known the name—and works—of Eller for years, first hearing it as a young man entering the ministry through the Church of the Brethren. I even remember reading one of his books, The Simple Life: The Christian Stance Toward Possessions.
Sadly, to my knowledge, I don’t remember meeting Mr. Eller. At various Brethren conferences people would point him out, saying, “That’s Vernard Eller, the writer and professor.” I vaguely remember him being at a youth conference at the University of La Verne (a Brethren college founded in 1891), where I performed music at in 1989. Mr. Eller was the professor of philosophy and religion at La Verne, and one of speakers at the conference. I suppose I was too clueless to walk up and introduce myself.
The only thing I do remember about Mr. Eller is that his presence was a given in the west coast Brethren world; his life and thought loomed large.
As a matter of fact, during my first ministry appointment at the Empire Church of the Brethren in central California, my pastor and early ministry mentor, Calvin Keeling, gave me a couple of Eller books to read.
Mr. Keeling received it as a gift from Eller, and gave it to me as a gift for entering the ministry at the Church. I’m still thankful for Calvin for this wonderful gesture.
On the front page, Eller wrote, “May this book help make John’s become a true REVELATION to you!”
After recognizing his importance as a Christian author, I yearned to meet him—but never did. After struggling with Alzheimer’s, Eller went to receive his reward on June 18, 2007.
In chapter four, entitled “In But Not Of,” from the book, The Simple Life, Eller used this letter to explain the early Church’s attitude toward the world. Without giving away the premise (you need to read the book!), I found myself charmed, challenged, and enamored by Eller’s wit, wisdom, and biblical thought. To say the least, I was drawn—once again—back to the books Eller penned.
From there I picked up his book, King Jesus: War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation. As a pacifist, Eller was adamant that Jesus taught a message of peace. However, Eller was not blind to the fact that the Bible also speaks of war, using military language and imagery. So what’s a pacifist to do? As one who took the Bible very seriously, Eller labored over many texts found throughout the Bible concerning war and peace, culminating in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. His conclusion is wonderful, stating,
“So let the man who has received greeting from King Jesus fight his won war in his own way (correction: “fight God’s Holy War in God’s holy way”). He’s got nothing to lose but his life. Yet “there is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)… [Why?] Because King Jesus already has been there…”
Eller’s message in King Jesus was very Christ-centric, as any good Brethren’s would be: practical, biblical, and full of common sense.
From King Jesus, I sojourned toward other books: The Promise: Ethics in the Kingdom of God, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, and The Outward Bound: Caravanning as the Style of the Church.
In each book, I found Eller to be provocative, biblical, and witty. Overall, Eller was a humorous writer—quirky at times—but a clear thinker.
Concerning his writing style, Christianity Today’s editor, David Neff, wrote, “Eller was the master of the evocative image. The Caravan/Commissary [in Outward Bound] contrast and the Royal Vienna String Quartet/barbershop quartet contrast gave many of us pastors useful and challenging ways to think about what we were doing.”
As a Kierkegaard expert (Eller did his dissertation on the Christian thinker), Eller was a man of many passions. Writing on his website, “Pilgrim Pathways,” Dr. Michael L. White, states that Eller was, “A major interpreter of Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, the Blumhardts, and Jacques Ellul.
“Eller had a folksy way of speaking and writing that led some to underestimate the seriousness of his theological writing. He was a major critic of much feminist theology, especially the use of feminine imagery for God, which Eller believed led to a lapse into Canaanite fertility religion.
“He was also a strong critic of materialism and nationalism in Christian churches, advocating for simplicity, reducing possessions, radical sharing of wealth, political independence, and nonviolence.
“Eller was critical of sacramental views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (which he believed would rob them of their ethical content).”
In short, Eller is very much worth reading today. In a day and age where similar concerns (materialism, war, the continued creeping in of liberalism, etc.) are prevalent in the contemporary church, we need to listen to voices from the past that have dug deep into the well of Scripture, yearning for Jesus to be seen in His fullness. For, in the end, this is what Eller was most concerned about: following Jesus.
Eller wrote in his dedication of the book King Jesus: “In homage to The King in whose service the work was wrought and to whose cause it is dedicated” my hope is that Eller’s sentiment will be mine as well: giving homage, dedication, and cause to Jesus. Jesus is worth every ounce of energy, thought, and action given toward His glory revealed. And Eller, like so many other wonderful Christian authors, is a helpful guide in pointing the way.
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