The Politics of Rudy Wiebe in the Blue Mountains of China

By Beck, Ervin | Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Rudy Wiebe in the Blue Mountains of China


Beck, Ervin, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: Although Rudy Wiebe's novel The Blue Mountains of China was published in 1970, two years before John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, the novel reflects many elements of Yoder's political ethics. The influence of Yoder upon Wiebe was direct, both through Yoder's essay "The Original Revolution" and through the friendship that developed between the two men from 1963 to 1967, when Wiebe taught at Goshen College. John Reimer--who bears traits of both Yoder and Wiebe--is the main voice for Yoderian ideas in the novel and, indeed, was created as a unifying device by Wiebe as his direct response to "The Original Revolution." This essay discusses four concerns of Yoder that are also present in Wiebe's novel: the nature of the church, strategy and revelation, effectiveness and faithfulness, and the outcome of history.

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From 1963 to 1967 a friendship developed between novelist Rudy Wiebe and theologian John Howard Yoder, when Wiebe taught English at Goshen College and Yoder taught at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries and worked for the Mennonite Board of Missions, both in Elkhart, Indiana. After Wiebe moved back to Canada, their friendship was nurtured mainly by correspondence that continued until just before Yoder's death in 1997. (1)

One important consequence of their friendship was that Yoder's thinking on Christian pacifist ethics--as now embodied in his The Politics of Jesus (1972, 1994) (2)--deeply influenced Wiebe's third, and possibly best, novel The Blue Mountains of China (1970). (3) In fact, some of Yoder's ideas apparently gave Wiebe the unifying vision he needed in order to transform a set of discrete stories about Russian Mennonite history into a more or less coherent, albeit modernist, novel. Hence, The Blue Mountains of China represents the remarkable coming together of the work of the most important twentieth-century Mennonite theologian and the most important twentieth-century Mennonite literary artist. At the end of the century, and especially with the recent death of Yoder, it is time to understand and celebrate that important relationship. (4)

THE PERSONAL DILEMMAS

Both The Politics of Jesus and The Blue Mountains of China are the results of their authors' personal struggles to come to terms with the challenge that World War II posed for Mennonite nonresistance.

Yoder was director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) work in France from 1949 to 1955, beginning when he was only 21 years old. His work with orphans in France familiarized him with the possibility of service and relief work as a nonresistant strategy, but his later involvement in Algeria (1954-57), which began with relief work following an earthquake, also exposed him to the Algerians' armed struggle for liberation from French colonial control. In the midst of his MCC work, as early as 1952, Yoder criticized the complacency of the postwar Mennonite Church in his deliberately provocative essay, "The Cooking of the Anabaptist Goose." (5) The Politics of Jesus has a clearer origin in the paper he presented at the second Puidoux conference in 1957, where he first considered the need for, and implications of, a more active Christian involvement in political issues. (6) The challenge was refined for him in the summer of 1966 during his lecture tour of South America and again in 1970-71, when he was a guest lecturer and researcher at the evangelical seminary in Buenos Aires and the Mennonite Seminary in Montevideo, in the midst of the nascent Latin-American liberation theology movement. "The Original Revolution," (7) based on a sermon he first preached at the Iglesia Metodista Central in Buenos Aires in 1966, (8) calls for Christians to become involved in liberating activities while remaining faithful to a Jesus-like nonresistance.

While Wiebe was less exposed than Yoder to World War II--Wiebe was only six years old when it began and eleven when it ended--his engagement with the issues it presented for faithful Mennonites was intense and personal, although on a more imaginative level. …

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