The world mourns the untimely death of Apple genius and former CEO Steve Jobs, as it should, but I’m grieving the untimely death of Eric Wingender, professor (and former president) at Ecole de Theologie Evangelique de Montreal (ETEM), who died yesterday of a massive heart attack.
I first got to know Eric when I sat in on a workshop he gave, in which he reflected on his experience of Christian conversion and becoming part of the Mennonite Brethren in Quebec. He spoke respectfully and gratefully of those missionaries who had brought him and many other young Quebecers to faith in the 70s and 80s. But he also felt something spiritually significant had been lost in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution that was not adequately replaced by the somewhat simplistic and pietistic gospel to which he was introduced. The churches that emerged from the evangelical “boom” of that era struggled a great deal and the movement plateaued. (He explained some of this in a 1994 article in Direction.) Eric was one of those who persisted and became leaders, seeking to help the Quebec church find better ground.
After that I interacted with Eric occasionally in various church contexts and continued to appreciate his keen mind and insights into Quebec culture and, by extension, postmodern/post-Christian culture. I want to honor his memory by recollecting two ideas, and one anecdote, which he gave the wider church community.
1. Study of culture as a spiritual discipline
Preparing delegates for a tour of Montreal when Mennonite Brethren held their convention there in 2008, Eric suggested that the silent years before Jesus began his formal ministry — about which there is often speculation — were in fact “ordinary” working years that Jesus devoted to deeply understanding his environment. Eric spoke of such study as a spiritual discipline: “hard work and heart work.” (From tour report.) What a wonderful way to think about Jesus and culture!
2. Quest for God seen in quest for justice
This past July, Eric wrote “Responding to cultural shift in Quebec” in the MB Herald, in which he traced Quebec’s postmodern milieu and then addressed the question of what the quest for God might look like in a culture that “has turned its back on the transcendent/invisible realm.” What would indicate that someone was searching for God, or open to God? He didn’t think it was “spirituality,” which often revolves around improving one’s inner space. He felt that “the quest for God in a secularized culture will often manifest itself by a quest for justice and a desire to contribute to the well-being of the larger community.” Expecting the usual spirituality answer, this surprised me. I think he’s right, and it has any number of implications.
Moved to tears
In 2006, also in the MB Herald, Eric wrote about a public lecture for Montreal students he did on the then-hugely popular book, The Da Vinci Code. In the lecture, he reviewed the historical facts (which the book got wrong) and told the packed room that the question about the birth of Christianity was still one to ponder: “What is it [Jesus] said and did for his disciples to start giving him the worship that used to be given exclusively to God?”
While explaining the beliefs of the early church, Eric started to read the opening of John’s Gospel that was projected on the screen. He recalled:
A very deep silence immediately settled on the room. At first it startled me. But immediately after, I felt overwhelmed and had to make an effort not to cry. I mean, it would have been a strange experience for them to see this middle-aged guy being moved to tears while reciting a poem! But these young people were listening and connecting like it was the first time they were hearing these words.
Thank you, Eric, for your study, your ideas, your words. You will be missed!
Thank you, Dora, for putting into words some of what I too am feeling. With Éric’s passing I have lost a friend, as well as a symbol of many of my hopes and aspirations. In your grey-boxed quotation, I hear not only his wonderful accent, but also his wonderful model for living as a faithful disciple of Jesus.
I grieve with you, Dora. I also counted Eric as a warm friend dating from the time we spend at MBBS in the 80s. Thanks for the eloquent tribute.
Thank you for these words Dora. What a deep and tragic loss this is for the entire MB family.
Merci beaucoup pour ce merveilleux texte en mémoire d’éric. Il était un model et un inspiration pour nous, les jeunes adultes chrétien du quebec. Quelqu’un qui comprenais notre réalité et ce que nous vivions. Merci beaucoup!!!
Thank you, Dora, for your tribute to Eric. He spoke at our MCC Eastern Canada retreat in about 2001 on living as God’s people in the midst of empire. What passion and insight! We loved him for that and for the warm heart of love and commitment from which it flowed. We will miss Eric desperately. Friends forever, Eric. – Tom and Judith Snowdon, MCC Egypt.
Thank you for your tribute, Dora. Eric inspired so many of us with his passion.
Thank you, Dora, for these beautiful words. Eric’s insight and deep commitment to Chrsit and the worldwide church touched me many times, as we worked together on the MBMSI Board. He led the Seminary faculty in a memorable retreat and had an uncommon ability to connect with people in a deep, warm and creative way. This is a great loss for all of us. We especially remember our brothers and sisters in Quebec and Eric’s family, as you grieve and find ways to process his death and carry on the unfinshed tasks. These sudden losses are hard. What a gifted man! I feel honored to have known him. Delores Friesen
Thank you, each one, who took the time to comment here. Whatever the downsides of the web and social media, surely the upside is the sense of community possible at times like this, among people scattered geographically. It’s good to hear of your various experiences with Eric, to speak together, in this way, of how much he was appreciated and will be missed.
My husband and I got to know Eric last November when he came to our church and talked about heroes such as Abraham , Joseph and Mordecai and lessons to be learned for us today. Ed still has notes of his talks saved in his Iphone!Erics genuine desire to reach out to his fellow Quebecers was very evident in our conversation with him.We are shocked to hear of his passing and pray that God would give his family the peace that passes all understanding in the days and weeks that lie ahead.
I have known Eric since the years we spent together at MBBS in Fresno. His smile and laugh, creative thinking, and ability to integrate theology into life were always appreciated and will now be dearly missed.
Eric was far too young to leave us at this time! We had met only 2x, but I sensed him as brother beloved. May the Lord comfort his family and friends at this time, and may we all be taught to number our days.
Eric was a beloved friend. Gentle, kind, thoughtful and funny. I am deeply saddened by this loss. He was a very genuine human being. My heart and prayers are with Farrah Channel and his three sons.
Nous connaissons Éric depuis l’université, à son mariage…son implication avec les jeunes de l’ÉCHAD. Réfléchi, dévoué, innovateur, ouvert, engagé…Éric va manquer à tous ceux qui l’ont connu…et qui ont partagé son désir de rejoindre le Québec avec l’Évangile…
We remember Eric from about 1972. We led Bible study in the Wingender home, (his mother) Watched Pierre and Eric grow in the Lord. Our sympathies and prayers with his family.
Thank you Dora for your tribute.
As someone who grew up in western Canada, I lacked the understanding of how Quebec intersected with the Christian faith. I met Eric about two years ago and began a joyful enlightenment in these matters. My deepest condolences to his family and the Christian community in Quebec. (I just happen to be in Montreal at this moment and wish I could find some info about Eric’s memorial service…)
Tim, this piece contains the information about the funeral. D.