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!