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!
Gareth and I celebrate the wisdom and kindness that Eric shared with us. We will miss sharing our table with him. Conversation was eclectic and engaging. May Farah and the boys be embraced.
What a lovely tribute to a such a well-loved and highly-respected man! I am especially moved to read his words in reflection on the Da Vinci Code presentation at Université de Montréal.
I was a staffworker with GBUC at the time and had been very involved in promoting and organizing that event. (I had actually even dressed up as the Mona Lisa to hand out flyers and pose in photos with people!) I remember how the entire room of 180 people was captivated by Eric’s presentation. It was deeply moving to me to hear him weaving in elements of the gospel, Christian truth, and his own journey with Christ while debunking the ideas contained within the Da Vinci Code so articulately in an academic and culturally relevant language connected well with the students. I was filled with respect and gratitude for Eric’s unique gifts. He was well-placed and faithfully obedient to utilize them on behalf of God’s kingdom among Québecois students. He was exceptionally generous toward GBUC`s ministry on campus as well. He offered us space at his beloved ÉTEM for our gatherings in addition to a little office space for our student leaders and staffworker.
He was a fascinating conversationalist, gifted with a fabulous sense of humor and a love of people, ideas, the church, and justice. I will miss him greatly along with so many others. Thank you, God, for his life now found at home with you.
Katie, thank you so much for providing another glimpse into the presentation Eric did at the university, and for your other words about him. And to think of his life now at home with God is a great comfort.
deepest condolences to the family of Mr. Wingender. I go to University with his son Jf and I was in class with him when he got the phone call. Sad lost for the whole community but especially for his love ones. Rest in peace and keep an eye on your family Mr. Wingender.
So well done, Dora, Thanks. Eric and I last met in Winnipeg at the Global Consultation on Higher Education. After a Congo caucus, Eric showed genuine interest in doing a teaching circuit in Congo as part of a teaching team, an idea we had discussed in former times. It all seemed so right. But such hopes are dashed. We leave our unanswered questions to God. I join with many others in grieving his large loss and pray for the family.
Elmer Martens, Fresno
Thank you Elmer. Someone who was at the Global Consultation said she was also struck also by how Eric translated throughout the meetings, for the Congo delegates. A real act of service in situations like that.
Thanks Dora, your words more than adequately describe our close friend and colleague Eric. From the days we studied together at MBBS he was the kind of friend that made your heart warm to be near him. He will be missed by many. Our deep condolences go out to his wife and children and all those at ETEM. Trever and Joan Godard, Mexico
J’ai connu Eric au Cegep Lionel-Groulx. Il venait de se convertir…et moi aussi. nous avons fait notre cégep ensemble puis j’ai quitté pour aller étudier à l’Université de Sherbrooke. Eric aura marqué mes tout premiers pas dans la foi avec son frère Pierre à l’Église de Sainte-Thérèse et de Saint-Laurent. Je suis complètement renversé par cette triste nouvelle. Il a tant donné et il avait tant à donner encore à tous : femme, famille, peiuple des rachetés, les futurs rachetés. J’ai su aujourd’hui le 16 octobre. En tout cas, sachez que je suis avec vous de tout cœur, surtout avec ses proches. Je porte avec vous la douleur de son absence. Richard Leduc, Vancouver BC CANADA
Thank you Dora for a wonderful tribute to a great thinker, leader and brother in the faith. See you again, Eric! Although you’ll be missed, I think you’re lighting up many a conversation in glory.
Thanks for this, Dora. I have good memories of Eric from our time at Seminary together and occasional connections since. I, too, appreciated his keen insights into the soul of Quebecois culture, and his deep commitment to a robust evangelical and Anabaptist faith in that context. What a gift he has been.