The writings of John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) are always both a pleasure and a challenge to read—a pleasure because of their stylistic clarity and precision, a challenge because of their moral force and rigorous argumentation. This volume of selections from his writings affords the reader the usual pleasure, but only some of the usual challenge. For it is composed of excerpts from twenty-two different sources spanning Yoder’s long and distinguished career. They include a hitherto unpublished lecture, two journal articles, and nineteen monographs, book-length essay collections and shorter pamphlets. The excerpts from these works are well chosen and neatly organized, giving us a balanced and comprehensive overview of the major themes that suffuse Yoder’s literary corpus. But what is lost—or at best merely hinted at—are the complexity, the subtlety, and the sustained intensity of his arguments. Yoder’s works often include a dizzying array of biblical exegesis, comparative dogmatics, socio-politico analysis, moral suasion, and practical advice for living in self-sacrificial obedience to Jesus. This volume gives us many edifying highlights, but relieves us of the need to engage in the arduous effort that Yoder typically demands of us.
But this is by design—and perhaps to the good. The volume is part of Orbis Press’s Modern Spiritual Masters Series, which now runs to over fifty volumes, all of them under two hundred pages in length. These volumes are intended as introductory samplers of “the writing and vision of some of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century” (to quote the publisher’s website). Only a handful of these “masters” were, like Yoder, academic theologians, whose scholarly gravitas is displayed in the technical apparatus and scholarly refinement of their tomes—the very things that must inevitably be excised in the “greatest hits” approach of this series. Most of the “masters” featured in the series were highly visible religious leaders, such as Pope John XXIII and Mohandas Gandhi, or popular spiritual writers and social critics, such as Henri Nouwen, Carlo Caretto and Thich Nhat Han. Yet one rejoices to see the names of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Rahner, Abraham Heschel and John Howard Yoder on the list, for their ideas, too, have profoundly shaped the spirituality of our time. And convenient, accessible samplers have their place, not only in the prayer closet, but also in the undergraduate classroom and the church book circle. Editors Marten and Howell are to be thanked and congratulated for putting into our hands a representative selection of the “spiritual writings” of this modern-day Anabaptist prophet, whose works—dense, complex and erudite as they often are—rest upon a few disarmingly simple convictions: that the “otherness” of the church vis-à-vis the world is the key to its practical relevance to the world, and that suffering love is the true driver of social progress. The powerful implications of these convictions, and some sense of Yoder’s defense of them, come through loud and clear.