Review of The Spiritual Writings of John Howard Yoder

The Spiritual Writings of John Howard Yoder (Orbis, 2011)

Originally published at Englewood Review of Books.

When one thinks of “spiritual masters,” the first name that springs to mind is typicallynot John Howard Yoder.  There is a certain irony that Yoder would be included in Orbis Books’ Modern Spiritual Masters series.  Yoder’s work, sometimes understood as a dichotomy emphasizing the politics of Jesus rather than his spirituality, is not typically regarded as particularly devotional or “spiritual.”  Such an assessment is probably partly right.  Yoder’s work would never sit comfortably on a shelf next to popular-level devotional materials because it is political, but in its politics his work is uniquely spiritual.  Although there are points of overlap and agreement with thinkers and theologians such as Thomas Merton, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa – others included in this series – one would not usually put him in their ranks.  But it is precisely here, alongside others dubbed “modern spiritual masters,” that editors Paul Martens and Jenny Howell place Yoder.  In calling Yoder a spiritual master, Martens and Howell help readers to see that he never understood the politics of Jesus as something separate from the spirituality of Jesus.  In John Howard Yoder: Spiritual Writings, it is clear that, likewise, the politics and spirituality of Yoder were never far from one another in his work.

Culling from Yoder’s vast library, Martens and Howell help readers construct the basic framework of a Yoderian spirituality.  Working like most spiritual collections or devotionals – by piecemeal – Spiritual Writings begins with Yoder’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus as the bedrock for all Christian spirituality.  By starting with Jesus, the crucified Jewish messiah who inaugurated a new age in human history, Yoder’s thought is extended towards a spirituality of church and mission.  Yoder’s spirituality did not end with the church but instead flowed outward to include a universal vision for what the good news meant to the watching world outside the church.  Such a spirituality uniquely understands and is faithful at the intersection of church and world because it does not so casually separate the sacred and the profane. The church is meant to stand in the midst of the world, bearing faithful witness to the good news by being the “first fruits” of restored humanity, practically living out the call of “being the church” for the sake of the world.

Spiritual Writings shows Yoder’s spirituality to be Christological, experienced fully in the life and ministry of the church, cosmic in its implications, and practical in its day-to-day engagement of the call to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus.  Though Yoder was not a systematic theologian, Martens and Howell show his thought to be cohesive, hanging together well on the confession that Jesus is lord and the belief that the church should therefore faithfully follow.  Spiritual Writings stands as a fine introduction for anyone who has ever wanted to understand Yoder’s theology but never knew where to start.  As a reader of Yoder for some five years and counting, I found this book to be helpful in reframing Yoder’s project as a particular vision of Christian spirituality; I would imagine that others who have enjoyed and been challenged by Yoder for much longer might find similar appreciation.  I would recommend this book for those who have read Yoder and those who have not, and for anyone seeking to cultivate a Christian life that is marked by both the politics and the spirituality of Jesus.

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