The Case of Dallas Wiebe: Literary Art in Worship

I was born to be a shepherd. I was trained to be a shepherd and I still want to be what I was destined to be. I want to sit on the ground, watch my flocks by night and wait for the glory of the Lord to come upon me. . . . Now there ain’t no pastures. And because there ain’t no pastures there ain’t no sheep. And because there ain’t no sheep there ain’t no shepherds. And because there ain’t no shepherds there’s no one out there waiting for the Messiah to come. And because no one’s waiting, He won’t come. Someone has to sit and wait. No one’s waiting and we’re all lost. – Dallas Wiebe

Is it possible to discuss the literary arts in worship without addressing – or embracing – the literary artist? My reflections here, on “the word” and worship, take into account both my commitment to the presentation and performance of the literary word (what I will here loosely refer to as “poetry”) in the context of worship, and my conviction that Mennonite congregations would do well not only to literally listen to the words of creative writers from inside and outside their communities, but also, where possible, to engage the writers themselves.

I have always found inspiration and sustenance, sometimes refuge and comfort, in poetry – even as I recognize that poetry might very well be, also, disturbing and unsettling. I know what it means to realize, as someone has said, that I don’t quite know what I know until the poet gives utterance to it; and then I know I knew it all along. Poetry does have the capacity to focus the imagination and to stir us “to see the ordinary in extraordinary ways.” Sometimes it draws us away from the messy and frightening parts of our lives and gives us space to breathe. Sometimes it draws us back to the nitty-gritty of living, and compels us to reflect freshly on the conditions in which we carry on.

Because I believe that a good poem or a passage of creative prose, read with grace and understanding, can enlarge our ability to comprehend the full scope of human existence, I have for several years now organized and performed Sunday morning poetry services once a year in my home church. Among the poets whose work I have featured is the late Dallas Wiebe (1930 to 2008), perhaps at once the least likely and most compelling of spiritual guides.

The work of the early Dallas Wiebe might not have come immediately to mind to someone looking for literature to read in church. In his grad student years he had, after all, as Bethel College History Professor James Juhnke remarked in a letter to me last year, “written a lot of insulting poetry and prose about Bethel College and other Kansas places and people of his origin.” Indeed, seemingly since his earliest years, Dallas had harbored a rather unorthodox perspective on church and community – as well as on the social dynamics of family and class – as he recalled in an interview I conducted with him in his Cincinnati home in 1998, about “growing up Mennonite.” Seemingly comfortable with what a reasonably long life had revealed to him, he spoke – as Dallas tended always to speak – with an inimitable tone of oddly empathetic, probing candor:

I didn’t like going to church, I don’t mind telling people. I found it terribly boring and tiresome. It was awful to go to church because it was sometimes terribly, terribly hot in the church in Kansas. It was awfully uncomfortable ... I enjoyed reading. I have always been a reader. And I don’t know why because the rest of our family is not and I read and read and read and read. And I loved reading the Bible. I loved reading anything and I really liked Sunday School and I liked memorizing Bible passages .... I enjoyed that. I thought that was fun. And I liked singing .... one of the things I started doing (because the sermons were so long and so boring and so tiresome I thought it was just awful) was I started reading the hymn book while the sermon was going on. So nowadays I will often ask people, do you read hymn books? And they look at me as if I am crazy .... they look at me like you read hymn books, why would you read hymn books? And I say don’t you want to know what you’re singing? Don’t you realize what is there? Some of this stuff that’s in this book doesn’t make any sense. It really doesn’t. The words of some of those hymns don’t make sense. They’re stupid. ... There are a couple in this new hymnal ... that are just screwy. They don’t make any sense. They’re silly. At any rate some of them are great. There are some really wonderful verses in some of those hymns and I discovered that when I was reading them and I still read them. I read the new hymnal. I read it straight through .... I never was very religious, I just wasn’t, I’m just not and I wish I could be like some of those people are ...

Dallas Wiebe, like Skyblue the Badass – who appears in his work as what Dallas himself described as “the irresistible hero both funny and sad ... the eternal striver” – was, as Paul Tiessen has observed, filled with both serious mischief and serious purpose.2 It could be argued that Dallas was – even in his formative years – more thoughtful and reflective about church than most people who fill the benches on a Sunday morning. And so it’s not surprising that he was deeply affected when he was invited to read from his work in a Kansas Mennonite community he had left over forty years before, in the fall of 1997, just months before he recalled for me the observations about church I’ve quoted here. It was serendipitous that he should have occasion, then, to perform his own words in a setting he had left in 1954, when he had moved to the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and then finally to Cincinnati, where he would spend over three decades as a professor of English and mentor to young writers. He would speak often of how much that Sunday morning service – his performance and the warm reception he received – had meant to him.

He had never planned that Sunday’s performance. Perhaps it was providential that he was called upon just then, when he seemed, one might say, spiritually primed. It happened like this: Anna Kreider Juhnke, who taught in the English Department of Bethel College then, wrote in a recently-recovered family letter3 that on a Friday in the fall of 1997 she had “stopped at the post office and found a letter from Dallas Wiebe that he would be in Newton [that] weekend for a family reunion!” Her pastor Darrell Fast had decided to use a lot of pilgrimage hymns that Sunday, and, in place of a sermon, “three pilgrimage stories: from the Bible (Elijah going to Mt. Horeb and hearing the still small voice), from Pilgrim's Progress, and from Dallas Wiebe's book, Our Asian Journey, about the Claas Epp trek to Central Asia to meet the Lord's return.” Hearing from Anna about Dallas’s presence in his own home town, Darrell called Dallas at his motel and invited him to end that week-end’s Sunday morning service with a reading from his novel.

“That was a great climax to the service,” Anna recalled, “and Dallas got a round of applause.” James Juhnke reflected later: “I assume that Dallas was moved by his welcome at Bethel College Mennonite Church because it represented a return to Kansas roots from which he had been alienated.” In fact, Juhnke continued, the event “might be called ‘The Triumphant Return of a Repentant (Maybe) Skyblue.’” Dallas' novel Our Asian Journey, after all, Juhnke observed, “was part of a pilgrimage of circling back toward reconciliation – reconciliation with his people and with God. As he said, he wrote that entire book to justify one sentence about God's love.” Well, Dallas, in spite of what Juhnke says here, was not prone to contrition. In fact his work, apart from its sometimes startling “edge,” revealed from the very beginning his spiritual propensities: his committed nonconformity made him no less a striver.

For that Sunday morning event, James Juhnke recalled, “Dallas wore very informal clothes – faded jeans and flannel shirt – quite distinctive among the BCMC coats and ties. He read his manuscript with passion, and the congregation applauded enthusiastically, which was unusual for this ‘Mennonite high church’ congregation. . . .” Juhnke continued: “I think BCMC's welcome of Dallas had something to do with a Mennonite need to come to terms with the story of Klaas Epp and the Great Trek, and with the way that story and those people have been misunderstood and unfairly discredited in Mennonite communities. In a sense, Dallas was able to memorialize his despised ancestors on his own terms. (Take that, C. Henry Smith, and all you other pious progressive Mennonite historians.)”4

Shortly after Dallas Wiebe died in May 2008, Paul Tiessen and I received in the mail a cd with a message from him, declaring that he had wanted to save friends and family the trouble and expense of gathering for his memorial service. So, on the first day of his 79th year, in anticipation of his death, he had recorded his own memorial, including readings of his own poetry and prose: a favorite Skyblue essay on confession (from which I derive my epigraph), a passage from Our Asian Journey, and some of his most recent poems, including “God Speaks to the Geriatric Convention,” quoted below, and others. It was fitting that his service was made up almost entirely of his readings from his work.

The first time I featured some of Dallas’s poetry in church, a theologian friend called me later that day to declare that he had experienced a remarkable sense of “worship” that morning, and to confess that he had been so moved by the service he had had to leave the sanctuary early, for fear of losing his composure in public. (When he stepped into the lobby he found another member of the congregation, pacing, similarly affected.) Dallas’s words had had a profound impact on them both. The poems I had read that day were taken from a volume Paul Tiessen and I published in 2008. Dallas had approved the proofs of this small limited edition volume (50 numbered copies) entitled Monument: Poems on Aging and Dying5 shortly before he died of heart failure on 1 May that year. His own first copy of the book was still in the mail when he passed away. The following three poems6 are included in that volume; they offer a voice distinctive enough to unsettle or inspire a particular kind of Sunday morning. (Ed Note: Please return to the Journal's main page and find the link for the poems in the table of contents.)

About the Author

Hildi Froese Tiessen

Hildi Froese Tiessen taught English and Peace and Conflict Studies (1987-2012) at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, where she also served as academic dean from 1989-99. She has taught, edited and published extensively literature by and about Canadian Mennonite writers. One of her most popular volumes is Liars and Rascals (1989), an anthology of short fiction by Mennonite authors. Her most recent essays on Mennonite/s writing appear in After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (2015) and MQR (Jan. 2016). Before her retirement she was literary editor of the Conrad Grebel Review and on the editorial board of Rhubarb magazine. She serves on the CMW advisory board and on the editorial board of GAMEO. She organized the first Mennonite/s Writing conference at Conrad Grebel in 1990 and has helped plan subsequent conferences at Goshen College, Bluffton College, the University of Winnipeg, Eastern Mennonite University and Fresno Pacific University. Hildi, who grew up in the Mennonite Brethren community in Winnipeg, is a member of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener. She earned a BA at the University of Winnipeg and an MA and PhD at the University of Alberta.