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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 137–147 

Fifty Years of Direction: A Retrospect

Doug Miller, George Shillington, Harold Jantz, and Vic Froese


In this article four long-time contributors to Direction offer a retrospect on the first fifty years of the journal, highlighting some of its successes and pointing to future opportunities. Vic Froese, Harold Jantz, Doug Miller, and George Shillington have each been asked to respond to five questions. Their responses, edited only slightly, are included here.

  1. What is your connection with Direction?

    Vic Froese: Direction first crossed my path at Phillips Theological Seminary in Oklahoma where I was reference librarian in the mid-1990s, and again at Steinbach Bible College in Manitoba where I served as librarian in the late 1990s. Despite having earned a PhD in theology some years earlier, I paid little attention to the journal because my focus in those days was on developing my library career. In 2000 I was hired as a librarian by the then-new Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). There, Direction soon interrupted my life. At that time CMU’s representative on the Direction editorial council was an Anglican professor who felt not quite at home there. In 2003, he suggested that I, being Mennonite Brethren, would be a better fit. I accepted the invitation and served in that capacity until 2007 when I was asked to take the place of the resigning general editor, Douglas Miller (Tabor College). Doug was honest with me about the amount of time and work required of a general editor. But, with fear and trembling, I said yes. I’m sometimes astonished that I’m still doing this today. Anyway, you could say I’m now quite invested in the journal. {138}

    Doug Miller: I served as general editor of Direction from summer 1996 to summer 2007, after which I served as Editorial Council representative for Tabor College through summer 2021. I returned as (guest) editor for two sequential issues, the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 issues, on the topic of scholarship and faith. Over the years I also contributed a few articles and book reviews.

    George Shillington: I learned a lot about Direction as soon as I arrived on the campus of Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in 1981. I had been invited to teach at MBBC as replacement of Allen Guenther who had accepted a position in Fresno. Allen and I had a long conversation in 1981 before he left for his new position. He encouraged me to consider submitting worthy articles to Direction. That was the first time I encountered the background and character of Direction. Allen held the office of editor from 1981 until 1989.

    A few years later, Elmer Martens, editor of Direction at the time, also put forward a strong word of counsel, encouraging me to submit essays for the journal. His encouragement bore fruit. Since then, I have submitted a fair number of articles out of my discipline and found the experience of doing so richly rewarding.

    Harold: I’ve been a reader of Direction, with perhaps brief interruptions, since its launch. To be fair, I should say that I viewed Direction as a continuation of MBBC’s The Voice and read it as such. I had read The Voice from my student days at MBBC in the late ’50s. It was a way for me to follow the thinking of faculty I had valued, especially people like J. A. Toews, Frank C. Peters, or David Ewert. By the time Direction came about, few of my teachers remained there, but since my work at the MB Herald placed me close to the College, I was always very aware of all the people with roles there and how the landscape might be shifting. I never had a formal role with Direction, though I wrote at least one major article and wrote to the editors on a number of occasions. I commented on what was written, both with critical observations and with affirmation. If I wasn’t writing much for The Voice or Direction, many of its writers wrote for me at the MB Herald during my years as editor from 1964 to 1985.

  2. Are there any favorite memories you have from your years connected with Direction?

    Doug: I had the tremendous privilege of working with two great groups of people: the scholars on the Editorial Council and the scholars who wrote the articles. I enjoyed each issue and would have a hard time ranking them in some kind of order of preference. I was especially grateful when we crossed denominational lines, and there was a sense of collaboration on a given issue by those in various religious academic contexts.

    One of the challenges in 1996 was that the journal was behind on its publishing schedule. In fact, some libraries were threatening to drop us if we didn’t catch up. As I remember, we produced four issues of the journal in just over a year to get back on track. It was {139} fun to try out some new possible cover designs and to reintroduce color, which had been dropped from the cover between 1985 and 1996. We also did a redesign of the interior.

    A major source of joy was establishing the Direction website (launched in 2001), and then digitizing and posting all the back issues. This was a big project, a great contributor for which was Carrol Ediger, who copyedited all the digitized articles compared to the print editions. The new issues from that point were created digitally and then converted to web format for the site. Marshall Janzen was the gifted person who designed the site, did the OCR scanning, and helped with all the conversions. I believe the site still is amazingly good and compares favorably to the best journal sites I’ve seen.

    Finally, the serendipitous process by which Direction was accepted into the American Theological Library Association’s Serials project seems to me quite providential. We were small potatoes compared to the major theological journals that posted digitally. But they accepted us and have contributed financial support to the journal ever since.

    Harold: Several memories stand out for me. I don’t recall the year, or even the topic for that matter, but I’ll never forget an issue when Herb Giesbrecht, the MBBC librarian, wrote on a subject I also don’t recall. What I do recall is Herb’s admonition to not become caught up in language that is fussily pedantic (my words). Now, if you knew Herb, you would know that he might have felt himself struggling with exactly such a tendency. So, he was speaking to himself. I loved it!

    I have also often appreciated issues devoted to honoring people who have made significant contributions to the MB movement. It was a special delight to read such a one honoring Dr. Walter Unger. Wally, the long-time Columbia Bible College faculty person and president, was my close friend. We had been high school buddies, college roommates, I was best man at his wedding, and I could say a farewell to him in his hospice room mere days before he left this life. I was immensely grateful for the friendship we shared and was deeply moved as I read the issue honoring him.

    Many articles have also challenged me but one that has niggled at my mind ever since reading it was Brian Cooper’s “The Theological {140} Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision” (Fall 2018). I gritted my teeth as I went through it, but the longer I’ve thought about this piece, the more I found myself agreeing. A church without theological anchors finds it hard to resist drift.

    Vic: One of many articles that stands out for me is John E. Toews’s “Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and the Battle for the Bible 1977–1982.” It tells the ugly story of the biblical inerrancy controversy that hit the MB Biblical Seminary faculty hard as it turned a number of vocal leaders in US MB conference against them. Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible (1976), one of the most divisive (and popular) books in recent evangelical history, was thoroughly, but politely, critiqued by seminary professor David Ewert and by Howard Loewen of MBBC in the April 1977 issue of Direction. Many MB pastors agreed with Lindsell and urged their churches to withdraw support from the Seminary, and some even clamored for adding “inerrant” to the Confession’s statement on Scripture. Attempts by the Conference and the Seminary to reach out to their critics were disasters. Lifelong friendships were destroyed. It’s a compelling piece of writing. It also raised the “Christ and culture” issue with the specifically fundamentalist evangelical “culture” challenging Anabaptist-Mennonite faith. The article doesn’t really answer the question of how to keep from getting sucked into that vortex, but that’s understandable. Can you ever really prepare yourself for such hostility from members of your own faith family?

    George: There are so many good memories of my interaction with Direction that it becomes necessary to focus on one or two items in some detail to illustrate my growing interest in the journal about Mennonite Brethren scholars and congregations.

    Soon upon my arrival at MBBC in 1981, I found myself happily engaged with the faculty, and President Henry Krahn in particular. Moving toward retirement, Henry was looking for a successor who would fit into the environment of MBBC. Meanwhile, John E. Toews of Fresno, California invited me to speak to the students under his charge. I accepted joyfully.

    While I was there, I encountered Dr. David Ewert for the first time. He had recently published a book, And Then Comes the End. He agreed to let me review the book in Direction (vol. 10, no. 1 [Jan. 1981]: 38-39). In further conversation with him I sensed that he would welcome an invitation from the Board of MBBC to take on the Presidency upon Henry Krahn’s retirement. While David’s {141} theological understandings differed from mine to some degree, we did not allow that to interfere with wholesome Christian discourse.

  3. Direction’s purpose has been to engage significant biblical, theological, educational, and ecclesiological questions as MBs. In what ways over the past fifty years do you think Direction has succeeded in its purpose of serving the MB constituency and the wider scholarly community?

    Vic: Direction has succeeded in serving the MB constituency and the wider Christian scholarly community by providing them with many carefully written articles on church and theological concerns. Our authors have clarified ambiguous terms; provided context for Bible passages, historical events, and ethical issues; corrected misconceptions; refuted and constructed arguments; defended and critiqued theological proposals; clarified complex problems; proposed alternative understandings; and drawn judicious conclusions from available evidence. None of our articles will be the last word on a subject, but they contribute to an important conversation. While we’ve mostly done these things well, there is always room for improvement. On the whole, we want to be known for promoting a level of discernment without which the MB Church’s witness to Christ and service to others would lack an important dimension.

    Doug: I am really pleased with several ways this journal has served its constituency. Direction documented conversations being held in various denominational conferences. Examples include the gathering to discuss hermeneutics (July 1977), “The Waters that Divide” (spring 1985), the “North American Mennonite Brethren Consultation on Church Growth” (fall 1991), and “Appropriating Biblical Texts” (spring 1995). Conversations among us beyond specific conferences can also be found on issues such as women in ministry, nationalism, questions of sexuality, the atonement controversy, science and faith, issues of God and violence, and the new Calvinism. Topics beyond the strictly biblical and theological included “The Christian and Literary Art” (January 1979), “Christian Business in the Life of the Church” (January 1982), “Working with Words” (fall 1995), and “Faith and the Arts” (fall 1998). I found several articles extremely valuable as course reading for my college students.

    Two departments of the journal should be noted. The “Recommended Reading” feature was always a great opportunity for those who had done research in an area to share helpful sources with colleagues and other interested persons. And the “Current Research” {142} section on an annual basis records what scholars in MB institutions have published in their fields, as well as masters and doctoral theses produced among us.

    Significant research related to the denomination itself is also notable. Examples include the Mennonite Brethren Church Membership Profile 1972-1982 (fall 1985), and the July 1982 issue. “Historical Endnotes” recorded events and publications of historical matters. Finally, a number of festschrift-type issues were compiled in honor of some of the most notable scholar-educators among us, such as D. Edmond Hiebert, Hans Kasdorf, Elmer Martens, J. B. Toews, Walter Unger, Katie Funk Wiebe, Allen Guenther, Paul G. Hiebert, John E. Toews, and Paul Toews.

    Harold: There is little doubt in my mind that Direction has engaged significant questions—it did so in earlier iterations and does so now. A look at issue themes or article titles makes that clear. Issues of the journal have treated “spiritual leadership,” “sex and faith,” how a life of scholarship has affected faith, engagement with Muslims, environmental issues, and the kind of biblical hermeneutics we want to exercise—all these subjects are important for the life of the church. One can’t help but applaud the attention given them. Some came out of church-wide assemblies, most did not.

    But here is my concern. I’ve told conference leaders on occasion that important issues for the life of the church were being treated “on the side,” as it were, in Direction, where mostly academics and only a small number of pastors and church leaders are reading. Whatever conversation was happening in Direction was taking place among academics and away from ordinary members. This can’t be helpful. I’ve always inclined to a view I once heard voiced eloquently by the Mennonite scholar Albert Meyer. He insisted that just as the people in the pew needed the seminary profs, so the seminary profs needed the people in the pews. A publication such as Direction, existing as it does within a confessional tradition, needs to find ways of engaging a significant part of the lay membership of the church in the topics that it is treating. I don’t think that is happening now. This isn’t good for the academics, and it isn’t good for the wider MB church.

    George: It is said that “Direction highlights the interdependence of Christian reflection and mission.” However that may be, I sense that leaders in the service of Direction should promote the journal more strongly in relation to what may be called “the Pastor’s study.” I have the sense that not enough MB pastors are reading and digesting {143} cogent material from Direction. And I submit that those of us who contribute to Direction should be coached into alerting pastors especially, along with others in the church setting, concerning the value of the articles in Direction for preaching and teaching. In my many years of attending services in various MB churches in Canada, I have not heard a reference to cogent material found in Direction.

    For example, my own book, James and Paul: The Politics of Identity at the Turn of the Ages may not draw pastors and others into reading the book of 345 pages. But a brief, well-written review of the book by a knowledgeable scholar could serve the busy pastor well. For example, Sheila Klassen Wiebe did a fine job of capturing the essence of my work on James and Paul.

    So, when asked how well Direction has succeeded over the past fifty years I am left wondering if we could have done better, especially with respect to pastors who prepare weekly sermons for the congregations. Direction is a rich storehouse of spiritual and intellectual information and vision. Pastors need to be encouraged to read and preach this fine journal that has their Christian life and ministry in view for good.

  4. Are there any opportunities you think Direction has missed over the years?

    George: In answering this question I can only respond out of my own experience as an Emeritus faculty member at CMU, and as a member of an MB church. I am not sufficiently equipped to address opportunities “missed over the years.” Our faculty group consists mainly of members from General Conference Mennonites (GC), and Mennonite Brethren (MB). The point is this: while a copy of the GC journal appears regularly in our meeting place for discussion, Direction journal scarcely ever appears in our meeting place to my knowledge. The problem may be mine alone. I accept that. After all, I could visit the CMU Library and Book Store and find Direction there. But it seems reasonable to me to expect such a worthy journal as Direction to be visible in key places in an academic setting where faculty members address issues of life and thought frequently. If I have misrepresented the situation, I stand to be corrected.

    In short, permit me to suggest that the leaders responsible for the production and distribution of Direction continue with the work of capturing and presenting quality material aimed at the theological imagination of church ministers and interested congregants. Response to such effort could yield a worthwhile theological harvest. {144}

    Harold: The point I just made above ties in with what I might say here. It should be clear that Direction exists within a confessional tradition. I wouldn’t argue against challenges to that tradition, certainly not from those who stand within it and want to engage with it as a living entity. During my years as editor of the MB Herald, I welcomed the opportunity to be part of a church tradition that understood itself in terms of the faith claims it had embraced and the accountability this implied of its people to one another. I always thought of the confessional tradition as something that actually freed us to challenge one another and speak truth to one another. We were doing it “within” the tradition.

    When I read Direction now, however, at times I get a quite different sense. For example, why would Direction carry a book review arguing for queer theology as it recently did? The review’s dissonance with MB confessional understanding was so striking, even those sympathetic to its point of view would have found it remarkable.

    At a time when we are faced with an increasing likelihood of moving apart in terms of our biblical and theological understandings, I would suggest another opportunity we might be missing. Some journals have introduced opportunities for scholars—or lay people—to challenge one another with responses to serious articles. I think Direction should begin the practice, all the more because we do stand within a confessional tradition. These don’t have to result in our own “religious wars,” but they could be a way of offering helpful challenges to understandings we may hold. I would offer the journal First Things as an example of such responses well done.

    Doug: There is one opportunity that I consider a hope unfulfilled. Those involved with Direction, located in seminary and college contexts, have expressed the desire that those in church ministry would find the journal helpful, and that it would facilitate conversation between those who minister in church or mission field and those who minister in academics. Early in Direction’s life there was a department called “The Preaching Lab” and then “Hearing the Word” that were aimed at pastors. With the spring 1997 issue, we began a similar effort titled “Ministry Compass” in which ministry practitioners spoke out of their life and experience. The concept was to draw church leaders more regularly into the journal by providing a brief but consistent communique that would be relevant to their lives. It appears that Ministry Compass was dropped after the fall 2016 issue. It was hard to know how many pastors even knew enough about the journal to realize that such a feature existed. It is possible, of course, that with {145} issues available on the Direction website without cost, pastors and other leaders are indeed reading without our knowing about it.

    Vic: I can’t imagine how we could have taken advantage of every opportunity that came our way. But one that comes to mind is the MB Church’s 150th anniversary in 2010. Occasions like that don’t come along very often, so you want to recognize them. I must take the blame for that miss. I was still relatively new to the job and struggling to get up to speed on how to keep the journal going. But that’s not a good excuse.

    The other missed opportunity I think of is addressing the erosion of public trust in legitimate authority by malicious “information sources.” We should have seen it coming twenty years ago when the internet began spawning celebrity “experts.” And now the casual dismissal of bona fide, experienced medical specialists and the uncritical embrace of what amounts to nonsense is beginning to infiltrate many of our churches. I think we could have served our constituency better by alerting it to the dangers posed by present-day snake oil sales reps exploiting the anxieties of vulnerable people and by giving it tools for testing the spirits. It’s not too late to inoculate some people against those dangers. Others will require more treatment than can be provided by our little journal.

  5. What contributions or value do you see Direction making to the MB constituency moving forward? Do you see any specific opportunities Direction should lean into?

    Vic: I hope Direction can continue to be a voice of biblical, theological, and ethical reason in the MB Church. Our writers are human and sometimes make foolish errors, but overall, they consider their words carefully and draw on many years of painstaking study when they write for us. The internet gives a megaphone to anyone at all, and those with the angriest opinions get rewarded with thousands of “likes” and followers for their rants. If our journal can offer our readers examples of careful scholarship, the judicious weighing of evidence and arguments, and (this is especially important these days) respectful engagement with those with whom we disagree, I think it will have contributed positively to the quality of our dialogue. In other words, Direction should continue to encourage what James Sire called “discipleship of the mind.”

    Another opportunity is the weighty matter of Indigenous-settler reconciliation. In 2014, we invited a number of Indigenous writers associated with North American Institute for Indigenous Theological {146} Studies to contribute articles to the topic of missions and Indigenous peoples. There is much wisdom and grace in those pages. That was seven years ago, but now, with the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the property of Canadian residential schools, the need to delve further into the history of settler-Indigenous relations—and into our own hearts—has only increased. I’m pleased that this anniversary issue includes an article on this important topic. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see many more articles that address some aspect of the complex challenge of reconciliation with our Indigenous hosts.

    Doug: More than ever the church needs to talk with each other about theological matters and ideological issues more generally. However, does the constituency trust the academic members of the body? Are academic persons hopeful about potential conversations with pastors, laity, and denominational leaders? How can avenues for trust be established? In two issues of the journal for which I was guest editor, scholars reflected upon, among other things, their relationship with congregations of their brothers and sisters in Christ. There are some encouraging experiences recounted there, but also some sad and disappointing ones. There is an anti-intellectual ethos in North America today, though I can’t speak to whether it may be less noticeable in Canada than in the U.S. The lack of trust in science and scientists is but one manifestation of what is going on. The new generations of college students wonder what and who to believe, so that professors need to do a kind of apologetics, not merely for their discipline, but also for rational thinking itself. Academics such as I may have to bear some of the blame for this suspicion. Did we not prove ourselves trustworthy? Were our efforts perceived as self-serving or disconnected from the needs of others? The recovery of confidence in academic efforts may take more than simply doing our job well. It may require serious and creative efforts to persuade the hesitant and cynical in our MB churches. I hope and pray for a revival of academic spiritual formation among us, for which Direction certainly has continued relevance.

    George: In answering both questions I appeal again to the grand new library, bookstore, and cafe on the campus of CMU. Direction is certainly available in that attractive environment. Multi-use facility that it is, it tends to draw people in to drink coffee, visit the library, and browse the bookstore. Direction deserves the prominence it has in that environment, not merely on a library shelf, but on a prominent book stand clearly visible to visitors. {147}

    Moreover, I answer the two questions about “value,” “challenges,” and “opportunities” tentatively here to ensure the ongoing value of Direction for interested individuals in general, and for MB church people in particular. As noted above, I envision MB pastors especially as the ones to benefit most in their reading of cogent material in Direction. Our challenge, as I see it, is one of proper boldness in meeting up with pastors to demonstrate the enormous value for them in reading and studying the material characteristic of Direction. I believe that aim could be accomplished, “so that sower and reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:36).

    Harold: As a final word, I will offer a quote from John Stott that appeared in July/August 2021 edition of Christianity Today. Stott wrote, “As part of their own integrity Christian scholars need both to preserve the tension between openness and commitment, and to accept some measure of accountability to one another and responsibility for one another in the Body of Christ. In such a caring fellowship I think we might witness fewer casualties on the one hand and more theological creativity on the other.” I couldn’t say it better.

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