Vernard Eller died on Tuesday. He was a witty, clear-thinking theologian who taught for 34 years at the Church of the Brethren's University of LaVerne (LaVerne College, when I first heard of him). Eller was 79 and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was in my Anabaptist phase. I wouldn't feel the tug of liturgy and tradition until the late 70s and the early 80s. And at that earlier stage, the writings of Vernard Eller, then Marlin Jeschke, and finally John Howard Yoder were moving Anabaptist thought out of ethnic Anabaptist enclaves and into the broader theological conversation.

Eller got more public notice than the others. In 1970, he published a commentary on the 10 commandments illustrated by excerpts from Mad magazine. The Mad Morality (Abingdon) was a creative marriage of Moses and Alfred E. Neuman that spit in the face of the so-called New Morality being promoted at the time by the likes of Joseph Fletcher.

Eller claimed that Mad presented the content of the Old Morality, but without the moralism the church had so long attached to its moral teaching. Its message was that people who abuse sex and drugs, people who lie, cheat, and steal, are being downright stupid. The magazine understood that we are not by nature loving and cool, but stupid and cloddish. In a 1967 Christian Century article that was a precursor to his book, he wrote: "Although Christ may be the model of what we are to become, Mad knows that the type of what we are is Alfred E. Neuman—that we are not the little Jesuses the New Morality takes us for."

Eller was a pioneer in what we have come to call cultural engagement, modeling that not only in his Mad Morality, but also his witty A Sex Manual for Puritans and even in the private correspondence he and I had about the virtues of P. G. Wodehouse.

We are pilgrims on a journey

The Mad Morality was how Eller got my attention, but it was his 1972 book, In Place of Sacraments (Eerdmans), that got me thinking seriously about the nature of the church. As an Anabaptist, he was, of course, antisacramental in his understanding, and he cogently argued that we should not think of the church as a dispenser of sacramental grace (the Commissary) but rather as a called-out group of people traveling together toward their promised land (the Caravan). Worship services, then, were really a time to rest, encamp, refresh, and consult the map with the Leader and Guide. He also contrasted church worship conceived as the performance of a classical string quartet with the participatory harmonizing of a barbershop quartet. Church was in its nature an amateur undertaking.

Eller was the master of the evocative image. The Caravan/Commissary contrast and the Royal Vienna String Quartet/barbershop quartet contrast gave many of us pastors useful and challenging ways to think about what we were doing.

As it turned out, Roman Catholic theologians were beginning to talk about the church as the pilgrim people of God at the same time that Eller was writing about the church as a caravan. And it wasn't too many years before the Methodist Stanley Hauerwas was able to blend the Anabaptist thought of John Howard Yoder with the "little c" catholic tradition.


Of course, images are not arguments. They do, however, have a way of nagging. You can't forget them. They keep popping up and reminding you of something you have perhaps been ignoring. That's what Eller has done for me.

Even as I became one of Bob Webber's "evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail" (see my chapter in Webber's book of the same name), I brought Eller's nagging images along with me. The result? A critical distance from the culturally accommodating Constantinian underpinnings of state church pieties.

One final nagging image from Vernard Eller. In 1973, I was enrolled in a seminar on the theology of preaching. I decided to focus my paper on Eller. I had no idea, actually, if Eller was much of a preacher. I knew him as a theologian and a writer. But I wrote to him and requested a dozen tapes of his sermons, which he happily provided. As I listened to those reel-to-reel tapes, I discovered an extraordinary preacher.

While I remember my astonishment at his preaching, I do not remember what I wrote in my paper. What sticks with me is an image.

Eller was preaching on resurrection, as I recall, and on the need for a seed of wheat to die and fall into the ground before it can be resurrected. "I am dying," the middle-40s theologian announced to his congregation. And he pointed to the dual hearing aids he wore. His ears were dying faster than the rest of him, he said, but they were a constant reminder that this body was corruptible and that he must "put on incorruption."

Such a memento mori, it was. Every time I see a hearing aid, I remember Vernard Eller, and I remember that I am dust and to dust I will return.

Now Eller's body has been sown in corruption. May it be raised in incorruption.

David Neff is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

The Brethren Newsline ran Eller's obituary.

The Christian Century website doesn't have Eller's 1967 article, "The 'Mad' Morality: An Expose," but it is available elsewhere.

House Church Central offers a collection of selected electronic texts from Eller's books and articles.