A Surprise Audience
I haven’t kept a diary of the telephone calls and letters that I’ve received about God and Uncle Dale, so I’ll probably miss some things. But I noticed one surprising thing very soon after its release. The first people who called or wrote me about the book were older people. Many of them could remember being caught in circumstances similar to those recounted in the book.
I wrote the book especially for older teenagers and younger married couples. I didn’t anticipate this deep interest from people old enough to be my parents. In fact these people probably bought the majority of the first printing of the book, in some cases giving each of their children a copy. (The first printing sold out in less than three months.)
This doesn’t mean that younger people haven’t read the book. Many have, though I think it startled a lot of them because its setting is so foreign to their experience. In fact some of the younger men at Rod and Staff who reviewed the book were dubious about its veracity. It was pushed through by some older men who knew from personal experience the realities of what the families in the book faced.
Is This Merely a History Book?
The main characters in the book (especially Dale and Sheila) were actually fictional. The book was NOT about my uncle – that was a literary technique which somewhat embarrassed me by its success. Evidently some readers are not acquainted with some of the techniques used by authors to make a book seem more real. Also, Rod and Staff Publishers has a policy not to publish a book about living people, and they financed this book as well as publishing it. (One brother actually complained that the book should not have been published because he recognized a few of the background characters. However that could hardly be helped if the book was to remain true to the history of the times.) Had I used real people as the main characters in the book, I would have been forced to get into some weaknesses that would have been embarrassing to some people still living.
The book is true to life, however, and the main background events in it all happened. People who had been in similar situations caught the reality that was behind the scenes and I heard over and over, “That’s exactly what we went through.” In fact I heard various times, “We had it even worse than that.” Many younger people in our churches have a hard time comprehending that their parents or grandparents actually stuck it out in such a setting for as many years as they did.
I had to tone down the book substantially, especially in the area of immorality. Most younger readers, and some older ones, would be horrified if I shared some of the things that I know about the moral conduct of the youth and younger married couples in those settings during those years. Very little of this is even hinted at in the book, again due in part to publisher constraints, and partly due to my concern for the moral purity of the readers.
So it is certainly true that this is a book about history. This is a period of time that was very real and many who lived through it did not survive spiritually. In this book I wanted to show our youth where we came from, and why we have some of the concerns we do. But this book is about more than just history.
Is It a Warning Against Apostasy?
The fear of apostasy has been a major paranoia in conservative circles ever since the 1960’s. Not only will most conservative churches bend over backward to avoid worldly practices, they will also fervently avoid anything that could conceivably lead them astray down the road, no matter how far away that might be. The “Great Apostasy” almost became our nemesis, and we can’t forget that.
This book doesn’t pretend to comprehensively cover the reasons that the Mennonite churches drifted away from truth during the first part of the 20th century. It simply portrays what happened to one family within one congregation of that whole scenario. It’s true that it is a bit of a shock for conservative Mennonites to realize that a group of young folks could get together for a church function and end it by singing Elvis Presley’s greatest hits together and consider it normal. But that was part of the reality of the times.
It is also true that all of this could happen again to us. So some church leaders and parents have used this book to warn their youth that, “If you continue the course you are in, you will end up where the church in God and Uncle Dale was.”
But this book is more than just a history book intended to scare us into avoiding apostasy.
Is This Book About Nonconformity?
The doctrine of nonconformity in dress has been a mainstay of the conservative Mennonite church in North America in the past, though maybe not to the degree that many of our people have been led to believe. It is certainly true that the mainstream Mennonite church lost most of its nonconformity in the decades before and after the 1960’s. Even some of the conservative minded people who finally left the mainstream churches had drifted a long way, though this is not always recognized. For instance, one brother who was quite young when his family was in this setting was very startled when he learned that his older sisters didn’t wear cape dresses at that time and that his father allowed it.
But I did not write this book to promote the plain coat and the cape dress. These two items were important in the book because they symbolized Biblical principles of separation, simplicity, and modesty — all of which were being lost in the main Mennonite settings. However, Christian people were obeying these principles long before the plain coat and cape dress were ever invented. The Mennonite churches did not go astray because they put aside some of these traditional garments. Rather they went astray because they ignored the clear Bible principles behind them.
So, while I am a strong believer in these Biblical doctrines, I did not write this book to promote any particular local interpretations of these doctrines.
One More Caveat
I suppose some people will be quite frustrated with me by now. I am not trying to belittle any of the points we have just discussed. All of them are true to a degree. But I feel we need to go beyond these ideas.
For instance, I believe that it is a mistake for us to be constantly making our choices in light of the “Great Apostasy”. I also believe that it is a mistake to live in constant fear of where a choice might take us. Certainly, we need to be sensible, and make Biblical, Spirit led, choices. But finally, it is most important that we choose in light of God’s will and direction. Rather than asking, “Will this action lead me to apostatize ten years down the road?”, I should be asking myself, “Is this God’s plan for my life?”
So, while I agree that each of the issues above is important, they were not my main purpose in writing this book.
Then Why DID I Write This Book?
Both Dale and Shelia were interested in serving God. Both wanted to do what was right. But Shelia failed and Dale succeeded. Why? Dale’s parents gave him some help that Shelia lacked, but the real reason went beyond that, since Dale’s help made up for most of that lack in Shelia’s life.
Dale succeeded because he made a serious effort to find out what God’s will was for his life. He studied his Bible, he prayed, he asked for advice. In other words, he succeeded because his spiritual life became an intensely personal thing for him. He had no church to fall back on to make his choices for him. His parents were too discouraged to really give him all the guidance he needed. (I think he would have succeeded even if his parents had failed.) He had to find his own way.
Shelia became so real to me during my writing that I shed tears for her. (One young sister actually wrote me and practically insisted that surely, even at this late stage, someone could find Shelia and help her recover the faith she lost in her youth!) I probably liked Shelia even better than Dale, and it hurt me to have her take the course she did. But finally, she lacked the personal spiritual drive that Dale had. She depended on others, and worried about what others thought of her, rather than finding her own way with God. In the end, her path came out miles away from where Dale’s path ended.
It still hurts me to say it, but I don’t believe Shelia was ready to meet God.
I wonder sometimes how many conservative Mennonite people are caught in the same trap Shelia fell into. They might be considered good solid church members, never rocking the ship, and doing what is expected of them, but they have never moved beyond a politically correct spirituality to one based on a personal relationship with Christ.
Most of us have become accustomed to have others do our thinking for us. For instance, what kind of vehicle should we buy? Instead of seeking God’s direction, our first thought too often is, “What will the church say about it?” It is proper to respect our church and its decisions and guidelines. But if we never get beyond this in our spiritual relationship with God, we will probably not get to heaven. There are always times and places that we face issues that the church hasn’t spoken to. Or we may find ourselves, like Dale, in a setting where the church doesn’t even care.
If we have prepared like Dale did to find God’s direction, we will get it, along with His help. But if we’ve always depended on our parents or our church leaders or our friends to do our thinking and make our decisions, we will probably fail.
So, to put it into a nutshell, my purpose in writing this book was to encourage young people and young married couples to get so close to God that they could stand alone if necessary.
If you haven’t seen that in God and Uncle Dale, it’s probably my fault for not making it clear enough. But read it again with this in mind and I think you will see what I am talking about.
For every Dale in this world there are dozens of Shelia’s who won’t make it. Remember, both Dale and Shelia wanted to do what was right. But only Dale actually did it and found his way. My challenge to you is, be a Dale. Don’t be satisfied to be a Shelia.
 For instance, never in the history of the Mennonite church has any conference ever held as rigidly to the plain coat and cape dress as the EPMC and the NWF congregations do. Many of us consider this a historical norm. That is another subject – suffice it to say that this “historical norm” is mostly fiction. Also, both the cape dress and the plain coat are North American and were not brought from Europe. Nonconformity in dress was not really an Anabaptist doctrine, since it was hardly needed in medieval times.
 Ouch! That startled even me as I wrote it, but the more I think about it the more I believe it.
 For some reason we often assume that a person who builds up a personal relationship with Christ, and does his own thinking and decision making, is automatically going to be a rebel. I find this hard to understand. After all the same Spirit who led the church in it’s development, is guiding you and I as well. Why would we come out somewhere else in our thinking? Of course there are always those who use this reasoning as a foundation for rebellion. But that is totally different from what I am promoting here. Dale became a strong church supporter because of his personal convictions and relationship with Christ. The same can be true for us.