Concerning the Mennonites

December 6, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Since I’m a scholar of American religions, you might think I would know all  about the Mennonites. Initially, though, all I knew was that in the 1990s the Mennonite Central Committee had challenged its members to donate ten percent of their food budget to the poor, and had created a really useful cookbook–More-With-Less Cookbook : Suggestions By Mennonites on How to Eat Better and Consume Less of the World’s Limited Food Resources to help them do so. My copy is ragged from use. We have a batch of Mennonite coleslaw in the refrigerator right now. Great with burgers when I haven’t got the energy to cook much.

I learned more about Mennonites from reading David Harrington Watt’s Bible-Carrying Christians,  a fine book I reviewed a while back. I was so impressed by Watt’s portrayal of the Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship’s commitment to  congregational equality and other radical social practices, I even fantasized a bit about becoming a Mennonite. Then it came to me that my poststructuralist feminism might cohere less than perfectly with the near-literalist biblical interpretation that underpinned that congregation’s radical practice.

Then, last October, the annual assembly of Pax Christi New York Metro,  the local chapter of the national Catholic peace association, explored the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue and its work on what it means to be a peace church. As you may have gathered from previous blogs,  I (and many others) are not finding this the easiest time to be a Catholic. Hearing about the efforts of some Catholics and some Mennonites to come together around a subject other than abortion and gay marriage, indeed, a subject as important as peace, was deeply inspiring for me. I was especially impressed by Sylvia Shirk, the minister of the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship who shared with us the efforts of that local congregation to “seek the shalom of the city” in study and action week after week. One of these Sundays I plan to trek over to the five o’clock service of that particular congregation of Mennonites at the Friends’ Meeting House in lower Manhattan. 

And now I have just finished Rhoda Janzen’s wildly popular Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home.  If, like me until recently, you are unaware of this latest hot item, you should check out the 134 ratings and 70 reviews on GoodReads alone to get a sense of the furor attending it.  And the book was published only two months ago!  As bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert blurbs: “It is rare that I literally laugh out loud when I’m reading, but Janzen’s voice… slayed me.”

Janzen’s narrative of several near-catastrophic personal losses and the healing she achieved by returning to her Mennonite parents’ home on the West Coast (and thereby to her own Mennonite heritage) is an undeniably heartening read ( as well as a considerable relief for someone currently submerged in the social history of French Catholicism).  But there was something about the very laugh-out-loudness of Mennonite that made me nervous, at least until the last sixty pages. In truth, there’s a very fine line between poking fun at the idiosyncratic religious or ethnic traditions in which a number of us, not just Janzen, have been raised, and the exoticization or outright mockery of those same traditions. Janzen clearly loves her parents, but her hilarious portrayals of them can also serve as grist for the mill of those less affectionately inclined. Even between laughs, I didn’t really stop worrying till Janzen arrived, on page 156, at the “wee white bow” that her mother wore in a photograph with her sisters marked otherwise by “Mennonite sobriety.” Jansen takes the bow as an indication of an attraction to aesthetics–“God was in the details”–that had, she previously thought, distinguished her from her mother and other Mennonites:

“I’d long acknowledged my debt to Flaubert, but now that wee white bow suggested a debt to my mother. She was Mennonite, but she was mine.”

Maybe in her next volume Janzen will shift that “but” to an “and.”

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2 Comments »

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  1. “And” would have made all the difference.

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  2. We have an interesting bit of French History here at the Mount. There was a monastery that was to be suppressed in France and to keep “alive”, the community sent several here to Atchison to survive the suppression. Interestingly, they sent some others to other places and the ones who came to this German Midwestern community ended up spending the rest of their lives here.

    Only recently was there a reconnection to the original community – which reformed when the suppression ended (from the sisters who remained in Europe). They had lost track that the sisters had been here and I think the sisters here didn’t know they reformed (or something along those lines, I only know bits of the story)

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