Contents of Volume LXXIV
October 2000 Number Four

           

 

Anabaptism and the Obstacles That Make for Vocation

RODNEY CLAPP[*]

     "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you . . . ." So the First Letter of Peter counsels us, and in response I know that much of the hope that is in me is owed to the Anabaptist tradition.

     But I am not very prepared to provide that account, even to the extent of saying how I have been challenged and shaped by Anabaptism. I did not grow up in a Mennonite or Brethren or Quaker church, but rather in United Methodism. And even now, as over the course of most of my adult life, I do not worship as an Anabaptist, but as an Episcopalian-which, at least on the surface, would seem to have taken me even further from the influence of Menno and his successors. Yet my writing and other work are clearly and indelibly marked by Anabaptism. Whence the deep chords of resonance? How to explain the profound influence of Anabaptism on my theology and discipleship?

     These questions inescapably drive back to vocation, to how God calls a person into and defines a particular life's work. We often, and rightly, think of vocation in terms of gifts and talents, but I am convinced that who we are and what we become are not just a matter of the gifts God gives us but also of the limitations and even inadequacies God refuses to airlift us out of or away from. Sometimes we find our vocations not so much by following our bliss as by facing obstacles. Hence the fact that I am today a writer and publisher has much to do with the ignominious reality that I almost flunked first grade. I had trouble learning how to read; my mother secured my passage to second grade only by promising the first-grade teacher that she would work with me all summer on my grammar and vocabulary. And so for a few hours every day we worked our way together through countless storybooks. By the beginning of the next school year I had not only learned how to read but had fallen in love with stories and with books. That love of story-and not my brush with illiteracy!-is one aspect of formation that later predisposed me to an appreciation of Anabaptism. Hence, although I would later study philosophy and certainly respectfully use it in my own theological work, I have always found its abstractness and formality something less than adrenaline-producing. The messy and colorful details, the unpredictability and stubborn particularities of narrative, have seemed to me more useful and exciting in making sense out of faith and life. In Anabaptism I have found a Christian tradition resolutely focused on the story of Israel and Jesus Christ and more prone to dig into the gritty soil of history than to take flight on the wings of philosophical speculation.

     In retrospect, I think at least one more aspect of situational vocation predisposed me to pay attention to Anabaptism. I grew up in Forgan, Oklahoma, a small agricultural and petroleum-producing town of 400 people, which fostered in me a certain outsider identity in a couple of ways. Being bookish and daydreamy and unmechanical, I simply did not fit the norm of the practical, common-sensical, born handyman sons of farmers and gas plant mechanics. Not that my childhood was tormented-far from it-but from earliest recollections I never felt like I fully and naturally belonged. I always related to the outsider. The second factor, however, has to do with the fact that I identified with my small-town origins so much that I could not identify with much of the rest of the world. By my early college years I was impressed that, whether or not my townspeople wanted to admit it, rural America was far from the national norm, and even more removed from the centers of real power in U.S. society. I was too young to be threatened by the draft for the Vietnam War, but several town kids only a few years older than I went off to that war. Out of that tiny town, probably a dozen young citizens fought in East Asia, and close to a half dozen never returned or-as in the case of two-returned shellshocked and haunted, and committed suicide in their twenties. Such disproportionalities, and the political impotency to do anything about them, along with the inclination never to disclaim my origins, reinforced in me a tendency to identify with the outsider.

     For a variety of reasons-not the least its faithfulness to a Lord who had no place to lay his head and died an outcast's death beyond the city walls-the Anabaptist tradition understands the outsider status. It has only lately-and, thank God, not uniformly-been tempted to think that the church should identify with empire. And it has cultivated the creativity and graceful, nonviolent forms of power that only those not grasping at the reins of conventional, worldly power can desire or be possessed by.

     Story and outsiderdom, then, hint at vocational dispositions that both informed my own appropriation of Christian faith and laid tracks on which Anabaptist trains of thought could later run. My first real encounter with that thought occurred early in college, through the reading of Sojourners magazine. Surely due in part to its own influence by Anabaptists, the magazine was clearly not fully at home with or "inside" the American dream. And it stubbornly returned to the story of the gospel (as well as other parts of the Bible) to read and interpret the world in which it dwelled. One writer who frequently graced the magazine's pages especially captivated me with his ability to see to the heart of things through biblical lenses. That was John Howard Yoder. I soon learned of a book he had written a few years before, The Politics of Jesus, which I promptly read. I recall being impressed by the profound biblical provenance of the book and by the force of its clean, bracing argumentation. But the truth is that I could not then imagine embracing a Christianity that was so radically and confidently itself that it would subordinate the politics of the nation-state to the politics of the church. In other words, I clearly was not so much of an outsider as the brief autobiographical musings above might suggest! I also failed to take to heart Yoder's own insistence that he was writing not just out of and for a single denomination, but for the ecumenical church. It seemed to me that I would have to join a Mennonite church in order really and fairly to take Yoder seriously, and I was not prepared to make such a step-since, rightly or wrongly, and probably some degrees of both, I saw the Mennonite church as an ethnic church.

     Fewer than 10 years later, however, in 1985, a second book recast my reading of Yoder and so opened doors on the Anabaptist tradition I formerly thought closed to me. Working as an editor at Christianity Today, I noticed a book called The Peaceable Kingdom on the review desk. Since I had heard of Stanley Hauerwas, I took the book home to read. The Peaceable Kingdom coalesced and catalyzed a number of factors that had become crucial in my life of the faith but whose coherence on an intellectual level remained murky to me. One such factor was Hauerwas' emphasis on narrative, which not only fit with my temperamental predilection but took seriously the story-shaped faith of the church and its Bible and showed why, on theo-philosophical grounds, that particularistic narrative should not be abandoned. I had already been assured of this via Barth, but Hauerwas helped me more clearly understand Barth's motivating concerns for the irreplaceable priority of the Word, and he stated the case for biblical narrative more explicitly, in terms more readily related to emerging postmodern epistemological debates. The second coalescing and catalyzing factor was Hauerwas' close attention to and appreciation of the worship life of the church. In the previous few years he had lived among the Catholics at Notre Dame, and taken to heart the power of sacramental liturgy. Just four or five years previously I had been confirmed into the Episcopal Church, out of my own appreciation for eucharistically-centered spirituality. I had known great nourishing and formational richness in the liturgy and sacraments, and in The Peaceable Kingdom met exciting theological rationale for such experience. But the third factor that made the book important to me had to do with what I have here referred to as outsider status. Hauerwas called the church not to endorse and anoint the status quo with holy oil, but to claim its unique mission and contradict the world for the world's sake.

     This third factor pushed me to reconsider Yoder. Hauerwas was (and is) United Methodist. Perhaps, then, I did not have to join a Mennonite Church in order to learn in good faith from Yoder. I not only reread The Politics of Jesus, but also read Yoder's later book The Priestly Kingdom. And this time I paid attention to his insistence that he wrote ecumenically, for the church catholic and evangelical. Readings of Yoder's corpus led to literary encounters-and in some especially happy cases, eventual friendship-with other Anabaptist thinkers, including James McClendon, Norman Kraus, Nancey Murphy, Tom Finger and John Driver. This influence was central in my decision to pursue further theological education at Bethany Seminary, where Dale Brown robustly presented the Anabaptist tradition in all its variegated history and Lauree Hersch Meyer showed how a committed pacifist could love and learn from Augustine.

     Anabaptist thought and witness, then, has been at the marrow of my more developed-or at least more explicitly understood-vocation. I am called as a writer and editor to help the church more faithfully understand its distinctive mission, as a community uniquely based on the revelation of God in Israel and Jesus Christ, and consequently in cruciformed service to the world with which God seeks to be reconciled. The Anabaptist tradition is one Christian tradition that has typically understood the church and its mission in just this manner, true to the biblical story and God's own outsiderly empathy for the stranger, the outcast and the forgotten. Consequently, the Anabaptist tradition has worshiped and missionized nonviolently. Thus it has extraordinary accumulated wisdom to share with much of the rest of the western church, which now must through force of circumstances (God's fresh unveiling of Christian vocation?) learn how to be church without assuming that surrounding cultures are already at least latently Christian or can, with empire's help, be coercively "evangelized."

     However indebted as I am to the Anabaptist tradition, and as much as I think the whole church catholic and evangelical has to learn from it, I remain an Episcopalian. At bottom, this has to do with the sacraments and sacramental theology. I fear that Zwinglian memorialistic understandings of baptism and the Lord's Supper all too readily play into individualistic, subjectivistic spiritualities. If these practices are merely occasions for our own mental recollection of Jesus and his sacrificial life and death, then faith (at least here) is a matter of human initiative. Theologically, memorialistic observances run against the grain of prevenient grace-that God, while we were yet lost, first reached out to humanity through and in Israel and Jesus Christ. To the extent that current Anabaptists are Zwinglian, I suspect that their successes in being gracefully gathered and empowered communities occurs in spite of their theology and practice of baptism and eucharist.

     Correlatively, I think that Anabaptist missional strategy may on this point have some things to learn from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other more determinedly sacramental traditions. I mention only one, signal instance: For good and for ill, the world we inhabit is moving out of the age of the word and into the age of the image. For a variety of reasons (and not least as a bookmaker!) I hope the church will not give up on the printed word. But I have no doubt that visual images will assume increased importance in the communication and conduct of Christian life. In corporate worship, for instance, those traditions that emphasize the sacramental (or imaged) Word as well as the proclaimed (spoken or written) Word will more readily appeal to and communicate with people whose existence is suffused with mediated imagery.

     In short, the recent hope expressed by ethicist Gerald Schlabach that Catholics be more Anabaptist, Anabaptists more Catholic, and mainline Protestants more of both gets it just about right.[1]  That may aptly summarize the vocation of the western church in the twenty-first century.


[*] Rodney Clapp is a cofounder and editorial director of Brazos Press in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which will publish its first books this fall. He is also the author of several books, including A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996). Return to Text

[ ]  1. See Rodney Clapp, "What Would Pope Stanley Say? An Interview with Stanley Hauerwas," Books and Culture (Nov.-Dec., 1998), 16-18; Schlabach quoted on p. 18. 592 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 591 Anabaptism and Vocation 587