April 2005 Born

From Cross to Cross-Stitch: The Ascendancy of the Quilt


Abstract: Perceptions of the quilt within the Mennonite community have changed over time. Arguably, the quilt has not only shaped what can be called the Mennonite imagination-that field of symbolic structures that helps to define the Mennonite community-but it has also undergone shifting perceptions that have elevated it to an object of increasing importance. From its nascent utilitarian beginnings, the quilt has evolved into an object of aesthetic desire, and most recently-if poems, liturgical practice and seminary syllabi are any indication-it has begun to enjoy an iconic status. No longer merely a bedwarmer or art object, the quilt now is increasingly connected to the community’s own spiritual self-understanding. This paper explores the implications of the iconic role the quilt might play in the Mennonite community, whose understanding of Christianity has been most heavily colored by an emphasis on martyrdom and the cross.

How do we begin to speak about the changing status of the quilt within the world of Mennonite life and faith, and in what terms do we conduct a cultural analysis of this particular form of material culture? It is hardly news that quilts occupy a significant place in the history of what can be properly called “the Mennonite imagination.” That there is such a thing as “the Mennonite imagination” to start with, however, might be debated by those who object that such terminology breaks down on account of its amorphous, vague outline. But I speak deliberately of such a “Mennonite imagination,” in ways analogous to Lionel Trilling’s invocation of “the liberal imagination” (1949) in postwar America, Gordon Kaufman’s “theological imagination” (1981)-provocatively subtitled “Constructing the Concept of God”-and Daphne Hampson’s appeal to “the feminist imagination” in her 1990 work, Theology and Feminism.[1]

To speak of the Mennonite imagination in this way requires a willingness to form impressions and make judgments without exacting specific definitions or even first principles, for I would contend that any imagination worth its salt will elude tight categories if it is to remain the imagination. (Trilling was always reluctant to peg down the tenets of his liberal imagination, and though his hypothetical subject might have been a particular kind of reader of The Partisan Review living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan after World War II, any attempts to reduce his “liberal imagination” to those sorts of simple formulas or demographics misses the point.) “The Mennonite imagination,” as I speak about it here, includes a broad constellation of forms such as writing, theology, church aesthetics and liturgies, as well as folk art practices such as oral storytelling and quilting itself. It is encyclopedic in the Joycean sense. It makes room for christologies and recipes alike. It encompasses the multitudinous parts of the Mennonite experience without necessarily creating familiar hierarchies of the parts or orderly arrangements of them-just as, for instance, Trilling’s formulation of the liberal imagination never claimed to fully work out the relationship between anti-Stalinist politics and the championing of modernist literary aesthetics.

In this paper, I argue that the changing status of the quilt, and its growing symbolic weight within Mennonite communities, can be observed by paying attention to the way it is summoned up in Mennonite experience. More specifically, the increasingly iconic overtones of the quilt have begun to exceed the aesthetic and cultural value granted it by certain Mennonite poets and writers. In recognizing that both literature and theology flow from the imagination, I follow William Blake, a radical Protestant who has perhaps as much to teach the church as Menno Simons. For Blake, one of the most radical reformers in the history of the church’s radical reforms, the imagination is the source rather than the subsidiary of religion and literature.[2]


During a friend’s visit to Chicago several years ago, our conversation turned to the subject of Mennonite fetish objects. The most important of these is Martyrs Mirror, that familiar chronicle of flayings, burnings, dismemberments, drownings and other tortures that afflicted faithful forebears. It is the item that most closely links our tradition to the cross; indeed, it is the record of a people’s martyrdom. It has always communicated the particular way in which Anabaptist theology and history is attuned to the martyr tradition initiated by Jesus. My friend and I exchanged stories of how this book gets used in Mennonite liturgical practice. For instance, I have seen it carried up the middle aisle of a church, held open for all to see, and then deposited reverentially at the front communion table as a visual icon that focuses the congregation’s attention for the remainder of the service. In some communities it has been a favorite wedding gift. In the course of the conversation, I registered my uneasiness about celebrating those who went to their deaths singing hymns, just as I am ambivalent about details of hot tongs and the rack, unsure at this point about our legacy of meek submission to the executioner’s tools. When does a fetish, or an icon, for that matter, begin to lose its imaginative power and charm? We wondered. Still, as our conversation traveled in familiar channels, I reflected on how the Mennonite imagination returns to this motif again and again, most recently with the tales of relatives cut down in their Ukrainian fields in the early part of the twentieth century.

The other fetish object has to be the quilt. If on the one hand Martyrs Mirror, that pointedly Anabaptist cipher for the cross, documents horrors done to the bodies of believers, then the quilt speaks to the opposite: creaturely comforts, and the familiarity of the ethnic. This pairing of extreme pain and sensuous pleasure, I would suggest, defines the poles of the Mennonite imagination. Indeed it bears out the insight of the structuralists (and their deconstructive progeny) that metaphysics, when you get right down to it, rests on some dualism. If my pairing of the cross and the quilt seems forced or artificial, let me describe what I described for my friend from Pennsylvania. This anecdote points the way to larger stirrings of the Mennonite imagination in which the quilt attains iconic weight. In the process it has begun to coexist with an older icon, the cross, or, as in this particular instance, actually physically displace it.

Recently, I sat in a Mennonite sanctuary in Illinois. At the front of the sanctuary, in the center of the wall, hung a large quilt. It invited the eye. Several other folded quilts rested on the table dominating the center of the stage. These homely objects had literally edged their way into the terrain of the sacred. They had made the journey from the quilting table to the communion table.

During the service these quilts were unfolded and held up for the congregation to see. Members commented on the design and quality of the stitches, in the manner that students of midrash use when discussing a hard saying in the Torah. Call it an exegesis of the quilt. Similarly, the quilt also evoked history. The speakers fondly recalled the circumstances of the quilt’s making, including hours spent around the table, and the way they could spot certain individuals’ patterns of stitching.

It might be pointed out that this anecdote is too slight to sustain the weight of the argument I am making for the increased iconic significance of the quilt. I have not carried out a scientific survey of whether such a phenomenon has gained widespread adoption. But in fact it registers as an indicator of stirrings within the wider Mennonite community vis–vis quilts as a self-consciously spiritual practice. Several months before this service, a news caption appeared in The Mennonite Weekly Review beneath a picture of a young man working with needle and cloth. “Stitching Prayer” it read, and described a seminary course on “the spiritual discipline of prayer.” The article went on: “It may look as though . . . student Jorge Vielman is learning how to quilt, but instead he’s learning to pray.” The class instructor, described as “a spiritual director and a quilter,” was quoted as saying, “Women have quilted for years, often as a solitary activity, much like men plowing fields. That kind of space can make prayer possible.” [3]

Here it is useful to point out that alternative liturgical practices are part and parcel of what has come about in the interests of both the theological and the feminist imaginations, and this activity is hardly restricted to Anabaptists. It is a phenomenon rippling across Christendom as feminist voices register with greater force. Marjorie Procter-Smith is only one of several feminist theologians to remark upon the need for what she specifically calls “liturgical reconstruction.” She argues that “the construction of a feminist liturgical tradition demands that women’s experience be remembered and respected, not as marginal to the tradition, but as a necessary part of it. The remembrance of women’s experience requires imagination, because so much has been lost, forgotten, and distorted.”[4] The women who commented on that quilt hanging at the front of the sanctuary carried out such a liturgical task perfectly: reflecting on the past, remembering the stories and letting all the congregation know that the quilting experience itself was the medium for storytelling of a unique kind.


Before returning to further discussion of the theological implications of the quilt as icon, I want to consider its status in an intermediate phase that precedes the iconic and follows from an earlier, primarily utilitarian use. This is the part of the history in which artists and writers became the primary mediators and interpreters of the quilt.

Alluding to quilts is an automatic reflex in much late twentieth-century Mennonite poetry. Julia Kasdorf’s chapter “Preacher’s Striptease,” in The Body and the Book, not only gently interrogates the conventions of the “Mennonite poem,” but also shows how the subgenre works.[5] It’s a typically postmodern gesture: you must disrespect and respect the form at the same time. Kasdorf also demonstrates that a quiltless “Mennonite” poem is practically an oxymoron. Her well-known poem “Mennonites” begins vividly: “We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.” Jeff Gundy opens “How to Write the New Mennonite Poem” with these lines: “Choose two from old Bibles, humbly / beautiful quilts / Fraktur, and the Martyrs’ Mirror in Dutch.” David Wright’s poem “A New Mennonite Replies to Julia Kasdorf” begins, “As best I can tell, most of our quilts here were inherited, / or bought at relief sales, spread on guest beds / and splayed on shiny oak racks.” The quilt comes across in these texts as the objective correlative, or clich, for Mennonite experience.

These poems also illustrate most precisely the shift in sensibility from the quilt as necessity to a self-consciously and often ironically displayed work of art. (Many of us still have direct connections to the first, mostly utilitarian phase. In my Grandma Toews’s house, the quilt was seldom considered as anything but a blanket, unless used as a sofa covering to hide worn upholstery and broken springs. Her quilts were made for beds, not art gallery walls. She did possess religious iconic art coming out of the pietist tradition, but the quilt was not considered part of that repertoire.)[6]

The poems by Gundy and Wright embody the self-conscious sensibilities of the quilt’s second phase. This began when quilts became objects of serious art collection as well as capitalist commodities at Mennonite Central Committee relief auctions. Coffee-table books on the quilt were published-by Mennonites themselves. The quilt was now a piece of highbrow primitive chic. Quilts started to appear on the wall, preferably under tastefully chosen track lighting. Wright’s line about quilts in this era “being splayed on shiny oak racks” overtly registers the shift from utilitarian to an aesthetic outlook. The first phase of the quilt, a homely object of utilitarian need, gave way to the second, the quilt in the Age of Warhol, when aesthetic sophistication and monetary prosperity created a Mennonite marketplace of unprecedented means. High bidders for the quilts could expect ample publicity for both their good taste and faithfulness.

One interesting artistic interpretation of the quilt during this period is glimpsed on the book cover of Acts of Concealment: Mennonite/s Writing in Canada, edited by Hildi Froese Tiessen and Peter Hinchcliffe.[7] The illustration shows the mixed media work “Flaming Paintbrush,” by a Jersey City artist, Erma Martin Yost. Yost’s signature artworks in this phase of her career contain quilted fabric juxtaposed against painted canvasses strongly reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe, and depicting desert landscape or familiar natural objects from the American Southwest. Thus Yost puts the quilting into conversation with various other materials and cultural formations: Native American values and spirituality, ecological sensitivity, actual found objects including bleached animal skulls and sand. What this particular cover illustration says about Mennonite writing or “concealment” is not clear. It does suggest the quilt can be reappropriated in a milieu of cultural pluralism. Still, it is interesting that the quilted portion of a typical Yost piece is usually clearly demarcated from the rest of the artwork, bumping up against the oil painting or found object, but seldom mingling with it.

A more subversive transformation of the quilt comes in the “Quilt Patch Series” of the same period by a Baltimore artist, Dorcas B. Kraybill. Kraybill created familiar quilt patterns by affixing colored chemical and nuclear warning labels on a flat surface. From a distance, these works appear as traditional Mennonite and Amish quilts; only up close does the viewer see that they are made out of commercial hazard labels that might read “IRRITANT,” or “Dangerous When Wet.”[8] Of these works, bearing provocative titles such as “Radioactive Basket I,” and “Eight Point War Star,” Kraybill says, “I was . . . trying to make political statements using traditional quilt patterns.”[9] (One jarring level of meaning is that the viewer is asked to see the quilt itself as an object of peril.) Kraybill’s use of actual written text on her quilting pattern is not original, though the content of the language is. Ruth Derksen Siemens has chronicled how young women at the Mennonite Girls’ Home of Vancouver in the mid-twentieth century stitched proverbs into their quilts emphasizing service and purity (“Serve the Lord with gladness,” “Seek those things which are above,” etc.).[10]


We are now entering the third age of the quilt, in which it firmly reaches the realm of the sacred. In some ways the graphic artists’ interpretations make room for this iconic value. Yost’s artistic interpretations of the quilt suggest a preliminary consideration of the object in relation to Native American and shamanistic traditions of spirituality. Kraybill imbues the quilt with a prophetic, hard-edged ethical valence of its own, which, like the earlier pietistic quilts, aims at explicit moral education. Yet the third stage of quilt as icon has not been as clearly delineated in Mennonite literature per se. I would suggest a reason for this. While the aesthetic phase contains a good deal of irony (Look at what we have become in our self-conscious materialist culture, say poets like Gundy), the third phase, quilt as icon, will ask the audience-or congregation-to check irony at the door.

Such a prohibition may create problems for writers. During the quilt’s aesthetic phase, a certain Mennonite crowd began to see the quilt game in terms of kitsch and irony. Whereas irony calls attention to the distance between the history of one’s people and one’s actual life in the present, the assertion of the quilt as icon aims to collapse that distance. Thus we have assertions that quilting, the actual needlework, is akin to prayer itself. The alienation from our past is overcome. The quilt will reconnect us with the sacred history of our people.

This romantic and quintessentially American idea, this desire for authenticity and return to innocence, seldom views irony as anything but corrosive.[11] This is why religious authority and literary production within the Mennonite community have always existed in uneasy tension, and it is also why I suspect few Mennonite writers will go along uncritically with a vision of quilt as icon, even as that vision establishes itself in the religious community.

Still, one central element to the revival of the quilt as icon makes irony toward such a development difficult to articulate. This is the fact that such a movement-both the embrace of the craft, as well as a growing appreciation of the experience of sitting with others perfecting one’s needlework (a rich ecclesiastical metaphor itself)-is deeply rooted not only in a theological but also a gender reclamation project. One critiques this project only at the risk of sounding anti-feminist. The movement of the quilt out of the basement and into the sanctuary, and in some places to front and center where the cross once exclusively dominated the sacred space, is hardly subtle. In the old days, manly clergy and elders contemplated the hard doctrinal truths within earshot of the old rugged cross, while the ladies constructed their soft quilts in the safe and invisible confines of the basement below. This reality no longer inheres.

I emphasize this gendered nature of the cross and the quilt because such a dualism is central to the structural tension of the Mennonite as well as the larger Christian imagination. While the Romans fastened both naked men and women to crosses, at times setting them on fire to improve nighttime visibility, the cross tends to evoke images of men, of guys-either the rugged ones in armor hammering spikes home, or the rugged ones taking the pain and trying not to yell. It’s about Spartacus and Kirk Douglas and Ben Hur and Charlton Heston. It’s about Martin Scorsese’s bloody spectacles of males enduring spectacular ordeals: LaMotta taking one more brutal beating in the ring or Jesus as played by Willem Dafoe in Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Garry Wills argues that that film’s notoriety has overshadowed its orthodoxy. For Scorsese, resistance to temptation means rejecting the comfort of a sweet woman’s bed and embracing the hard iron and splinters of the cross. Jesus almost capitulates to a breathtaking rollick on the quilt with that most devoted of women, Mary Magdalen. But he resists temptation and chooses to remain on the cross. The vision to which Jesus nearly succumbs is the siren call of comfort, of being a regular guy who wants the warm pleasure of a woman and a bed and a quilt.[12] More than any other contemporary artist, Scorsese shows the masculine and ascetic tendencies within Christianity itself.

Edwina Sandys’s notorious sculpture of a woman hanging on a cross (Christa, 1975) has outraged many viewers, I suspect, not so much because the woman is displacing Christ as because a cross is simply no place for a woman. In various countries from Mexico to the Philippines, men still prove themselves by getting hammered to crosses on Good Friday, and then seeing who can last longest before begging for delivery to an emergency room. In this extreme manifestation of Christian devotion, we approach the obscene boundary-line of snuff films, and also begin to apprehend Georges Bataille’s vision of religion as manifesting itself most directly in spectacles of extreme and quasi-pornographic violence. Mel Gibson’s most recent film, The Passion of the Christ, certainly fits such a description, and yet the devout who return to the film for multiple viewings are apt to affirm it as a statement of pious reflection, identification and imagination-perhaps in the way that the woodcuts in Martyrs Mirror reenact the suffering of our spiritual ancestors. Is there such a thing as the gratuitous religious imagination of suffering? To what extent is such an imagination appropriate and salutary, and to what extent pathological?

But there is yet another prime reason to consider this gendered tension between the cross and the quilt. That reason is the powerful feminist critique of the ways in which the cross can, and often does, malfunction in the Christian imagination. Most eloquent among this corps of feminist theologians are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, who write: “All these ways of seeing Jesus on the cross ended up sanctifying violence against women and children, valorizing suffering and pain, or denying loss. You couldn’t look on the man of sorrows and give thanks to God without ending up a partner in a thousand crimes.” They continue by observing that, “Atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says this intimate violence saves life.”[13] Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker are even more troubled by the traditional theories of the cross, summarizing them crisply as “divine child abuse . . . paraded as salvific.”[14] For Marjorie Procter-Smith, the notion of sacrifice itself is problematic, “ambivalent” because of the message of sacrifice that women so frequently hear from religious authority.[15] At the same time, she observes, “The normative salvation narratives and the communal patterns of traditional Judaism and Christianity alike categorically affirm that salvation is mediated through chosen males divinely favored; all others are the beneficiaries of their religious mediations and subject to their authority.”[16]

Of course the cross has always been liable to misinterpretation, and many other theologians besides those interested in liturgical reconstruction have made this point, principal among them Rene Girard. His critique of religion’s false formula of sacrifice in the repeating cycle of the scapegoat must be acknowledged as one of the strongest apologies for the cross against a historical tendency to deform the cross’s meaning.[17] And yet the quilt’s arrival in the sanctuary signals a kind of religious iconography that presents itself as refreshingly untroubled by controversial meanings, especially when we contrast it with the numerous perversions and deformations of the cross that keep apologists like Girard so busy. The quilt embodies those core values of Christian faith that have always been a part of the prophetic and Anabaptist biblical tradition: providing relief to those who suffer, comforting those who mourn, giving shelter to the homeless. It is worth pondering that at his birth and death, it was women who wrapped the body of Christ in cloth. If the cross creates a theological and ethical conundrum of endless theological dispute and complications, the quilt might seem to be a wholesome substitute or at least corrective to the bloody, endlessly misinterpreted, sacrificial center of Christianity.

To reconsider the relationship between the cross and the quilt might well mean that in the realignment of the faith with new icons, chief among them the quilt, this meditation on horror and the crime done by father to son could become a thing of the past. The new Mennonite imagination will evolve on a more upbeat key. We will feel little need-we already feel little need-to give the Martyrs Mirror as a wedding gift. On the other hand, we must seriously ask what a theology void of horror might look like. Crosses kill people. Quilts are good for covering people up, both the living and the dead. The cross, a dark symbol that cannot be taken lightly, has historically inspired literature that wrestles with the guilty conscience of Christianity itself: witness Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Graham Greene. The quilt may, in time, also inspire literature. But if the cross throws a distorted masculine shadow across all that it interprets, the quilt, by contrast, might fall short of making much of an impression at all, and runs the danger of becoming, as the feminist critic Ann Douglas describes it, part of the feminization of American Christianity in the nineteenth century, a process that in some instances tilted toward the merely “decorative” or was reduced to a kind of “anti-intellectual sentimentalism.”[18] The cross as a symbol holds power because it embodies both sacred and profane all at once. In Bataille’s view, this sacred expression and obscene violence can never be entirely disentangled; they remain inextricable companions in the human religious imagination.

Putting it another way, how does an unambiguously benign icon work? The transformation of the cross into the quilt, or the displacement of the cross by the quilt, might be analogous to the attempt a few years ago to replace Godzilla, that fire-breathing nightmare thunder lizard of the atomic age, vomited up from Japan’s tortured psyche, with a happy purple dinosaur called Barney. In the annals of popular culture this is truly one of the great mysteries. Barney was all about happiness, affirmation and the joy of communal citizenship and cooperation. Godzilla crushed cities and engulfed innocent people and cities in flames. Barney came with his own soundtrack jingle and little children were taught to sing it: “I love you, you love me, we’re a great big fa-mi-ly.” Then one day my daughter, Elizabeth, came home from preschool, singing a mutant variation:

I hate you, you hate me, let’s gang up and kill Barney.

With a two-by-four, Barney hit the floor,

No more purple dinosaur.

There was also this variant:

I hate you, you hate me, let’s tie Barney to a tree.

As if to confirm Rene Girard’s mimetic theory of the scapegoat, played out was the urge to crucify the lovable Barney. I was witnessing a preschool replication of human culture’s perennial need to find and destroy victims in order to create human bonds and community. As Elizabeth explained to me about this urge some years later: “We loved Barney until we hit about four and a half. Then we turned on him.” That which was simple and innocent, sweetness and light, had changed into a transformational bonding agent of rage and collective murder.

It is too soon to speculate what the quilt as icon will bring. On the face of things, it is a celebration of life, and not of death. It has much to offer in terms of a theology of solidarity. We live in an age when demonstrations of kindness may prove more useful than cosmic declarations of sacrificial love, which generally, in the world-historic fabric of religion, come accompanied by intolerance and the rigid dogmas of the fanatic. In this sense, the quilt might offer a good alternative to the cross, appropriated so early on by none other than Constantine. Arguably, as the feminist theologians frequently point out, the cross itself in the theological imagination is the most powerful manifestation of the myth of redemptive violence. The quilt is less aggressive than the cross. It is likely to do less harm.

The quilt in this moment of the Mennonite imagination is being embraced. But wrapped in its comfort, teasing out the stitches of its various practitioners, reveling in its delicate mosaic of beauty, we may wonder what the quilt covers. Does it extend our vision, or impede it? If every symbol carries its own shadow-something our greatest writer, Rudy Wiebe, pointed out more than forty years ago in suggesting that even peace could destroy us-then the quilting table as metaphor for the kingdom of God demands our serious attention. Speaking of the liberal imagination at the middle of the last century, Trilling would insightfully suggest, “It has for some time seemed to me that a criticism which has at its heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.”[19] We do well to inquire what shadows lurk in the folds of Grandma’s prize quilt. Religious symbols-at least the ones that matter-are never altogether plain.

[*]Daniel Born is editor of The Common Review.
1. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Harcourt, 1949); Gordon D. Kaufman, The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981); Daphne Hampson, Theology and Feminism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).
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[2]. William Blake’s “All Religions Are One” and “There Is No Natural Religion,” both published in 1788, are especially instructive in this regard. Kaufman’s notion of the way in which we imaginatively construct our concept of God is directly indebted to Blake’s radical privileging of the human imagination over reason and nature.
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[3]. The Mennonite Weekly Review, June 28, 2001, p. 12. A less romanticized memory of quilting comes from my mother, who recalls the conversations around the quilting table as entertaining but seldom verging on prayerful. Another veteran quilter and theologian, Mary Schertz, commented after reading an early draft of this paper that her prime recollection of quilting was that the needle hurt, and “every stitch involved a prick.”
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[4]. Marjorie Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite: Constructing Feminist Liturgical Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 35.
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[5]. Julia Kasdorf, The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 58-74.
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[6]. For aesthetics, she had the sacred piano music of Rudy Atwood and a backlit portrait of Jesus in Gethsemane. The picture, manufactured from Sputnik-era plastic, hung in her living room. The switch in its frame operated the light as well as a spinning cylinder, which, when activated, cast a moving shadow on the sky above Jesus’ head. Though this made the clouds behind the praying figure appear to be scudding across the sky at hurricane-force speeds, it never moved Jesus from his kneeling position, something that came as a vague disappointment.
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[7]. Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1992.
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[8]. Sandy Cullen, “Quilts of Discomfort,” Harrisburg Patriot-News (July 14, 1991), E1.
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[9]. Dorcas B. Kraybill, telephone interview with the author, October 12, 2002.
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[10]. Ruth Derksen Siemens, “Quilt as Text and Text as Quilt: The Influence of Genre in the Mennonite Girls’ Home of Vancouver (1930-1960),” Journal of Mennonite Studies 17 (1999).
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[11]. We live in a moment when irony is said to be on the wane. This was already true before 9/11. Jedediah Purdy’s bestseller of several years ago, For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (New York: Knopf, 1999), took to task a generation falling down in adulation to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld. Many of us sympathize, I think, with Purdy’s impatience. Yet his self-representation ultimately casts doubts on his noble enterprise; he lays it on too thick about being from West Virginia, benefiting from home-schooling, rolling in the wholesome mud, and having a mom who cared deeply about local politics. The packaging of this rustic is a little bit too much in evidence: he is the noble savage gone to Harvard and Yale, a prophet calling to a winking, corrupt American civilization.
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[12]. Garry Wills, “Jesus in the Mean Streets,” review of The Last Temptation of Christ, New York Review of Books (October 13, 1988), 10.
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[13]. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 48-49.
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[14]. Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, eds. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1989), 2.
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[15]. Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite, 102.
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[16]. Ibid., 20-21.
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[17]. Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).
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[18]. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), 4, 13.
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[19]. Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, Preface.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
From Cross to Cross-Stitch
MQR 79 (April 2005)