From Kleefeld with Love. Edited and translated by John Harder. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press. 2003. Pp.198. $22 Can.
In the 1980s I became concerned about the fate of the letters written by Mennonites in the Soviet Union to relatives and friends in Canada. I was often shown shoeboxes full of these letters, written on poor quality paper, often in a gothic hand, in ink or pencil, now fading into illegibility. Although treasured by older Mennonites, the younger generation could not read them or understand their significance. I heard dreadful stories of letters being burnt with the rubbish following the death of elderly relatives. The archivists in Canadian Mennonite research centers, therefore, issued an appeal for such letters to be deposited in their collections. A flood of letters came in.
In recent years families have begun the arduous task of transliterating, translating and sometimes publishing these letters. The results, as this book aptly illustrates, can be remarkable. This book consists of forty some letters, dating from a 1914 letter to relatives in Kansas to a 1946 letter from refugees in Germany. The majority of the letters date from the period 1925 to 1933, with over half written by Mariechen Harder, at first from Molochna and later other locations, to her Harder relatives, newly settled in Manitoba.
In the first instance the letters are of historical value, a chronicle of everyday events with an immediacy and pathos lacking in the dusty files of government bodies and Mennonite aid agencies. The early letters from the 1920s speak of a sense of insecurity following the civil war. Mariechen’s letters reveal the tension between attachment to home and the pull of emigration to join her loved ones. Soon the desire to emigrate becomes a driving force, hopes are raised, plans made only to be dashed again and again. Then collectivization begins. The process is vividly described for Kleefeld: village barns are dismantled, kulaks arrested and exiled. Mariechen comments: “These are now the policies of slavery in free Russia” (77). By 1930 she speaks of living “hour by hour. We must be totally submissive and do what we are told” (100). She is evicted from Kleefeld, finding refuge in Memrik. Life becomes an increasing struggle to survive, find food and shelter, and eke out an income as a seamstress in order to support her sick sister, Tina. Christmas 1931 is spent “in silence, without a Christmas tree, fragrance, or lights” (132).
Also included are letters from exiled relatives, desperately trying to survive, rebuilding lives in a distant wilderness. And one letter records a successful, daring escape across the Polish frontier to freedom.
As literary texts the letters capture voices and feelings in dramatic form. Particularly outstanding are Mariechen’s long letters, full of news and the evocation of place and memory. In 1927 Mariechen expresses the pain of separation: “As I lay down to sleep last night I stared out of the open window for a long time into the lovely still night. How I longed to negotiate a deal with the stars to send all of you a message. All that my heart possessed I longed to gather up and send your way” (61).
And the letters also contain a spiritual dimension, showing a resolute faith strengthened by suffering. A cousin, Sara Spenst, writes in 1932 from a hospital far from the Mennonite world in which she has found employment: “I am no longer hungry, but I do feel like a stranger. . . . I am living among people who in their daily lives travel the broad way without regard for God. There are no principles by which they live. . . . In such circumstances Satan works especially hard to squeeze his way into even the smallest opening to my heart” (170). Mariechen notes of the Soviet system that “there is no such thing as seeking the wisdom of God. Every person is his or her own God,” but then she adds: “The Almighty will not remain silent for ever” (157).
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand JAMES URRY
The Amish Schools of Indiana: Faith in Education. By Stephen Harroff. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press. 2003. Pp. 224. $34.95.
In The Amish Schools of Indiana: Faith in Education, Stephen Harroff claims a long link to Amish education. His grandfather taught in one of the first Amish parochial schools in Indiana, a school that, Harroff asserts, has “crossed the path” of his own life regularly. Harroff also cites his own experience as a substitute teacher in an Amish school. Motivated by his connections to Amish education, Harroff sets out to explore how contemporary Amish culture interprets “the Anabaptism belief system” and ultimately, to “uncover reasons” for the success of Amish schools (5).
Given Harroff’s background, readers might expect an authoritative study of Indiana’s Old Order schools, one that would shed light on the relationship between Old Order schools and other aspects of Old Order life. Unfortunately, however, although the author has sympathy for, and interest in, the Amish way of life, he fails to recognize the rich diversity of Amish society and glosses over the complexities of Old Order life. He notes obvious differences between Indiana’s Old Order Amish communities (e.g., Allen County Amish drive open buggies, while LaGrange County Amish drive closed buggies), but he makes little attempt to discover what these differences reveal about the communities and their relationship to each other and to the surrounding non-Amish society. He leaves some communities, notably Indiana’s ultraconservative Swartzentruber Amish, out of the discussion entirely. Consequently, this superficial and sometimes egocentric work does not do justice to Harroff’s experience.
From the beginning, Harroff generalizes. Even when he suggests community-specific differences, he fails to explore these in any depth. For example, in the first chapter, “Indiana Amish Schools,” he discusses the growth in the number of Amish schools, but does not pursue the impact this has had on Old Order communities, nor does he discuss variation in school growth across settlements. He asserts in Chapter 2, “The Buildings and Grounds,” that schools are often built according to settlement-specific standards, but does not examine what the different schoolhouse structures reveal about the communities that build them. He notes that two schools have added battery-operated photocopy machines and assumes that “more schools will adopt the photocopy machine if their Ordnung changes to allow it” (23), with no attempt to explore what that change reveals about a community’s interpretation of Anabaptist beliefs.
Harroff acknowledges, in Chapter 3, “The Pupils,” that “the mode of transportation that Amish children use for getting to school . . . is directly tied to the practices . . . of their community” (46). But he never discusses what it means for our understanding of the Amish to know that Allen County children ride school buses while children in other settlements walk, travel in horse-drawn carts, ride bicycles or roller blade. Further discussion of the pupils and of “The Teachers” in Chapter 4 leaves the reader with the impression that dress, behavior and attitudes are uniform across Amish settlements.
Harroff’s tendency to treat Old Order schools as if they were all alike is especially apparent in Chapters 5 through 7, which explore classroom interaction by grades. Basing his observations on events in one particular school (location and community undisclosed, but, given the size of the school and travel by bus, likely Allen County), Harroff makes few attempts to point out ways in which other schools might differ, thus implying that all Amish schools have the same pedagogical practices, use the same texts, follow the same curriculum and demonstrate the same approach to discipline and parental involvement. Discussing grades 1 and 2 in Chapter 5, for example, Harroff asserts that “regardless of the setting,” first graders receive extra attention from teachers, older students and “mothers whose husbands sit on the school board” (68). In Amish first and second grade classrooms, all Amish children love to spell and are good spellers (95), they bring snacks that are “too sweet and too full of fat” (50), they all have a “keen sense of hearing” (53), and their teachers are all humble (59) and think little of worldly success (120).
This picture of homogeneity in Old Order education is further reinforced in the Appendix, entitled “Report: A typical day in an Indiana Amish parochial school,” in which Harroff claims to present such a day in a single “upper grade” classroom. That he offers little information about the school, its location, the teachers, the students or the community suggests that he does not see these variables as very important. Unexplored details (e.g., that school was canceled because of snow and in-service training sessions offered by the public schools; that children ride school buses; that there is a generator to pump water; that the girls hang their coats in a separate part of the cloakroom than the boys; that recess begins [promptly’] at 10:38 a.m.; that the teacher is a married man with children) are missed opportunities to investigate the relationship between school practice and community standards.
The superficiality of this study is reinforced by Harroff’s insistence on filtering all events and observations through the lens of his own (non-Amish) upbringing and experience. Despite his promise in the introduction to explore what it is like to teach in an Indiana Amish school at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we learn only what it is like for an outsider to teach in one such school. The Amish viewpoint is missing, for Harroff rarely lets the Amish speak for themselves. In the discussion of classroom practices across the different grades, for example, he focuses much of his attention on the textbooks but says little about what teachers think of these texts or how teachers use these texts in the classroom. In talking about playground behavior, he draws on anecdotes in Amish publications instead of telling us about what he observed or what teachers said. Even when Harroff claims to present the teacher’s viewpoint, he must be questioned. In Chapter 8, “Teacher Education,” Harroff quotes one teacher’s opinion of teachers’ meetings, acknowledging only in a footnote that the quote comes not from a teacher he has interviewed but rather from a column entitled “From the Desk of Teacher Dave,” which appeared in The Blackboard Bulletin, a magazine for Old Order teachers. Harroff provides no evidence that Teacher Dave is an Indiana teacher or even a teacher at all.
More disturbing is the fact that many of his observations turn out, upon closer examination, to be gleaned from the work of other authors. These mostly unpublished papers are incompletely cited in the footnotes and are not included in the book’s bibliography.
Harroff frequently editorializes without offering evidence to support his view. Of the Strayer-Upton Practical Arithmetics Series, used “in most of the schools [Harroff] visited,” he says, “the pedagogy is excellent; the math is excellent, as you might expect”(87). Why they are excellent or why we would expect them to be is not clear. He pronounces the English curriculum “superb” in part because “it reflects the standards for American public schools at a time when many, if not most, citizens had ‘only’ an eighth-grade education” (111). Why this would make it superb is not explained. He asserts that the Amish teachers he has observed “are competent and that some of them are truly gifted teachers” (119). This may be so, but what does that mean in the context of Old Order Amish schools? Do different Amish communities all evaluate success in the same way, and does success mean the same thing to the Amish as it does to non-Amish? In Chapter 9, “Difficulties at School,” Harroff argues that Amish teachers act as parents in the old sense of en loco parentis, and, in a footnote to this passage, laments that changes in this practice on his own campus have resulted in “a host of student behaviors that still plague college campuses” (fn. 1, p. 197). He does not explain what it means for the Amish that teachers act as parents, nor is it clear what policy changes at his university have to do with a study of Old Order schools.
Even worse than Harroff’s editorializing is the implicit suggestion that his attitudes represent those of the Amish he observes. Are the A Beka (not “Beka” as Harroff refers to them) texts really disliked by some schools because they are “gaudy” and, thus, worldly, as Harroff suggests, or does their use of Scripture in the lessons play a role? What does it mean to say that textbooks developed for the public schools “are not serious-minded enough for Amish sensibilities” (146)?
Despite his personal experience in Old Order schools, Harroff sheds little new light on Amish school activities, teacher selection, school administration or Amish attitudes towards mainstream society, and none at all on how these vary from community to community and what this can tell us about the Amish in Indiana. More depressingly, he never seems to recognize the need to understand Amish schools in an Amish context but rather analyzes them throughout the text according to non-Amish standards and expectations.
Harroff concludes his study with thanks to the Old Order community for “teaching me how to value another approach to learning, believing, and living” (169). It is unfortunate that he has failed to pass this knowledge on to the reader.
SUNY Potsdam KAREN M. JOHNSON-WEINER
Heresy, Magic, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. By Gary K. Waite. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. $24.95.
Between 1450 and 1750 tens of thousands of women and men across Christian Europe were burned to death for the crime of witchcraft, or diabolical magic. This episode is not one of the great untold stories in European history. Indeed, for the last three decades witchcraft and the “witch craze” have ranked among the most studied aspects of early modern Europe. The vast scholarly literature yields a broad consensus on the basic facts of the early modern witch hunts. Notwithstanding the persistence of certain myths and exaggerations in neo-pagan circles, serious scholars agree that there were no “real” witches in Christian Europe, and that the total numbers executed probably did not exceed 100,000-shocking perhaps, but far short of the “millions” often alleged in popular literature. The victims of the witch craze were not actual Satan worshippers, black magicians, pagans or atheists, but unfortunate Christians (mostly women) who fell victim to bizarre instances of mass delusion.
No single culprit orchestrated all these persecutions. “Witches” were convicted and sentenced by both secular courts and church courts, in thousands of different political jurisdictions across Catholic and Protestant Europe. Along with zealous preachers, inquisitors and magistrates, vindictive neighbors, learned intellectuals and credulous peasants all played their part in the tragedy. Geographically, the persecution was hugely uneven. About half of all cases occurred in the German states of the Holy Roman Empire, while some nations, like Spain and Ireland, saw almost none. The witch hunts reached their peak between 1550 and 1650, and subsided altogether by the eighteenth century.
Scholars evince less agreement about what caused the mass delusions behind the witch hunts, and what the whole story reveals about European culture in this era. Hundreds of works have addressed these questions, from narrow case studies to broad synthetic interpretations. A bibliography of this literature in English alone would fill many pages. The wisest interpreters have recognized that no single cause can plausibly explain the early modern witch craze. Its roots must be sought in the interaction of multiple phenomena. These probably include the Renaissance revival of magical beliefs; the disciplinary programs of the Catholic and Protestant clergy; social and economic dislocation; changes in the legal system; hostility toward independent women; and the climate of hostility engendered by the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries-just to name the principal suspects.
Given this rich bibliography, one might well ask what purpose is served by yet another book on early modern witchcraft. But Gary Waite’s lucid new study has many merits. For one, it provides an up-to-date, well-written and balanced survey of the existing literature. (His annotated bibliography alone is immensely valuable.) Although the book engages with many debates that will interest specialists, its primary audience is evidently the generalist or student reader. As the title suggests, witchcraft is only part of Waite’s subject. The first half of the book offers a lucid introduction to the popular religious history of early modern Europe, beginning with a sketch of the late medieval “worldview.” The tone is down-to-earth and didactic, not ostentatiously learned or polemical. The chapter on the Reformation provides a better introduction than do many textbooks to the origins of the Reformation, Catholic reform and the age of religious wars. This is not page-turning popular history, but a most accessible scholarly treatment of early modern popular religion.
The second part of the book brings out Waite’s own, more original arguments about the reasons for the great witch craze, particularly its most intense phase, which he sees beginning in 1562. Waite draws heavily on other scholars’ research and often echoes their conclusions (with gracious acknowledgment), yet his synthesis of so many other works does amount to an original argument of sorts. His central contention is that the witch craze must be understood as an expression of sincere religious ideas. This may appear obvious to those unfamiliar with the earlier literature, but for years some scholars have labored to show that the content of specific accusations against “witches” were largely incidental-pretexts for “deeper” issues, whether economic tensions, political strains, misogyny or village conflicts. Against such views, Waite argues plausibly that what really brought about the witch hunts was a changing religious climate. We should, in other words, take the accusers’ beliefs in black magic, demonic possession and pacts with the Devil seriously, and recognize that such beliefs changed and intensified at crucial times, particularly during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
The notion of a crucial correlation between the growth of the Reformation and the spread of witchcraft persecution is nothing new. Many recent works have shown, for example, how prominently the Devil and notions like demonic possession figured in sixteenth-century thought, and how Protestants and Catholics, in the age of confessional strife, tended to identify their religious rivals as agents of Satan. But for Waite these preoccupations signify something deeper than just confessional rivalry. He sees this era as one of “profound religious confusion,” in which religious leaders’ greatest fear was not mere heresy, but the more ominous specter of skepticism and even atheism. Emphatically reaffirming the reality of the Devil and of diabolical magic was a way of reaffirming the reality of the spiritual realm in general. As one 1599 English pamphleteer demanded, “If neither possession, nor witchcraft [be true], why should we thinke that there are Divells? If no Divells, no God.”
Waite argues further that for many orthodox Christians, the proliferation of radical sects like the Anabaptists, who questioned the sacrament of baptism and took the shocking step of allowing women to interpret Scripture, seemed to confirm the existence of a campaign against Christian belief in general. This is not to say that most accused witches were Anabaptists, or outspoken heretics of any kind. Rather, Waite argues, the witch crazes came about when people projected or “transferred” these general social fears arbitrarily onto certain vulnerable individuals. Such practices had roots in medieval patterns of outrageous accusations against the Jews. Motives behind individual accusations varied, of course, but the main motive of the learned authorities who encouraged such accusations in general was to reinforce the existing belief structure. Such a broad interpretation for the motives behind witch-hunting is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, for there is little evidence that irrefutably connects general patterns of belief with specific witchcraft cases. Individual alleged witches were not accused of something as vast as plotting to eradicate Christianity per se. But Waite’s argument is as stimulating and as plausible as any other attempt to explain why so many learned men so vociferously propagated demonological beliefs in the Reformation era.
Equally stimulating, and perhaps the most original aspect of the book, is Waite’s argument for what brought about the end of witch-hunting in Europe. His final chapter introduces a new twist, arguing that those who encouraged witch belief in order to shore up traditional Christianity were really out to defend a particular kind of Christianity: one embodied in a hierarchical, universal church with coercive authority. Most of the confessional Protestant and Reformed churches of early modern Europe, as well as the Catholic Church, continued to fit this model. But in the more radical sects, which promoted voluntary membership and “took a more relaxed attitude toward confessional conformity,” Waite finds a more skeptical attitude toward demons and witchcraft and a tendency to “spiritualize” the devil, or reduce him to a psychological force. Thus he credits liberal Christians like Dutch Anabaptists and English Quakers with helping to bring about the end of the witch hunts. This is an inspiring story, but it rests so heavily on cases from selected parts of Europe (particularly the Low Countries, the focus of most of Waite’s own primary research) that one wonders whether “Religious Pluralism and the End of the Witch-Hunts” (as the last chapter is called) really offers a satisfactory model for all of Europe. As Waite himself acknowledges earlier in the book, Catholic lands like Spain and Italy, which successfully imposed one hierarchical form of Christianity on virtually the whole population, had some of the lowest levels of witch persecution in Europe, and high levels of learned skepticism about witchcraft. But such apparent inconsistencies are probably inevitable in a book that so ambitiously combines a mass of particular historical data with a bold, synthetic interpretation. Whether or not one ultimately agrees with its boldest arguments, one will learn a great deal from this valuable and learned book.
Calvin College KATHERINE ELLIOT VAN LIERE
“Ich bin Judith” Texte und Bilder zur Rezeption eines mythischen Stoffes. Edited by Marion Kobelt Groch. Leipzig: Leipzig University Press. 2003. Pp. 327. ?33.
The present well-illustrated and handsomely produced volume is an anthology of texts and works of art inspired by the Book of Judith, which was composed by an unknown Jewish author about 150 B.C.E. Although the book possesses religious authority both for Jews and Christians, it belongs to the Apocrypha, among the books excluded from the canon by Jews and Protestants. Martin Luther wrote a preface to the Book of Judith, included in this anthology, which explains the well-grounded traditional decision to regard the work as noncanonical.
The editor, a member of the editorial board of Mennonitische Geschichtsbltter, is one of the pioneers of the study of women in Anabaptism and the German Peasants’ War. In her Aufsssige Tchter Gottes (Rebellious Daughters of God) of 1993, she devoted particular attention to the effort of Hille Feicken, inspired by the Book of Judith, to assassinate the Bishop of Mnster and thus to deliver besieged, Anabaptist Mnster. Although this episode seems to have directed the author’s attention to the Judith story, Hille Feicken makes only one brief appearance in the present volume.
The Judith story describes how the devout widow, Judith, liberated the besieged city of Bethulia (an imaginary place in the land of Israel) by insinuating herself into the confidence of the Assyrian general Holofernes. She is so beautiful and so convincing that, despite Holofernes’s lustful intentions toward her, she protects herself not only from sexual sin but also from violation of Jewish dietary laws, until the occasion of a great feast, which was supposed to end in her seduction, but instead leaves the general in a drunken slumber. She cuts off his head with his own sword, and returns unharmed to Bethulia, which is delivered as the demoralized Assyrian army retreats in dismay. The story may impress us as less than edifying-violent and sexually suggestive. The Judith tale may be patterned on Judges 4:17-23, in which a Hebrew woman also kills a sleeping heathen general who has sought safety in her tent.
In fact, as Kobelt Groch’s anthology shows, the Judith myth has had a continuing resonance from antiquity, when church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen discussed it, and the middle ages, when Joan of Arc was taken to be a Judith figure and Judith is described in Chaucer’s monk’s tale. Donatello sculpted Judith and Holfernes in the Renaissance and Botticelli painted Judith and her maid returning to Bethulia with the head. At first Judith was portrayed as more manly than most men, who should be inspired to slough off their effeminate ways-but from the middle ages onward a minority view presented her as evidence of the high qualities of women. She became a model for resistance against later enemies of God, such as the Ottoman Turks or Napoleon. Friedrich Hebbel’s tragedy, “Judith,” became part of the classical German dramatic repertory from its first staging in 1840. It brought Judith’s sexuality, and implied sexual disturbance, front and center, very much against the sense of the original religious text, which according to Kobelt Groch it more or less eclipsed in modern renderings of the Judith theme. Hebbel’s Judith supplied mythological material of interest to Sigmund Freud. Literary figures such as Heinrich Heine, Honor de Balsac, Ossip Mandelstam, Simon de Beauvoir and Saul Bellow appear in the anthology with their diverse versions and visions of Judith.
As Kobelt Groch amply demonstrates in this work, mythological material is very pliable and lends itself to endless interpretation and reinterpretation. With her very ambivalent glorification of women, Judith’s is not a tuneful voice in the feminist choir. She touches the Radical Reformation only at a tangent, outside the walls of Mnster.
Queen’s University JAMES M. STAYER
A Global Mennonite History. Volume One: Africa. By Alemu Checole, Samuel Asefa, Bekithemba Dube, Doris Dube, Michael Kodzo Badasu, Erik Kumedisa, Barbara Nkala, I. U. Nsasak, Siaka Traore and Pakisa Tshimika. Edited by John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press. 2003. Pp. 320. $27.50, U.S.; $32, Can.
A history of African Christians told in their own voices is long overdue. Although missionary work in Africa has received much attention in African historiography, much of this literature tends to focus more on the missionary side of the encounter, and very little is said from the perspective of African potential converts. Thus, historical practices of writing the history of African Christian experiences, if not to say the history of Africa have, until recently, been absolutely Eurocentric and therefore ill-equipped to ably capture the elusive emotions of non-Western peoples. This volume attempts to correct this approach by situating the account of the Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Churches, as observed by its editors, in an African perspective (10). In that sense, the volume is a welcome addition to the slim extant literature on African Christian experiences, especially within these two sister denominations where a book written from an African perspective is truly groundbreaking.
In this book, regional African writers describe the work of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in four African regions: central (Congo, Angola), southern (Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique), eastern (Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti) and western (Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso). Thus, the volume is a sweeping look at the African church across a vast geographical space and a long chronology, starting from prehistory (27-32).
In their excellent introduction on the historiography of the book, the editors provide an integrative, analytical essay by which readers should evaluate the theoretical and historiographical positions espoused by the contributors. As in most books of its kind, the editors have provided a unifying primary goal of the volume in the foreword, which is “the development of the church of its global area, on the context in which each church lived and the character and life of each church” (10). Following the editors’ foreword is a splendid introduction to the Mennonite and the Brethren in Christ Churches in Africa. Starting with a short discussion of African religions, the authors argue, as some others have done, that not only did Africans have the knowledge of God prior to the arrival of missionaries, but they also practiced and worshipped a God akin to, if not the same as, that whom the missionaries introduced. The contributors touch on this subject of African religions briefly, but in light of the heated debate that still rages over the relationship between African religion, indeed culture, and Christianity, and also given that both the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches have conveniently avoided any rigorous study of this relationship, it would have helped to investigate this further.
Under the title the “African Context” Barbara Makhalisa, one of the writers of this introduction, touches on very controversial and yet cardinal ingredients of African culture-kinship, marriage, death ceremonies and lobola (the buying and selling of wives), among other things (33-50). Those not familiar with African cosmologies and culture will find this part informative. Not hesitating to point out some weaknesses of what she believes is a robust culture, Makhalisa avoids the presentation of a “drum and trumpet history,” of which most writers that work on their own culture are guilty. The cultural and cosmological information Makhalisa provides should be accepted with the understanding that it is essentially an enumeration of issues that she deliberately leaves unconnected. In cases where she does show a relationship, the rendition is sometimes problematic. For example, she adopts a market framework in defining lobola within a Ndebele pre-contact culture when a large corpus of modern scholarship overwhelmingly disputes this position. Although Makhalisa does contribute a fine explanation of the African culture, in this section the text suffers from both serious factual and explanatory errors. Her factual errors could be attributed to the use of conventional sources without subjecting them to vigorous interrogation. Subliminally, her African Christian experiences were seen through Eurocentric lenses, and to a lesser extent, those of an African elite. For instance, the views on lobola (34-35) and violence being endemic to a Zulu/Ndebele culture sound like another of those regurgitations of the undocumented assertions by the likes of Robert Moffat, who portrayed the AmeNdebele as brutal and violent (The Matebele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1945).
The section on the Brethren in Christ Church in Africa begins with the arrival of missionaries in Zimbabwe, who then reached out to Zambia. Methodologically, the authors use an empiricist approach to their writing, which, unsurprisingly, results in the depiction of a very harmonious relationship between missionaries and their African counterparts. This composite picture cannot withstand the scrutiny that results from the body of evidence generated from a rigorous study of a dialectical relationship between the two. Most of the historical information on the history of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, and Zambia for that matter, from its inception to mid-1890s, could be significantly abridged, given that it was available at the time this volume was written. More important, the authors do not reach beyond the purview of empiricist history to grapple with the ideological issues. Thus, no in-depth analysis is undertaken. The early encounter is presented in terms of simple dichotomies of domination and resistance or cooperation and rejection. The net result of this approach is that the experiences of Africans themselves are not discussed in terms of contextualization. Despite this troublesome weakness, the section does add valuable new knowledge on the account of the history of the church in this region, particularly after 1980.
The section on African Mennonites is meatier and somewhat more dialectical. It provides synthetic accounts of particular times and individuals. The authors highlight the financial dependency and other hardships that African leaders faced in assuming charge of church institutions such as schools and hospitals, and point to a failure on the part of missionaries to teach stewardship. What makes this part richer is that it discusses the dynamics of the local church and how its members are trying to creatively contextualize their Christian experiences as Africans living, in this case, in Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent, in Tanzania. The reader learns how Ethiopian Church members, for instance, have come up with their own Christian music as a way of creatively responding to Christian teachings through their culture, and their struggles with giving and governance (221-290).
Notwithstanding these remarks, the Mennonite section has a few shortcomings as well. First, like the section on the Brethren in Christ Church, it suffers from essentializing cultures. The complex activity of borrowing and discarding between the two cultures, which could have formed a solid theoretical framework within which to understand a post encounter, African independent church, is missing. As a result, questions that might have encouraged deeper analysis of the experiences of African churches remain unanswered. One such question is: How did Africans themselves struggle to produce sociocultural forms befitting of contextualized Christianity? Another is: How did the African church resolve its leadership conflicts? For instance, the volume tells about a leadership conflict in Tanzania that was resolved through prayer (258-260). While not undermining the importance of prayer, reducing the process of conflict resolution to prayer smacks of moral fundamentalism, and more important, prevents leaders from learning about the powerful lessons, contributions and mistakes that have helped to shape the African church’s unique identity.
Second, and this is the main weakness of this volume, voices of ordinary members were left out, and this results in an institutional and elite history. In this way, it falls short of presenting readers with experiences of African Christians. Thus, the work stops short of recasting the whole epistemology of understanding the African experience. The corrective to this would give priority to oral interviews of ordinary African Christians, coupled with shrewdly cross-examining sources by elite African observers and missionaries. This critique should in no way be understood as denigrating the unselfish service rendered by missionaries and the African elite, but rather offers a way to enrich their work by adding rigor and a grassroots view of Christian experience.
Structurally, the book could have benefited from the elimination of repetitious material, particularly on African culture and religion, and more consistency in the writing of full names and titles. These qualifications aside, the book contributes to an understanding of the history of both denominations in Africa, and should be read by every member of Brethren in Christ and Mennonite churches, especially those not living in Africa.
University of Winnipeg ELIAKIM M. SIBANDA
Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. By Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee. Downvers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. 2003. Pp. 538. $30.
In their textbook on ethics, Stassen and Gushee aim “to reclaim Christ for Christian ethics and the moral life of the churches” (xi). They take the Sermon on the Mount as their organizing text, noting that the Christian life consists of obeying the teachings of Jesus and practicing his way of life, which he modeled for his disciples and for us. Although there is some renewed interest in examining the importance of the Sermon on the Mount for Christian ethics, Stassen and Gushee claim that it has almost entirely been overlooked. They point out that the Sermon has been understood to contain ideals thought to be too high for sinful humans to reach and embody. Against this, they claim that Jesus gave anyone who would follow him “concrete ways to practice God’s will and be delivered from the bondage of sin” (31). To be a disciple, then and now, is to participate in the kingdom of God.
If the Sermon on the Mount is not an exposition on impossibly high ideals, then what is it? Stassen and Gushee argue that it is best understood as an indirect exposition on the character of God, not a list of imperatives. Jesus’ pronouncement that the poor (and poor in spirit) are blessed can be heard and read as a reminder that God’s loving presence will redeem and rescue the poor from oppression. The disciples who follow Jesus participate as a community in the deliverance that God brings in caring for the poor and oppressed.
Giving concrete examples of what such participation might look like, the Sermon on the Mount points to transformative initiatives. Although perhaps not so common in Anabaptist theology, there has been a pervasive tendency to evade the norms of the Sermon on the Mount. This evasion results in a “moralism and legalism that adopt authoritarian ideologies from the culture; or else in a culture-accommodating liberalism, permissivism and self-seeking individualism” (132). Paying attention to transformative initiatives undercuts this evasive dualism.
On this account, the “pattern of the Sermon is not twofold antitheses but threefold transforming initiatives” (133, emphasis original). In the passages where Jesus counters traditional righteousness with the opening statement, “But I say to you,” Stassen and Gushee detect two parts: one that condemns the vicious cycle of traditional righteousness and another that suggests a way out of the vicious cycle. For example, Jesus reminds his hearers of the old legal code that whoever kills shall be liable to judgment (Mt. 5:21). Jesus condemns the vicious cycle of retributive justice (Mt. 5:22) and goes on to provide the transforming initiative of reconciliation as a way out of the cycle (Mt. 5:23-26). This initiative is transforming in three ways: 1) the angry person is transformed into a peacemaker; 2) the relationship of conflict is transformed into a relationship of peace; and 3) the enemy is transformed into a friend. To the extent that this hoped-for transformation takes place, it is a breakthrough of the kingdom of God here on earth. Transforming initiatives participate “in the way of grace that God took in Jesus when there was enmity between God and humans: God came in Jesus to make peace” (135).
Stassen and Gushee use the notion of “participative grace” as a central concept to explain the relationship between God’s gracious deliverance and our response in a life of active worship. In their view, divine grace and human discipleship ought not to be understood as mutually exclusive rivals. Instead, God’s gracious deliverance empowers disciples to participate in what God is doing such that Christ takes shape in them. “Grace,” they claim, “is Christomorphic” (36).
How should we understand the human response side of God’s transforming grace? Stassen and Gushee argue that “a holistic ethics of character” is the most adequate way of understanding our participation in God’s gracious deliverance. Character ethics connects practices, character, community and drama. Thus, they argue, practices form character, that a community shapes a person with integrity of character and that a larger drama shapes the community and connects characters to the larger human purpose in life. This emphasis on character is at odds with the ethics of modern life. Modern society, by contrast, teaches us the virtues of self-containment and competitive self-advancement, which results in a loss of community and sense of purpose. In developing character ethics systematically, they argue that it consists of four dimensions: 1) our passions and loyalties; 2) our perceptions; 3) our way of reasoning; and 4) our basic convictions. An ethic that does not pay attention to all of these dimensions, they say, will be inadequate because it will neglect some important feature of our moral life.
Stassen and Gushee spend the rest of the book (about 350 pages) showing how the themes and transformative initiatives of the Sermon on the Mount address traditional and contemporary loci of Christian ethics. In Section III: The Gospel of Life, they consider just war, nonviolence, just peacemaking, murder, abortion, euthanasia and bioethics; in Section IV: Male and Female, they discuss marriage and divorce, sexuality and gender roles; in Section V: The Central Norms of Christian Ethics, they work out the perceived tension between the rule of love and the rule of justice; in Section VI: Relationships of Justice and Love, they concern themselves with truth-telling, racial relations, economics and care of the creation; and finally in Section VII: A Passion for God’s Reign, they turn to prayer, politics and consistent Christian lifestyle.
These sections are at once the greatest strength of the book and its greatest weakness. They are important because they show how the Sermon on the Mount really can be understood to address (almost) all of Christian life, but because of their necessary brevity, they often fail to provide any real guidance on difficult issues and at points seem not to cohere with what has been said in the methodological section of the book. Their treatment of homosexuality, for example, is predictable and comes very close to a “love the sinner, but hate the sin” position. As they say, “Homosexual conduct is one form of sexual expression that falls outside the will of God. . . . Yet homosexual persons are precious, made in the image of God and bearers of all dignity that God affords to all humanity” (311). What is problematic here is that an ethics of character does not allow for drawing a distinction between character and the practices of a character in the way that this seems to do. Homosexuals would certainly not draw the distinction in that way because they would argue that God has created them in the image of God with the sexual drives that they have.
That said, this is a good textbook in Christian ethics precisely because of the work that it does on the Sermon on the Mount. Given the dramatic influence over the last three decades of the writings of John Howard Yoder, James Wm. McClendon and Stanley Hauerwas, however, some will be puzzled by the consistent reminder by the authors of the contemporary evasion of Jesus in theological ethics. While it may be true, generally speaking, that textbooks and monographs in ethics avoid the life and teachings of Jesus, this cannot fairly be said of ethics done within the “neither-Protestant-nor-Catholic tradition” of which Mennonites are a part and in which Yoder, McClendon and Hauerwas stand. The authors seem not to acknowledge this rich Jesus-centered heritage. If they did, there would be two obvious claims to make: 1) Jesus has been avoided in the past and is avoided still-but not by us and not by our forebears; and 2) we are extending the work of those who have gone before by showing how the Sermon on the Mount is relevant for Christian ethics today. Instead, they present their work as “part of a trend to recover the way of Jesus for Christian discipleship” (xii). Whether that trend is understood as beginning thirty years ago, one hundred years ago, four hundred years ago or almost two thousand years ago, it does seem clear that it isn’t new.
Eastern Mennonite University CHRISTIAN EARLY
Reinado de Dios e imperio: Ensayo de teologa social. By Antonio Gonzlez. Santander, Spain: Editorial Sal Terrae. 2003. Pp. 414. $48.
In the first sentence of the prologue, Antonio Gonzlez states that he wants to address the social relevance of Christian faith for our time. The book’s title defines the parameters of his social theology: there is a fundamental social and ethical difference between the kingdom of God and human empires.
Gonzlez begins by delineating the key social problems of the global village (Chapter 1). Globalization, poverty and inequity, the ecological crisis, the lack of economic democracy and the ideologies that justify this social order are all issues that a social theology must address. Gonzlez’s diagnosis of the problem in Chapter 2 points to the new human empire of globalized capitalism-an economic system that has created massive poverty and an inequality never before seen on earth. Through a detailed analysis, he concludes that capitalism is the basis of the world’s socioeconomic problems.
Nonetheless, he argues the Christian response is not to be found in a competing system, such as socialism, but in Scripture. The biblical diagnosis of the situation (Chapter 3) can be summarized in the concept of Babylon, a term used in Scripture to describe the exploitation, injustice, idolatry of power, destruction of human life and desire for global domination that is converted into a human system (an empire). Babylon is the maximum expression of something that began with Adam and Eve’s disobedience. They believed that they could take God’s place. Gonzlez calls this adamic logic, which includes a belief in self-justification, the right of retribution, the use of violence to maintain power, the justification of socioeconomic differences by appealing to the merit of those who have, and religious and ideological systems that claim that the powerful are recipients of God’s blessing and that poverty is the fault of the poor.
Chapters 4-6 describe the biblical response to adamic logic. God calls Abraham by grace to leave the empire and initiate an alternative community at the margins of the imperial structures of domination. Exodus once again calls a people out of the empire to establish a new social order. God’s alternative to poverty and injustice is to invite people to create a different society where God reigns directly.
God’s plan culminates in Jesus Christ. The Messiah invites people to live under God’s reign, breaking with the fundamental logic of all human praxis. The poor and weak can never justify themselves by their own actions, so they have to depend on God’s grace. Jesus calls his followers to live an alternative social order based on God’s grace, not adamic logic. Jesus is executed because his strategy confronts the powers of his time. The Messiah is killed, demonstrating the utter fallacy of adamic logic. The resurrection, then, is the first fruits of God’s future where adamic logic will reign no more.
The communities of faith formed by Jesus’ followers lived under God’s reign. Most believers were poor or extremely poor. Yet they formed communities of mutual support, transformed social relations and refused to be a part of the imperial order. Their dissident communities offered an alternative to the Roman Empire and attracted many people (Chapter 6). The mission of these communities was to live out an alternative, to demonstrate that human empires, based on adamic logic, are not the only option for humanity.
Human states, at their best, serve to bridle violence. But they can never serve to extend God’s work, in spite of the attempts of Christians who accepted constantinianism (Chapter 7). Christian communities will always stand in contrast to any state, in subordination, but not obedience, following a path of resistance toward the powers of this world. Human history will find its center, not in the development of world powers, but in the victory of the Messiah on the cross.
Christians today need to read the signs of the times; people around the world are looking for alternatives to globalized capitalism and its negative impact (Chapter 8). The anti-globalization movement, Latin American Pentecostalism, the new “popular economies” and the nonviolent methods of sociopolitical change are proof that people are looking for an alternative like the one presented in Scripture. If Christians are willing to live the biblical model today, they can give witness to God’s work in the world and potentially impact these movements (Chapter 9 and conclusion).
Gonzlez does not call himself an Anabaptist in the book, but he describes an Anabaptist understanding of the social relevance of the Gospel. His goal is to demonstrate that a “radical” understanding of the Gospel is relevant and crucial for today. The Anabaptist perspective presented by Gonzlez is strongly influenced by John Driver (including material never published in English), as well as his experiences in Central America and engagement with Latin American theology. He is not a Central American Anabaptist, but his thinking has been influenced by many of the same sources and issues, and he draws conclusions similar to those drawn by Central American Anabaptists, particularly at SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary in Guatemala City.
The book presents a clear theological, theoretical and economic framework to demonstrate that what is being proposed can indeed be realized. Gonzlez also describes concrete situations and models where his perspective is already having a positive impact and is offering hope for the future. By calling for the formation of alternative communities he challenges various Christian social theologies: those that assume one can only work within the existing system, those that want to overthrow the current system or those that want to completely separate Christians from “the world.”
The only significant drawback is that the second chapter presents an economic analysis that is very difficult to follow by anyone who has never taken an advanced course in economics. The analysis is central to Gonzlez’s discussion, but a reader with no background in economics might be tempted to give up on the book because of Chapter 2.
Reinado de Dios e imperio is a very important contribution to Christian social theology. There is a need for social theologies that recognize this is now a post-Constantinian world. Gonzlez invites Christians to believe that it is possible to bring change by creating distinctively Christian communities outside of the systems formed by adamic logic in a pluralistic world. He ends with a challenge in the poem Resemblance, written by the Guatemala poet Julia Esquivel. It begins with the line “If Christians really believed.” Gonzlez invites Christians to recognize that living the way of Christ is always a question of faith.
My one regret about this book is that it is written in Spanish and is not likely to be widely read in the English-speaking theological world, not even by Anabaptists. So Gonzlez’s challenge is not likely to have a broad impact unless and until it is translated into English.
Fuller Theological Seminary JUAN FRANCISCO MARTINEZ
A High Price for Abundant Living: The Story of Capitalism. By Henry Rempel. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press. 2003. Pp. 306. $14.99, U.S.; $23.49, Can.
“The capitalist system is like a massive eighteen wheel truck barreling through history. It has an excessively powerful motor driven by the sum of all human selfishness. It has no brakes. The steering mechanism is clearly faulty” (261). In A High Price for Abundant Living, Henry Rempel points to the risks we are taking when we entrust our resources, values and future to a market-driven system. Despite such criticisms, this book is not a polemic against markets. On the contrary, it seeks to explore the workings of markets, recognizing that they process information, organize resources and generate consumer goods more effectively than any other system known throughout history. However, as with any social system, attention must be paid to the underlying values driving the process, and, according to Rempel, capitalism has been captured by materialist values that threaten to undermine its legitimacy. The reference point for evaluating the system must be Christian norms reflecting God’s intentions in creation. The sacred values put forward include human dignity, community, meaningful creative work, environmental stewardship, rest and restoration, a fair distribution of resources and global sensitivity that promotes peace.
Throughout the book, the author contrasts the eighteenth-century capitalist vision of Adam Smith and a more contemporary version of markets sometimes reflective of John K. Galbraith’s New Industrial State. For Smith the world was smaller, economic actors had little power over others since competition was an effective corrective for exploitation, and simple specialization and exchange provided enough growth to improve life without destroying the sacred values listed as important to economic well-being. While Galbraith is never mentioned in the book, his thesis-that consumers are captive to the producer’s wishes through advertising-is prominent in various chapters. Also apparent is the theme of corporate leaders who cater to their own interests while attempting to manage relationships with labor, suppliers, stockholders and government. Growth in markets where competition is stifled secures long run survival for the firm, but, according to Rempel, it also creates an environment where many of the sacred values are discarded.
The book contains helpful suggestions for correcting the imbalance between the Smithian world of small producers and the large corporate world of power and influence. Revisiting limited liability rights for intercorporate ownership, reforming executive compensation, ensuring better representation on corporate boards and providing more democratic decision-making among all stakeholders are offered as possible improvements.
The chapter on work laments the way labor is subservient to management rather than being included in production as a dignified partner. According to Rempel, labor should have the right to a meaningful job and an obligation to participate in the creative processes of the community. Fair compensation and a voice in corporate policy are necessary components of appropriate work.
One of the most pervasive themes of the book is the concern about misuse of the environment. The tragedy of the commons sets the stage for the claim that substantial changes must be made if life on earth is to be sustainable in the long run. This leads to a discussion of the role of the state in solving social problems. A helpful typology of state activities shows minimal, intermediate and activist functions of the state. Rempel sees government as establishing and enforcing the rules of the system, providing for those things that fit the category of public goods, safeguarding the vulnerable with effective landing nets and protecting the environment. He recognizes the essential nature of social capital as a complement to government activity because social institutions like the family, church and community must foster trust among people or government policy will not be effective.
The two chapters on the global scene are superb, not because new arguments are offered to clear up the globalization controversy, but because this material hits the area of Rempel’s life’s work and there is much to be learned here about the international and supranational institutions that affect the world economy. Trade, relief and development issues and institutions are dealt with in a succinct but clear manner. Going up a descending escalator is used as a metaphor for the problems of escaping poverty in the developing world and in this story one senses the writer’s empathy for those less fortunate.
In the end, Rempel is a qualified optimist. He believes that the driver of this eighteen-wheel truck can be softened enough to look beyond narrow personal desires. He proposes the term “ecolpreneurship” as a useful substitute for entrepreneurship and he hopes for institutions, laws and social norms that encourage us toward that environmentally conscious leadership. It is important to have a vision of what we want to become.
There is much this book has to offer. First, it grew out of the concerns of practitioners in the market and was followed through to fruition by a focus group that related to the author all along the way. Accordingly, it is very accessible to anyone with an interest in markets and their values. Economic jargon is minimized but the concepts are clear. Second, the sacred values espoused are consistently applied in each context discussed. Furthermore the values are on target and resonate with Christians from differing theological positions. Third, it is refreshing to hear from an author from outside the U.S. who also has spent much time in developing countries. Differences between Canada and the U.S. may be small, but they sometimes illustrate that capitalism has multiple solutions to similar problems.
Had I been in the focus group for this book I would have suggested a few points for change or clarification. First, the portrayal of Adam Smith as the theoretical standard bearer for secular market capitalism is a bit overdrawn. Smith’s invisible hand is far from a value free naturalistic mechanism and also vastly removed from contemporary perfect competition models. In fact, Smith’s vision was based on a moral system in which people were socially interdependent and most of the sacred values used by Rempel were expected to be operative. Perhaps value free neoclassical market models would illustrate better the contrast between markets as they are generally viewed and Rempel’s vision of what they might be.
Second, I was unable to draw from the book a clear theological foundation for the recommendations. Occasionally the church was mentioned as the place where some of the sacred values could be lived out, indicating an Anabaptist bend to the analysis. However, the main appeal is to the system at large and the optimism expressed is that the social order can be redeemed by practicing the sacred values as Reformed theology would espouse. Most likely the scenario hoped for is a system softened by the values so that Anabaptists are pleased at the influence they had, while the Reformed folks are disappointed that the system is not totally redeemed. Fortunately this book goes far beyond the mainstream evangelical approach that often sees only personal irresponsibility as a problem rather than systemic shortcomings. In any case, some theological grounding would be helpful for the reader.
Third, while there is extensive bibliographical material, it is mostly of a popular nature with minimal formal research cited or data presented. While the writing is not targeted to academics some aggregate data would strengthen some of the arguments. It might also be good to recognize counterarguments to some controversial positions so that readers can see that values are already at work in the interpretation of the data. There is considerable disagreement among economists about the impact of advertising, the net effect of globalization, the overall effect of minimum wages, the relationship of development to environmental degradation and the consequences of government action.
Overall, given the purpose of the book, the shortcomings are few, the message is timely and the writing is engaging. I would recommend the book highly to anyone interested in understanding a capitalist system and what might be done to make it more values sensitive.
Wheaton College JAMES HALTEMAN
Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment. By Willard M. Swartley. Scottdale, Pa., and Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press. 2003. Pp. 248. $14.99, U.S.; $23.49, Can.
In the preface to his recent book, Willard Swartley quotes James 3:17, and then comments rather poignantly: “Oh, how we as churches across the denominational spectrum long for this wisdom from above for moral discernment on homosexuality” (9). Advance praise for Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment lauds the contribution it makes to the quest for such wisdom. And this praise is well-deserved.
Beginning with a self-disclosing essay entitled “My Journey on Homosexuality,” Swartley gives the reader a glimpse of the several decades of experience and reflection that inform the chapters ahead. From there he moves to a careful consideration of the biblical materials that bear on the topic, including the Old Testament and early Judaism (Chapter 2), the witness of Jesus and the Gospels (Chapter 3) and the Pauline writings (Chapter 4). Augmenting this survey is a penetrating analysis of the cultural context that shapes our experience and discussion of the issue in Western society (Chapter 5), enabling the author to draw on cultural as well as biblical data in addressing larger hermeneutical issues to which we must attend (Chapter 6). The book concludes with a discussion of the church’s belief and response (Chapter 7), a model for congregational discernment (Chapter 8) and some personal and biblical reflections on the path forward (Chapter 9). Further enhancing the book are numerous appendices, a representative bibliography and helpful indices.
It is clear from the outset that the author stands squarely within the historical tradition of the church in opposing homosexual practice. It is a carefully reasoned opposition, reflecting serious and judicious analysis of the pertinent issues, and, more than that, an attempt to listen to multiple voices in arriving at his own assessments. Those voices include gays and lesbians themselves, whom Swartley calls the church to welcome and engage as we seek to hold each other accountable to Scripture. Unlike those who feel compelled to settle the matter once and for all, Swartley calls for “discernment as a continuing task” (11) and provides helpful suggestions on how that might take place in congregational settings (123-131). Whether or not one is persuaded by some of the conclusions the author draws, there is never any doubt about the relational and conciliatory spirit in which they are set forth.
In his discussion of the biblical materials, Swartley looks not only at the several texts that explicitly address homosexual practice, but also at the theology of sexuality expressed in the creation narratives and elsewhere, and at teachings of Jesus that bear on the discussion. Not unexpectedly, the author concludes that “same-sex genital practices were considered morally wrong by Scripture” (66). A broad spectrum of scholars concurs with this assessment, viewing attempts to limit the biblical proscriptions to particular types of homosexual practice as tenuous at best. At the same time, the author correctly observes that “the concept of orientation to denote same-sex preference or attraction is not on Scripture’s radar screen” (31). Consequently, the applicability of the biblical material to current homosexual practice must be assessed in the light of broader hermeneutical considerations.
As noted above, Swartley defers this next step until he has first undertaken a critical analysis of our cultural context as interpreters. Here the author identifies ten prominent aspects of Western culture that “help explain why homosexuality . . . has become a cultural cause” (74-75). Among other phenomena, the author highlights the value placed on human autonomy, the sexualization of culture and the concomitant preoccupation with sexual identity. Again not unexpectedly, the cultural analysis that Swartley offers is developed in a characteristically Anabaptist manner, focusing on those aspects of culture that are antithetical to biblical values. For my part, I would have preferred a more nuanced moral assessment of the impact of Western culture, which at one and the same time has both opened up new vistas for understanding human sexuality and skewed our experience of this dimension of our being.
Swartley’s discussion of broader hermeneutical considerations begins on an open-ended note. He enumerates two sets of moral principles that bear on the church’s discernment of the moral character of homosexual practice (96-98), one set that is often used to argue for a change in the church’s position, the other to reinforce that position. From this starting point, the author moves into more of an advocacy mode, engaging in a sustained attempt to corroborate the Bible’s opposition to same-sex genital relations. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Robert Gagnon, Richard Hays and William Webb, Swartley critiques arguments given for discounting the biblical texts, looks at the larger canonical witness to which these texts relate and explores criteria for distinguishing cultural and transcultural in Scripture. This material clearly moves the discussion forward in a thought-provoking manner. Issues remain, however, of which I would pose two in the spirit of continuing discernment:
(1) Is the sexual union of same-sex partners necessarily and always a breach of God’s created order? What if human sexuality is in fact richer and more complex than what Genesis 1 and 2 tell us? Could it not be the case that the complementarity of male and female depicted in the creation narratives is indeed paradigmatic for the greater part of humanity-but not for all? Here is where our still emerging understandings of sexual orientation rightly comes into play. Swartley and others are correct that one cannot move directly from the “is” of sexual orientation to an “ought” for Christian ethics. However, the reality of diverse sexual orientations can lead us to a more open reading of the creation narratives, and this in turn can lead us to rethink the moral inferences that Paul and we have drawn from those narratives.
(2) How shall we weigh the testimony of “living” texts alongside that of biblical texts? To be sure, the experience of living texts that needs to be taken into account is anything but uniform. But what shall we make of what we read in the lives of committed same-sex partners whose quest for faithful discipleship is as genuine as our own, and who exhibit the Spirit’s gifts and empowerment for ministry? It is clear that their witness has been experienced as authentic and validated accordingly by some believing communities. While it is easy to discount experience as unreliable, the story of the early church is one in which the lived experience of God’s salvation led repeatedly to fresh assessments of the claim and applicability of any number of biblical texts. It is this biblical paradigm that prevents us from treating the lack of biblical support for homosexual practice as final or conclusive.
And so the conversation continues. Whatever directions it takes, it will be a better informed, more discerning and less anxious conversation if it takes its cues from the model that Willard Swartley provides us in Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment.
Bethany Theological Seminary RICHARD B. GARDNER
The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John: An Investigation into Its Origins and Rhetorical Force. By Loren L. Johns. Tbingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 2003. Pp. X + 276. ?49,00. Distributed in United States by Coronet Books, Philadelphia, Pa. $89.50. Wissenschftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testsament 2. Reihe 167.
Mennonite peace theology has always understood itself to be centered on the Bible. The commitment to the centrality of the Bible, though, has not fostered a particularly large or distinguished body of solid biblical scholarship that combines careful critical research with sensitive theological reflection.
As Mennonites grow further and further away from the rural, closed-community ethos that helped sustain their pacifist practices, the need for thoughtful, scholarly and accessible biblical theology also grows. To sustain our peace theology, we need as much intellectual help as possible, given that we are increasingly being forced to be more self-conscious and intentional about our pacifist commitments.
In the past generation, Mennonite scholars have produced some helpful materials, in particular, of course, the profoundly influential work of John Howard Yoder and the pioneering Old Testament research of Millard Lind. The Believers Church Bible Commentary series is providing a collection of serious, though accessible, book-by-book expositions that so far is rendering the churches great service-though like all commentary series, the quality of the commentaries is mixed, and the overt wrestling with peace issues is uneven (a few of the strongest volumes include Millard Lind on Ezekiel, Tom Yoder Neufeld on Ephesians and, recently, John Toews on Romans).
The need for continued work remains great, though. Therefore, we should celebrate the recent publication of Loren L. Johns’s dissertation. Johns, now academic dean and associate professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, completed his dissertation, “The Origins and Rhetorical Force of the Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John,” at Princeton Theological Seminary under the direction of James Charlesworth in 1998.
The book version, with a revised title, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John, has been published by the venerable Tbingen, Germany, scholarly publisher J.C.B. Mohr in its prestigious series Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. The good consequence is that Johns’s book will now be distributed to academic libraries around the world. The bad consequence is that this book is difficult to find and expensive for the individual reader.
Johns pays special attention to the symbol of “the Lamb” in Revelation, arguing that one’s understanding of the Lamb-symbol greatly affects how one reads the book as a whole.
The most technical element of the book is the detailed, and as far as I know unprecedented, examination of the Lamb-symbol in biblical writings, in other ancient Jewish writings, and in the Ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman environment. Johns rather effectively shows that, while we may find many and various uses of lambs as symbols in the materials that may have provided a context for the writer of Revelation, in the end the meaning of “Lamb” in Revelation must be determined from the content of the book itself, as there are no clear connections with other uses of “lamb” from these other sources.
The fifth chapter of Revelation contains the image of the Lamb that makes clear what “Lamb” means for the book as a whole. Revelation 5 tells of the great scroll held in the hand of the “one on the throne” (God) that seemingly contains the message of the outcome of history. The rest of the book tells of the opening of this scroll, culminating with the vision of the New Jerusalem in Chapters 21 and 22, in which all creation finds healing.
Initially, Revelation 5 indicates that no one may be found to open the scroll and move history towards the hoped-for healing. Then one is found, said to be a mighty, messianic warrior, but seen to be a Lamb, standing as if slain. That this Lamb does open the scroll, and the contents of the scroll eventually are revealed, constitutes, in Johns’s interpretation, a great “reversal in the conventional wisdom about the nature and function of power in the world” (202). This reversal may be characterized as victory through Jesus’ suffering love, rather than victory through the use of violence.
Johns asserts that the Lamb-symbol in Revelation underscores the Gospel message that the way of Jesus lies at the heart of biblical salvation. Ethics and saving faith are inextricably linked. He summarizes his argument as follows:
The Lamb in Revelation is manifestly no cute, little nonviolent Lamb. It is a powerful and courageous Lamb who, through his consistent nonviolent and faithful witness, conquered evil. He did not deny the reality of evil or the reality of violence or “lie down with the lion” in some utopian idealism. The author of the Apocalypse would agree that evil is much too complex for that. Rather, the Lamb overcame evil by refusing to adopt its methods and its rules and bearing its brunt. And he serves in the Apocalypse as a consistent and trustworthy model for believers facing the harsh realities of civic pressures to conform to the expectations of Graeco-Roman society (198).
In Johns’s view, the key to perceiving the overall message of Revelation, then, may be found in the need to let the reversal of imagery from Chapter 5-the conquering messiah is actually the martyred Lamb who defeats the Powers through suffering love-shape one’s interpretation of the entire book.
Although Johns writes, without compromise, for New Testament specialists, he also writes with great clarity. Hence, his argument is accessible to the general reader, and the book will be a great value even for nonspecialists with an interest in Revelation or, indeed, simply an interest in bases for resistance to the Powers that foster violence and injustice in our world.
The only part of Johns’s argument with which I feel discomfort is his deep concern that Revelation presents an overly polarizing rhetoric of hostility toward the author’s opponents. “Although John’s message may have been one of nonviolence, there is in the rhetoric of the Apocalypse an inescapable and problematic violence that weakens and subverts that message [of nonviolence]” (198).
Johns is surely correct to resist sugarcoating Revelation’s violent rhetoric. However, in wrestling with this dynamic, Johns does not pay attention to the distinction in Revelation between the Powers of evil and the human beings who are seduced by those Powers. Throughout the book, “the nations” and the “kings of the earth” are terms used for human opponents of John. In the end, though, the New Jerusalem is said to be home for “the kings of the earth” and a source of healing for “the nations.” That is, the final picture seems clearly to portray salvation for John’s human opponents, not destruction. When the deceivers (the evil Powers) are removed, even human beings who had been deceived find healing. Hence, Johns’s argument for the nonviolent ethic of Revelation is perhaps even stronger than he allows for.
Our task of constructing thoroughgoing, biblically-rooted peace theology has been greatly furthered by Johns’s important work. Let us hope that this book, and perhaps others drawn from it, will find a wide audience.
Eastern Mennonite University TED GRIMSRUD
Beautiful upon the Mountains: Biblical Essays on Mission, Peace, and the Reign of God. Edited by Mary H. Schertz and Ivan Friesen. Studies in Peace and Scripture, vol. 7. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies; and Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press. 2003. Pp. xvii, 268. $18, U.S.; $25.29, Can.
The editors Mary H. Schertz and Ivan Friesen apparently allude in their title to Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.'” Schertz and Friesen have put together a strong collection of essays that makes a fine contribution to the Institute for Mennonites Studies’ Peace and Scripture series. Part of the strength of the collection lies in two features: (1) the focus on the themes noted in the subtitle-mission, peace and the reign of God-is sustained across the entire collection; and (2) the exegetical practice demonstrated in the essays is very fine. To be sure, there is not a single definition of any of the focal themes that is employed consistently across the collection. For some, “mission” seems to reflect a concern for evangelism and evangelization while for others it seems to point to a concern for education or prophetic social critique. For some, “peace” seems to suggest justice and reconciliation while for others it seems to reflect creational integrity and wholeness. For some, “the reign of God” is an image integral to any conversation about peace and mission while others scarcely use that imagery at all. And yet, this absence of a common definition of terms allows each author to attend closely to the particular biblical text under examination and to reflect on some specific contour of these multifaceted themes through what the editors characterize as “careful exegesis” and “vigorous, hard-headed examination” (xiii).
One common claim that does arise from the collection, sometimes as the explicit thesis of an investigation, is that although a distinction is often made between Christians concerned with social justice and those concerned with evangelism, “no such bifurcation can withstand biblical scrutiny,” as J. Nelson Kraybill puts it in the foreword (x). Perhaps Willard M. Swartley articulates this view most pointedly when he writes: “Mission and peacemaking are not two separate ideas that are integrally linked. What in our conception is a dual entity is, in Scripture, ontologically one” (163). The collection works to weave peace and mission together and to ground their relationship and unity exegetically in the biblical text. Six of the fourteen essays investigate Old Testament texts: “The Noachide covenant and Christian mission,” by Perry B. Yoder; “God’s reign and the missional impulse of the Psalms,” by Gordon H. Matties; “Isaiah 2:2-5 and Micah 4:1-4: Learning the ways of the God of Jacob,” by Wilma Ann Bailey; “Light to the nations in Isaiah’s servant songs,” by Ivan Friesen; “Will Jonah be saved'” by Douglas B. Miller; and “Peace as the visionary mission of God’s reign: Zechariah 1-8,” by Ben C. Ollenburger. The remaining eight essays examine New Testament texts: “As sheep in the midst of wolves: Mission and peace in the Gospel of Matthew,” by Dorothy Jean Weaver; “Shalom for shepherds: An audience-oriented critical analysis of Luke 2:8-14,” by Gary Yamasaki; “Peace and mission in John’s Gospel: Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4),” by Willard M. Swartley; “‘Reconciled to God through the death of his Son’: A mission of peacemaking in Romans 5:1-11,” by Reta Halteman Finger; “The new has come! An exegetical and theological discussion of 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:10,” by Jacob W. Elias; “‘For he is our peace’: Ephesians 2:11-22,” by Tom Yoder Neufeld; “Reign of God, mission, and peace in 1 Peter,” by Erland Waltner; and “Leaning toward consummation: Mission and peace in the rhetoric of Revelation,” by Loren L. Johns.
Of course one question that is always appropriate to ask of exegetical work is whether interpreters simply find in the text what they are looking for. The discipline of making one’s exegetical process as explicit as possible and presenting the argument for one’s reading as fully as possible allows readers to evaluate the work on the basis of more than simply agreeing or disagreeing with its conclusions. The editors acknowledge that this is “not casual reading” (xiii). Still, an effort has clearly been put forth to make them accessible to an educated readership. For example, when Hebrew or Greek terms are cited, they are printed not only in their respective scripts but also in transliteration, and they are always translated into English. The authors draw widely from the current conversations among biblical scholars, and yet they largely avoid technical jargon and provide helpful explanations of theoretical points, as for example when Ben C. Ollenburger engages in a valuable discussion of “epistemic circularity” (97-101), or when Gary Yamasaki provides an overview of “audience-oriented criticism” (145-149). The result is serious exegetical work that is accessible for reflection and critique.
The result is also instructive for exegetical practice. This reviewer intends to use any number of these essays in an undergraduate college course on exegetical method. The authors are consistently rigorous in their work and clear in their presentations. The collection is a treasure trove of structural analysis with its inclusion of several outlines of passages, and charts of textual structures and relationships. The authors demonstrate well the importance of historical, formal, structural and literary analysis as well as the integration of each into a cohesive, with a clear thesis essay. Again, this exegetical transparency is a strength of the collection and allows readers to make their own evaluations of where an interpretive move appears weak or forced, as even readers who share a concern for peace and mission will undoubtedly find in places across this collection. It does become clear, however, that the biblical text is taken seriously and engaged fully-not simply co-opted in the service of prior theological commitments. Ollenburger states it clearly: “My reading of Zechariah proceeds from and with certain convictions, inchoate as they may be, about the domain ‘peace and mission.’ I hope to confirm those convictions, but especially to discipline them, perchance to reform them” (101). In his excellent contribution on Jonah, Douglas B. Miller even suggests that the biblical text itself makes a similar move to engage the reader in self-reflection and discernment.
The most important quality of parables is also here: the indirect presentation of the story’s ideology. Though Jonah’s position is clearly divergent, neither the narrator nor God evaluates it directly. Rather, Jonah (and the reader through Jonah) is prompted to make his own evaluation and to make appropriate choices that follow from that assessment (88).
On the technical side, a couple of unfortunate infelicities appear. The numbering of the footnotes is inconsistent in Chapter 9, breaking the cumulative sequence and reverting to “1” in the middle of the chapter, at page 171. The final chapter contains what is surely a typographical error in a quotation that names “compassion” as the translation of the Greek term synkrisis rather than “comparison” (257). Overall, this is a strong collection that demonstrates fine exegetical work and opens up fruitful reflections on the themes of mission, peace and the reign of God as they are operative in diverse texts from various parts of the biblical canon.
Anderson University SHANE KIRKPATRICK
Where Such Unmaking Reigns. By Kathleen Kern. Philadelphia: Xlibris. 2003. Pp. 317. $22.99.
Readers of this journal are likely familiar with Christian Peacemaker Teams (C.P.T.), the organization initiated by the historic peace churches in response to Ronald Sider’s 1984 call for a force of peacemakers as well trained, organized and potentially self-sacrificing as military personnel. Sider envisioned thousands of Christians working for peace through nonviolent intervention in the most volatile of conflicts around the world, and, although C.P.T. to date is of a much smaller scale, the organization stands as a rare and remarkable example of a healthy marriage of vision and practice. With past or current teams in such places as Iraq, Hebron, Haiti, Colombia and Chiapas, C.P.T. does the hard, gritty, dangerous work of peacemaking in some of the places where such work is most desperately needed. A less known but no less valuable aspect of C.P.T.’s witness is the inspiring manner in which the organization runs: eschewing hierarchy for its own sake and embracing consensus, C.P.T. lives out its ideals both in what it does and how it does it.
Given this double witness as well as the urgent practical importance of mobilizing support for C.P.T.’s work, many readers might well bring certain expectations to Kathleen Kern’s Where Such Unmaking Reigns, a novel based on Kern’s experiences in Hebron as a longtime C.P.T. volunteer. One might expect, for example, a series of heartbreaking anecdotes of injustice; stories of spiritual courage and growth amidst physical danger; unblinking accounts of brutality and its aftermath; or a psychological study of a group of individuals living together under great stress. In a word, one might expect realism, in some combination of its contemporary conventions. Such readers will make their way through Kern’s novel with some surprise. Although, like all good novels, Kern’s book cannot be pigeonholed into any single genre-and indeed contains ample amounts of all the ingredients listed above-it transgresses conventions of realism with such regularity that one may confidently conclude that Kern believed that her aims could not be met by the normative representational machinery of the real.
In this regard, Kern has much philosophical and literary precedent as well as good company. There is, of course, nothing essentially authentic, admirable or, indeed, real about realism; it is merely a diverse set of literary strategies and techniques that has acquired-since sometime in the nineteenth century-the aura of the authentic, admirable and real. That this aura could frequently serve as a vehicle of delusion or even deception was one of the realizations inspiring the great modernist works of the first half of the twentieth century (e.g., Joyce, Woolf), a realization that continues to inspire much postmodern fiction today. This is not to say, however, that Where Such Unmaking Reigns is a postmodern novel (or, for that matter, one truly in the modernist tradition). It is, instead, a satire that gradually reveals itself to be not truly satirical, a farce that transmogrifies into a passionate plea for the truth-and the Truth-to be heard. These somewhat different and at times contradictory impulses produce, in the end, a novel of significant power; yet they do so not without, along the way, leaving behind moments in which their collision has less than happy results.
These last statements need some unwrapping. First, it is apparent that Kern assumes that her readers know that many of the events and personages in the novel are more or less factual, and, as she somewhat whimsically indicates in her acknowledgments and preface, she is not entirely at ease with this state of things. The threat here (or, at least one of the threats) is that the novel may be misread as autobiographical pseudofiction (i.e., a roman clef), and that the little truths of mundane veracity may in consequence obscure the larger truths that she seeks to bring forward. Kern is an accomplished essay writer; in choosing in this case to write fiction, we may thus assume that she chooses consciously to transcend mere factuality, to reach those truths of her experiences and the situation in Hebron for which the facts serve only as rudimentary signposts, potentially distracting in their very concrete reality. The book aims, so to speak, to be a painting rather than a photograph, and to accomplish this Kern turns-as she signals at the outset of her acknowledgments-to a tradition of narrative satire reaching back to Voltaire’s Candide (1759) and having its most pertinent more contemporary iterations in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1955) and Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (1974). Each of these works of fiction follows the life and times of a central protagonist, pretending to supply biographical facticity while documenting a series of farcical, exaggerated, surreal or manifestly fantastical situations-infusing all episodes with the sort of humor that comes with taking the absurd seriously. What makes these texts ultimately quite powerful, even beyond the critique they level at their respective targets, is that in each case the author has used farce and fantasy to season a grim, historical actuality of violence and injustice, the senselessness of which the satire exposes precisely by being mixed up with it.
The setting of Where Such Unmaking Reigns is just such an actuality, and hence would seem to be amenable to a satirical approach. The opening of the novel, though jarring, effectively signals this approach, with its black comedy of an ill-timed terrorist bombing in a Jerusalem hotel and the insipid, self-absorbed response of the fianc of one of its victims, the stunningly vacuous Tess MacAdoo. A few pages later, when C.P.T. volunteers are first mentioned, they are given the name RAPTors, evoking hilarious incongruity for anyone who has watched the rather unpeaceful activites of the so-named prehistoric creatures in the Jurassic Park movies. Readers at this point may gird themselves for a heartbreaking but funny ride through the conflict in Hebron, watching the efforts to defuse this deeply entrenched conflict through the profoundly superficial perspective of Tess. To some extent, this is what the reader receives, although soon after Tess joins the RAPT team in Hebron the novel’s satirical register begins to lose amplitude and at times becomes altogether silent.
In Hebron, the narration is most often rendered as a product of the consciousness not of Tess but of Eugie Yoder, the RAPT team leader, for whom we realize, retroactively, Tess serves as a kind of foil. Notwithstanding the many good reasons to tell the novel’s tale from Eugie’s perspective, from within her consciousness the satirical register is hard to maintain. Eugie is often sarcastic in her dealings with authority figures, but she herself possesses none of the surreal extravagances or absurdities that propel satire, nor do any of the other RAPT team members (nor, for that matter, do most of the described events in Hebron, a number of which are documented in C.P.T.’s Hebron chronology and detailed in Kern’s essay, “From Haiti to Hebron with a Brief Stop in Washington, D.C.: The CPT Experiment,” in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacemaking [Oxford, 2000]). Although Eugie’s romantic obsession with Tess’s wounded fianc has some satiric power-frequently intruding into very serious meditations on the situation in Hebron-these intrusions are only sometimes comic. In other instances they simply seem unlikely, making Eugie less a device for furthering satire than one of rather weakly integrated melodrama. We are drawn to Eugie, but we are drawn to her unsatirical qualities of courage, commitment and reflection. In being so attracted to this character (and, to a lesser extent, the other RAPT team members) for these reasons, we find ourselves becoming increasingly at odds with the satirical register of the novel. Tess becomes largely (if not completely) isolated as the principal voice of this register, and even she becomes more a figure of pathos than satire by the end. The satire, then, threatens to become an oversized distraction in a novel that almost ineluctably pushes this register aside as it approaches its larger truths. Although moments of satire persist through the novel’s conclusion, they are not sustained, and the reader consequently senses something of a bad compromise: the movement toward a more conventional realism diminishes the power of the satire, while the residual satire tends to undercut the mimetic force of the realism.
To some extent, this generic clash is perhaps inevitable. In seeking to communicate the larger truths about the situation in Hebron, Kern may well have discovered that it is precisely the smaller truths, the maddening nitty-gritty of the occupation, that need to be heard. Moreover, Kern’s protagonist Eugie-unlike, for the most part, her satirical predecessors Candide, Yossarian and Saeed-possesses a lucid, principled and plausible belief system that, while tested and interrogated by the events and reflections of novel, remains at the end a core part of the novel’s message. Hence, though satire can in many cases be an apt vehicle for truth telling, the admirable idealism that undergirds C.P.T. may not, ultimately, be well-suited to the sort of corrosive mockery that propels, say, Catch-22: in the case of C.P.T., at some point critique ceases and witness begins. Notwithstanding this problem, however, in the final movement of the novel, which in a wonderfully understated manner depicts the RAPT team in the aftermath of tragedy, the fusion of the absurd and the real is highly effective. This fusion succeeds at evacuating the melodrama from the tragic without diminishing the latter’s power, producing an evocative conclusion that is somehow both ambiguous and inspiring. In sum, although not a perfect novel, Where Such Unmaking Reigns succeeds at being a funny, moving, enlightening and compelling novelistic plea for justice. Those aspects of it that sit uneasily with its satire are perhaps among what we most need to hear, and, hence, in its very imperfection lies the imperative of its reading.
Goshen College ROBERT J. MEYER-LEE
A Liturgy for Stones. By David Wright. Telford, Pa.: DreamSeeker Books. 2003. Pp.80. $12.95, U.S.; $18.95, Can.
David Wright’s second collection sings praise in the form of poetry. The best of these printed words on paper, like the immobile stones of Scripture that they celebrate, defy their own mute nature to cry out. His writing probes the provocative questions of how the chaotic can be transformed into form, how the incoherent can be uttered. Despite the sacramental tone of the title, though, these praises come from all moments of life, those within the bounds of church and those ordinary moments around us, the mechanical, commonplace moments. In “My Friend at Firestone Asks About Poems,” the speaker inquires, “You got any with forklifts in the middle'” And Wright’s poems answer, yes, these poems have room for forklifts and flutes, stones, electricity and love.
The initial poem of the collection, “Altar Piece,” gives us the promise: stones are worked by the master mason, laid aside, reworked, until all receive their right shape, right size, as a place of sacrifice, and worship is created. Words, rocks, people are both subjects and creators. The poem builds by repetition of lines but each time newly juxtaposed with the others and, as they fall into new places, gain a new resonance of sound and meaning. The poem draws on the power of liturgy so that in going to the same lines over and over, we arrive, continually, for the first time.
The final poem in the collection, “Poems Should Not Be,” argues that poetry should not be about elections or flowers or emotions, but simply concludes that “Poems should not be about.” This premise is most clearly seen in the compelling heart of the book (sections 3 and 4). This center is where poetically and spiritually, poem after focused poem rises to be, not to be about. Wright’s writing is assured, with word after word falling into the right place. In “A Map of the Kingdom,” he responds to Mark 12:34 with:
Some creatures love to be sought, not found
love to be caught, not bound,
to be lured within range,
never quite aware of where the net
has cast itself-much wider than we suspect.
Perhaps our sore lips already know the foreign parts of speech.
Listen. It almost sounds like plainchant.
Or jazz. An anthem, a cadence
to coax and measure our steps.
The challenge of giving form to the formless is not beyond us, for he concludes the poem with “A Kingdom of margins will find us, / God’s grammar is not far from our own tongues.”
This hope in praise, this intrigue with our own role as creators made both for use by the Creator (as in “Altar Piece”) and in the image of the creator (“God’s grammar is not far from our own tongues”) permeates the poems at the center. In “Simeons’s Ascent,” Simeon exhorts, “Oh children, listen to the call of promise / singing in these courtyard stones.” Transformation is promised in “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” when Pentecost is evoked, the loosening of the Spirit which will “Let untamed language fall on unsuspecting tongues.” Throughout, the language avoids religious clichs but is clean, vigorous and utterly contemporary in its reach for the holy.
The title poem “A Liturgy for Stones” is responsive to Luke 19:40 in which Jesus says, “I tell you if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” In eight parts, Wright rides “the ridge of liturgy” to explore how the Spirit gives voice to the mute, a wonderment for worshipers, musicians and poets. In his end notes, Wright claims inspiration for this poem from Bach, the Kaddish and the traditional Mass. But he works consciously in the geologic terms of canyons and mountains, clay and the dust of which we are made. The poem is an approach to the holy; first what is mute is moved to voice and then back to a stillness, listening to “This voice, established and rugged, thinner / than you have imagined. / This voice, incomprehensible and firm, sharper / than you have imagined.” And, finally, we are told, “You must become rubble to absorb this resonant love.” The liturgy reaches an intoned crescendo, both majestic and humble in its credo: “One maker of atmosphere and ground / A lover of concrete, crushed and gathered.” In the eighth and last part, he finds that, after all the singing, the praise, and the crying out, “. . . when the echoing stones go still, / in the dangerous crevice that is your heart, if you lie still, / there remains an altar, a way to enter / a terrible holiness, a lush and delicate calm.” Such music in these poems is not about praise; it is pure praise.
The other sections of his book are not as unified and hold a miscellany of topics. Some of them sing and for me, a few of them sank. Yet throughout, Wright shows considerable attention to the music of poetry through rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. Despite occasional heavy-handedness (“I would rather rattle rougher words” (“Elegy”), we receive the sweetness of “Why / not sing slight psalms of gratitude when light / pours onto hardwood floors'” (“A Selfish Sonnet of Thanksgiving”).
Ordinary objects, ordinary habits and ordinary work are all elements of the divine. David Wright hearkens to this additional overtone of ordinary, a term also used in Catholicism to refer to an order or form of divine service. At their best, these poems both refocus our senses on the routine and reinterpret our concepts of the sacred. Wright returns poetry to incantation; the heart of A Liturgy for Stones deserves dog-eared pages, worn like a well-thumbed Book of Common Prayer.
University of Kansas ELLEN R. KROEKER
Crazy Quilt-Pieces of a Mennonite Life. By Cynthia Yoder. Telford, Pa.: DreamSeeker Books/Cascadia Publishing House. 2003. Pp.188. $14.95, U.S.; $22.95, Can.
In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris speaks of “a journey many writers have made-feeling a call to go back to the matrix of the family stories, [they] place [themselves] in their landscape.” It’s a journey both physical (or literal) and spiritual, and one that Cynthia Yoder records in her memoir Crazy Quilt-Pieces of a Mennonite Life.
Suffering from depression, Yoder watches her New York City life and her marriage to Jonathan Shenk fly apart at the seams. She moves out of their apartment; he decides to travel overseas for an indefinite period of time; she goes home to Berks County, Pa., to live in an aunt and uncle’s basement apartment and pursue a project she’s long dreamed of doing: recording memories and stories from her paternal grandparents, Henry and Elizabeth (Betts) Yoder.
Cynthia Yoder, says John L. Ruth in the foreword, represents “a diaspora . . . of grandchildren with Mennonite memory both disturbing and nostalgic” (9). She-and Shenk, although this is not his story-also represents a generation of Third Culture Kids. Shenk grew up in West Africa as the child of missionary parents. Yoder never left the United States but spent her formative years in the religious context of a small inner-city mission church, planted by her parents in Levittown, Pa. She and Shenk, Yoder writes, “felt displaced in generic American culture and at the same time alienated from our own Mennonite tradition” (58). No wonder they were drawn to each other. No wonder these layers left unsettled eventually shifted with earthquake-like effects.
So she goes home to excavate whatever she can find that might help shore up or rebuild her foundations. Although there’s not much actual sewing in this memoir, the metaphor of the quilt works well, especially that of a “crazy quilt,” composed of patches of miscellaneous, sometimes widely varied sizes, colors, fabrics and textures. Yoder’s “material” for the quilt of her writing comes from a scrap-bag of memories: guitar-accompanied choruses with pop-music melodies sung at church in her parents’ living room in Levittown; the a capella hymns at the meetinghouse her grandparents attended; crickets and a cuckoo clock breaking the night’s silence at Grammie and Grandpop’s house; altar calls and “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” around the fire at Spruce Lake Mennonite camp; learning to dance, drink, smoke and think like a feminist at Goshen College; smashing plates as a marriage disintegrated; eating Betts’s homemade pie with ice cream every Friday evening, pork chops and sauerkraut for lunch, pig stomach at Thanksgiving.
Out of these disparate pieces, Yoder begins to reconstruct her life, and from her grandparents’ stories, she begins to assemble a picture of the past that proves not all was easy in the “good old days.” The grandparents had their share of struggles, especially as teenagers and then young parents during the Depression and war years. Henry almost died of complications from strep throat. Betts raised five sons and a daughter, planted, harvested and preserved huge gardens, made cakes and mush for Henry to sell on his meat route and mended socks for charity and a little money.
This piecing and quilting-with journaling and the insights of a compassionate Mennonite therapist for thread-produces something new from the old: a renewed relationship with Jonathan, a recommitment to their marriage, a baby son, a master’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College.
I’m a Third Culture Kid as well, so I resonate with Yoder’s description. I remember what it was like to enter the world of Goshen College in the late 1970s and early 1980s-to discover what it meant to be “Mennonite,” or at least what conventional wisdom said it meant, to recognize the traditions I’d grown up with for what they were, to claim a heritage and yet feel completely outside it. I’m a late bloomer, so it wasn’t until years past college that I tried out drinking, smoking and feminism, or even knew how to name the “Third Culture” phenomenon, but I remember my sense-as a 20-something, in college and then in my first job in the even-more-Mennonite milieu of Lancaster County, Pa.-of being pulled into a thousand pieces and as many directions by culture clashes and the resulting emotional upheaval.
I understand at least the essentials of Yoder’s quest and where it took her. Every person’s journey is unique (says the postmodernist), but Yoder speaks for a part of the experience of those Mennonite grandchildren on the edge of, and stepping into, the twenty-first century. She has a poet’s love for language and a gift for description: “Normal had gone out on a long walk without saying when she’d be back” (13); “Surrounded by waves of congregational singing, I felt arms of grief wrap around me” (111); “January came like an unwelcome guest” (137). Surely she resonates with a generation of seekers after truth in tradition.
But how well does she speak for Mennonites? Besides the information found in her own story, and in the simple, brief excerpts of Betts’s diary that appear at the bottom of the right-hand pages in the odd-numbered chapters, she includes four paragraphs at the end of the book under the heading “A Note About Mennonites” (181-82). These four paragraphs comprise one of the two things I find most troubling about this book. Judging from the promotional blurbs on the back of the book, Yoder sees her audience as being as much non-Mennonite as Mennonite, and I suppose she included “A Note” for the former. But those four paragraphs contain two historical inaccuracies-the worst days of Anabaptist martyrdom took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth, not seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Amish broke off from the Swiss and South German Mennonites in the seventeenth, not the nineteenth, century. Further, from the perspective of someone who probably knows little about Mennonites beyond an inaccurate reference in the movie Witness, “A Note” raises many more questions than it answers-e.g., Why would people be “martyred for insisting on baptizing adults instead of infants”? Why would any Mennonite, whether wearing a cape dress or a nose ring, “give you an opinion on peacemaking”?
My other quarrel with this book is sloppy copy-editing-the possessive “its” spelled with an apostrophe, punctuation errors, occasional problems in logic within a sentence or paragraph, incorrect tenses-relatively small things that shouldn’t be there.
In sum, however, I found Yoder’s prose a joy to read, and her way of relating her experience and her self-discovery to be honest without stretching for shock value. I hope she writes another memoir at 40-something. And I’d like to read her son’s story in twenty years, as the piecing of Mennonite lives continues.
Hesston, Kan. MELANIE ZUERCHER
The Mennonite Quarterly Review