Elements of Faithful Writing. By Jean Janzen. Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series, 13. North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College. Copublished with Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ont. 2004. Pp. 49. $9.50, U.S.; $11, Can.
In Jean Janzen’s introduction to Elements of Faithful Writing, a book based on her Menno Simons lectures for Bethel College, Janzen traces her literary lineage among the previous lecturers for the distinguished series. The fifty-second lecturer, Janzen was the third to address a literary topic. The two others to do so were John L. Ruth, whose Mennonite Identity and Literary Art (Herald Press, 1978) is arguably the first work of contemporary Mennonite literary criticism, and Al Reimer, whose Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present (Bethel College, 1993) was published shortly after the first ?Mennonite/s Writing? conference held at the University of Waterloo in 1990. In the fifteen years between Ruth’s and Reimer’s lectures, a Mennonite literary renaissance took place in Canada, and in the eleven years between the appearance of Reimer’s book and that of Janzen’s, Mennonite literature has continued to flourish in unprecedented ways on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border. While the content of Janzen’s lectures makes little direct reference to the specifics of Mennonite literary history, the confidence with which she brings poetry and theology into mutually enhancing dialogue suggests a context in which Mennonite literature no longer needs to be coaxed into the consciousness of readers or defended as an act of value to the Mennonite community. In fact, in Janzen’s lectures on the intersection of art and faith in poetry, she claims the poet’s art as ?participation in the creativity of God for the kingdom? (45). As a well-known author of six volumes of poetry, Janzen approaches this topic from the poet’s point of view.
The elements of faithful writing, for Janzen, are the ancient four elements of earth, water, fire and air. Her design reveals these elements to be not only sources of the poet’s imagery but also the very materials of incarnation and divine creativity on earth. She liberally illustrates her discussion of the elements with examples from her own poetry and quotations from poets and theologians who have inspired her, making this volume an indispensable resource for students and serious readers of Janzen’s work. Throughout she shows how poetry is a spiritual practice, a sacrament that infuses our physical existence with transcendent meaning.
Beginning with earth, Janzen mixes in a measure of water to evoke the Frisian terps of her Dutch Mennonite ancestors in ?Mud: The Mound that Saves Us.? Landscape and the natural world are fundamental in Janzen’s poetry, and here she reveals them to be fundamental to our spiritual and communal formation as well. ?We internalize outer landscapes and project inner ones? (4) Janzen says, alluding not only to the power of place but also to the many places that Mennonites have journeyed in their search for faith. Janzen’s own journey took her from Saskatchewan and Minnesota to Chicago and then California. Her parents journeyed from Russia to America. And her ancestors journeyed from Holland (Friesland) to Prussia and to Russia. Moreover, in addition to signifying landscape, mud, as the earth’s body, invokes the human body. Janzen alludes to the mud that Jesus mixed to cure a man of blindness and to the clay from which we are made. In her poetry, she returns again and again not only to the body of earth but also to the human body. Her poems about birth, love, death, food and taste, and the connection to the body of the earth evolved in poems such as ?Chicken Guts,? have been widely celebrated. ?Would you call yourself the Mennonite sex poet’? (6) a student asks her in an anecdote related in the text, referring to Janzen’s unabashed celebrations of Eros as a gift of God’s creation.
?Water: Wailing in the Shower? takes its subtitle from a recent poem of Janzen’s in which she merges the ecstasy of birth with the breaking of unbearable grief. This poem, which she elucidates in this chapter, is from Janzen’s most recent book of poetry, Piano in the Vineyard, which as a whole invites readers to meditate on brokenness and to delve deeply into the most challenging experiences of life’loss, mourning, the suffering caused by war’as well as the ways in which art and nature provide a refuge for enduring them. Water ?reminds us that we are born into flow, into time? (15), Janzen writes. She invites her reader to ?drink the water of this holy earth? by ?immersing yourself in the great writings and songs of human experience, our world’s literature? and ?the sacred writings of our Scriptures, the Psalms and Prophets, and the astounding Gospels? (15). Baptism, of course, is the sacrament most closely connected to the element of water, a ritual marking our faith commitment, which she explores through reflections on a series of poems she wrote entitled ?Lakes.? For Janzen, water’s endless abundance suggests the boundlessness of creativity.
?Fire and Air: Breathing the Light? combines two elements which are interdependent. In this chapter, Janzen explores a sequence of poems she has written about the paintings of Jan Vermeer, the masterful painter of light, who was also fired by the passion of the artist’s heart. Janzen views fire as source, and light as that source’s emanation. Fire illuminates, but also destroys in order to create, as did the fires that consumed the martyrs. Janzen plays with the notion of the ?I? and the ego in this chapter as well, beginning with a humorous quote from Garrison Keillor about the rarity of true confession in poetry and moving toward an understanding of the Creator as the ?I? who made the world with love (36). ?Our insufferable egos? await the refining fires of love and truth. If the writer approaches her art with genuine feeling, using her personal experience as a guide, she may be infused with the glow of the original fire. But the artist sometimes feels the devastation of scorched darkness before experiencing illumination.
Janzen’s final chapter, ?Text: Marking the Stone,? argues for poetry as a renewing language of the spirit. She quotes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, saying that ?our world requires us to be poets who speak against a prose world? (40), challenging conventional meanings and structures. She highlights poets Julia Kasdorf and Jeff Gundy, whose challenges through poetry to Mennonite traditions offer new lenses through which Mennonites can see their tradition and community afresh. God calls all of us to be participants in the creative process, and poets offer the possibility of renewal to the community by creating texts we can share. In Janzen’s words, ?The faithful writer marks the stone with humility, with true witness, and with the breath of creation, the fire of God’s love? (49).
In The Elements of Faithful Writing, Janzen seems most at home in the ?mud’? the combination of earth and water that makes the artist’s clay. This is only appropriate for a poet whose most beloved subjects are the body and place. She spends less time on fire and air, returning to earth and a palpable image of text as stone in her final chapter. Here she alludes to a fascination with theology and catechism that has visited her most recent poetic work. I expect that Janzen’s newest explorations of theology in poetry will continue to develop her insights into the more elusive elements of fire and air. I eagerly await this promised next book of poems.
Goshen College ANN HOSTETLER
Some Heaven. By Todd Davis. Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 2007. Pp. 133. $19.95.
For I have learned
To look on Nature not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing often times
The still, sad music of humanity.
?Lines Written above Tintern Abbey?
The speaker in Todd Davis’s new book of poems, Some Heaven, has much in common with the William Wordsworth of ?Lines Written above Tintern Abbey.? Both are inveterate hikers and nearly obsessive namers of the natural world, and both love companionship on the road. Wordsworth’s companion was most often his sister Dorothy (the final lines of ?Tintern Abbey? are a paean to her). Davis shares his hikes with his sons and wife, although more often his companions are simply those friends he thinks about as he walks. It’s an all-star cast, ranging from Wendell Berry and U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall to Yorifumi Yaguchi and Ervin Beck. Even if the speaker in these poems can seem isolated, he is never solitary.
We hear the ?sad music of humanity? in most of the great poets of nature and landscape, such as Whitman and Frost and maybe, more recently, Richard Hugo and William Stafford. But there is more than that music in Some Heaven. For Davis nature (or Nature) is a moral lesson, a mirror for human drama’our joys, our ignorance and violence, our inevitable deaths.
Lesson one is that there is obvious joy in the land and landscape itself. Like Wordsworth, Davis revels in the Adamic, holy act of simply naming the world:
Because we call this purple
flower wild geranium
and that scarlet and yellow one
crown columbine; because
I have been taught this
hairy blossom belongs
to Virginia waterleaf
and that green umbrella
to the May apple. . .
because these names
are a catechism, this field
a holy book, all morning
I sit at the foot
of a Jack-in-the-pulpit,
grace of shade falling
upon me. . . .
(?The Names of Things’)
There are other ?catechisms,? too, that point toward the deeper mysteries of death, rebirth and prayer’and especially the role of animals in our lives and our role in theirs. In ?Communion? Davis gives us the following small snapshot:
On this Sunday morning
a red-tailed hawk perches
on a hay bale in the middle
of our field, bows his head
and tears sweet flesh
from the chest
of a mouse.
It’s a violent image softened by the personification evoked by ?bowing,? which endows the hawk-world with a grace, a sense of the cycles of creation that is echoed later in the book by the speaker’s own prayer in ?Catechism’:
We’ve been learning to pray
the prayer of the red eft, to make
the sign of the common egret,
to bend our heads in submission
in the presence of the animals
who give us life.
We are not merely onlookers, somehow above nature, but of a piece with it and subject to its most basic lessons. Even God in these poems is not the God of ?fire and dread and love intertwined? that the speaker hopes his sons never believe in, but a deity that makes cameo appearances as wind and light.
In the title poem, the poet and his two young sons find a dying rabbit, which had broken its own neck struggling to free itself from a fence. The boys want their father to ?do something? but:
they cannot imagine the blessing
a shovel might hold, the lesson
suffering offers those who have
At bedtime, one boy ?prays the rabbit is in heaven? where everything is safe, then cries himself to sleep. On the surface, the poet offers agreement with his son:
What more should heaven be?
A place wild with carrot and dill,
sunflower and phlox, fields
that stretch on for miles, every coyote
full, every hawk passing over, a warm
October day that need never end.
But the vision of the boy is only ?some? heaven’a wished for one, a child’s heaven that the father would love to think true. But this is a man who hunts and has killed other animals, who lives in a natural world where tunnels collapse on children, and where deer have their legs mowed off in hayfields; it’s a world where the speaker learns to understand the mindless fear embodied by the Patriot Act in the screaming of a mother killdeer. Anything we can know about heaven remains partial, and the answer nature gives us takes the ironic form of a blue heron that ?flies up / and over the naked sumac, then lands’a thin, gray / question mark written on a sky that holds no answers? (?Enigma’).
But ?some? heaven doesn’t mean no heaven at all, and it’s in Davis’s beautiful poems of domestic life that we find what answers there are to the heron’s question mark. In ?How Like the Life,? one of the sons has climbed into bed with his parents and cuddled between the two adults:
How like the life we hoped for this is:
moon, full last night, sits at the western edge
of the sky, languid like water that pools
near a bank in the stream, hemlock boughs
draped downward over the face of our child.
This is still only partial’how like the life and not the life itself’but it’s in these poems about marriage and parenting that the book most nearly finds a vocabulary for something we can’t fully know.
Poetry (and heaven) may well be ?nothing more / than lucid dreaming? as Davis says in ?Nothing More,? but I think the real definition of poetry in Some Heaven comes near the end of the book in ?Prairie Liturgy.? The world in flux, the great cycles of sustenance and renewal once again prompt the speaker to prayer’but also to praise’in a final benediction:
What is there but supplication?
Bee dips into flower’s bowl, bobcat’s belly
full, small polished bones in the osprey’s
nest, and scat of all kinds spread beneath
the basswood in honor of the lives taken.
On the plain that rises beyond the river,
September grasses begin to fire, smoke
visible for miles, great curtains of flame
opening and closing, telling a story
of a world without end.
Central College KEITH RATZLAFF
Half in the Sun: An Anthology of Mennonite Writing. Elsie K. Neufeld, ed. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press. 2006. Pp. 253. $19.95, U.S.; $21.95, Can.
I recently had the shifting face of the Canadian Mennonite community brought home to me on a most appropriate level: food. Visiting my small hometown in southern Manitoba last summer, I found that the local grocery had devoted an entire shelf solely to at least eight different varieties of yerba mate. It seemed to have been integrated into its surroundings with little fanfare or raised eyebrows. I had to pause for a moment and reflect on what sort of demographic shift might have made this possible: from nearly homogeneous Mennonite enclave (the presence of a Ukrainian family was a notable fact of life) to bedroom community of Winnipeg to welcoming home for Mexican and South American brethren, a change likely thought impossible not twenty years ago. I’ve since come to understand that the (to me) unpotable leaves on the shelves were just another symbol of a community that has been called upon by its many peregrinations to adapt to the vagaries of history, politics and, just as important, geography.
These influences can also be seen in Canadian Mennonite literature, long dominated by Prairie voices such as Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell and Patrick Friesen. Their work has often been thematically identified with the tensions evoked by diaspora: a violent eviction from the Russian steppes and then a fragmented move from pastoral, tightly-knit communities living quietly on the land to urban’and secular’environments. This particular generation of writers is now being joined by voices from the West Coast with Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing, a collection of fiction, poetry and nonfiction by Mennonite writers from (or transplanted from the prairies to) Canada’s westernmost province. The results are at times predictable, but rarely less than interesting.
The fiction selections in the anthology would not be terribly out of place in a collection of Prairie writers. The stories are dominated by the themes of loss, fertility (both human and agricultural), the difficulty of fitting in to a new society, and the ghosts of the Russo-Ukrainian steppe that the Mennonites left in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gardens figure predominantly as metaphors for barren wombs. Sinclair Ross’s desolate farmland is revisited’though with a sex scene that would have made Ross blush’in the hailstorm of Ron J. Wiebe’s ?Counting Chickens.? In other stories children are present but ignored, absent and mourned, or stillborn and mourned. Andreas Schroeder offers a sly jab at cultural assumptions in ?Renovating Heaven,? and Oscar Martens a number of good laughs in ?Safe Places on Earth,? but by and large the fiction here is solemn, and chooses to focus on the dour face of Mennonite heritage, the stereotypical Weltschmerz that is satirized later in the collection in Al Rempel’s poem ?a little mennonite goes a long way.?
Some of the poetry, in fact, comes as a relief after the earnestness of the fiction. This is not to suggest that it is facile, but rather that the sensibilities reflect a different take on the vicissitudes of life: whether this reflects the nature of the poets or the editors of the collection, there is an undeniably modern spirit in the poems. Carla Funk seems a wise choice to open the section, as her poems are poignantly witty, winking at the gravitas of the world as if to say that life is too important to be taken too seriously. For example, meditating on faspa as a metaphor for family closeness (food always so central to Mennonite identity!), she moves on to talk about the seated womanly bottoms of her family, shaping them together like pears on the family tree. This is wonderful stuff. Much of the rest of the poetry maintains an introspective, lyrical stance, only occasionally straying into more adventurous poetic forms. When it does, as in the compacted imagism of Melanie Siebert or the resistant language poetry of Jeff Derksen and Leanne Boschman, the results are compelling reading, grasping the reader on intellectual and lyrical levels.
The themes and tone of the poetry are frequently elegiac, perhaps too much so. There are a lot of deaths, near-deaths and muted confrontations with impending death. Perhaps this is appropriate, given the often grim sensibilities of certain parts of the Mennonite existence. Thankfully for the collection, this morbidity is leavened out somewhat by Robert Martens, who observes, in ?a little mennonite goes a long way,? ?everyone could use a / little mennonite at their side. dressed / in black. hollow-eyed and tight-lipped. / gloom pressing like anvils on his shoulders.? Martens’s wonderful poem ends with the ?little mennonite? sitting down to ?share some zwieback and borscht. / you know, he says, turning to you gravely, kindly, this could be our last meal.? He thus captures an image that keenly illustrates the Mennonite conundrum: the guilt of sensual enjoyment wedded to a morbid fascination with mortality.
The nonfiction selections seem included almost as an afterthought: at twenty-eight pages they account for less than a tenth of the writing here. Aside from Patrick Friesen’s reflections on the writing process, they, too, are dominated by themes of loss and leaving, of children dying or neglected, and the continuity provided by tradition (represented by Connie Braun’s fine essay on a paternal basket that accumulates meaning as it circulates through the family). The essays thus serve as a functional bookend for the fiction and poetry that precede them.
In the end, this collection does succeed as a snapshot of Mennonite writers working on Canada’s West Coast. Does that mean that it works as a collection of ?West Coast Mennonite Writing’? Not quite. The soundings taken by these writers are consistent with’often identical to’those taken by Mennonite writers on the other side of the Rockies, on the plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The trauma of diaspora, the wounding of loss, resistance to morbid (or moribund) tradition: these themes could have easily come from Di Brandt or Sandra Birdsell, which raises the question of what makes these writers as uniquely British Columbian as Sharon Butala’s introduction claims them to be. This question is unavoidable in any discussion of a text that is place-identified, and possible even more so in the fractious firmament of Canada’s regional literatures, if they can be said to exist in any meaningful sense. Al Rempel’s poems, replete with ?mountain soil,? are perhaps most explicit in their representation of place, but there is little that I can see here that would mark this as ?coastal? Mennonite writing. Perhaps that is why the editors wisely omitted the geographic naming in their title, leaving only the leafy fern on the cover’clearly not part of prairie fauna!?as a subtle signpost of the loamy interiors within.
University of Winnipeg TOM PENNER
Sunday Afternoon. By David Elias. Regina, Sask.: Coteau Books. 2004. Pp. 257. $17.95, U.S.; $19.95, Can.
Structured in five parts, David Elias? novel Sunday Afternoon is set in Neustadt, a small Manitoba village close to the Canadian border with the United States. On display is the multifaceted life of a Mennonite community, living in the shadow of a U.S. Minuteman Missile site and its threat of death. This is an insider’s look at some of the extremes of a community that represses its members and demands conformity. The story is told from an omniscient point of view that knows the range of thought among village people and select politicians in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War. Billed as a fable, the story presents characters in broad strokes, representing good or evil. The good ones are able to see and resist the flaws of traditional village life; the evil ones are entrenched in preserving how things have been done in the past.
Elias builds tension in the novel by developing multiple story lines. For example, the narrative develops a character, such as the preacher, but then abandons his story line by crosscutting to focus on what is happening with another character, whose story is in turn briefly developed before moving on to another character. These breaking-off points often occur when characters and readers experience a high degree of tension. For example, the preacher is on his way, rifle in hand, to rectify the harm done in church that morning by the presence of excommunicated Abe Wiebe. Cutting to another story line creates suspense by delaying the reader’s knowledge of how the preacher’s action turns out. As a reader, I also wondered how the multiple lines would connect in the end.
All parts of the plot move toward the coming together of two characters, Katie Klassen and Abe Wiebe. Both had left the village for destinations of which the church community did not approve. Abe Wiebe had served in the Korean War; at the beginning of the novel he’s already returned to Neustadt. Less sure of whether to stay in Neustadt, Katie Klassen returns from Hollywood, where she’s been an actress. These two ?homecomings? represent interesting variations on ?the stranger comes to town? plot, because the two strangers are former members of the village. Earlier in the novel these two characters are described as ?swallow[ing] up all the energy in a room? (110) and as ?intensify[ng] the other? (184). Indeed, the novel ends with Abe and Katie walking ?side by side? to the church building after having helped shovel dirt on a grave. The next to last sentence describes their connection as ?A slight but unmistakable leaning, one into the other . . . [finding] its way into the fluid rhythm of their walk? (257). Phrases like ?one into the other? and ?fluid rhythm? suggest that these two characters? lives will be intertwined in some positive way in the future. Elias treats Abe and Katie with a lighter and more suggestive touch than many of the other characters in the novel, making a satisfying ending.
The poet in the novel, Steven Zacharias, calls attention to the need for the village to assess itself. His voice could well coincide with the imagined voice of the author, making the moral of the fable: a community needs to look inward, so it doesn’t become a dead group that squeezes the life out of any person who dares to deviate from its rules. Martha Wiebe, a photographer, wants the poet to stay in the village long enough to become an individual and to be nurtured by the place; from that grounding he will develop the insight to write what needs to be written (149). Along with mentoring the poet, Martha is instrumental in helping Abe and Katie wait for each other.
Another character who brings a sense of connection is Dickie Derksen, a young man of limited intellect and no ability to speak, who likes to spend time outdoors looking for military aircraft in the sky. He becomes a Christ figure when he’s struck by lightning in the pasture. His B-flat note of song is heard by most of the characters and brings momentary wholeness and enlightenment to Dickie’s mother, to the soldiers at the missile site, to the preacher, and to President John Kennedy, who hears the sound on the speaker phone and decides to call Khrushchev and talk ?human being to human being? (227). In fact, when Dickie is buried at the end of the novel, Abe and Katie hear ?a high-pitched whine . . . hummed from deep beneath the ground? (257), suggesting that Dickie’s sound and influence will keep reverberating wherever there are those who are open to hear and be moved by it.
While the fable calls attention to the need for self-assessment in the village, it does this in the larger context of a world that also has misplaced priorities. A missile silo at the edge of the village threatens annihilation. A U.S. president and vice-president, Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, don’t want to give any advantage to the Russians. Hollywood possesses a consumerism that’s as damaging as the self-denial and sacrifice preached by the village community, cultivating people who don’t feel any better about themselves than do the people who follow the rules mentality of the village.
Part 4 of the novel fascinates me the most, because Elias combines the techniques of multiple story lines, crosscutting and slow motion to follow lightning bolts and a rifle bullet through a series of adventures in hitting their targets’a series evolved through complex sentences that carry amazing clarity. Less satisfying for me were some of the extended descriptions of violence (Dickie’s father’s death in a hammermill and Dickie’s beatings by his step-father). Sexual acts, urgent in the story because of repression and the threat of annihilation, are intentionally overwritten. Elias’s use of humor will likely be a matter of taste, with some readers laughing aloud and others offended. There are brief sections where one character speaks Plautdietsch or another thinks in German, but these passages are not so extensive that a reader, unfamiliar with either, won’t understand through context what’s being said or thought.
In the end the poet speaks. He interrupts the preacher at Dickie’s funeral and reads a poem he’s written for Dickie, signaling again the importance of artistic and emotional expressions.
University of Wisconsin’Whitewater EVIE YODER MILLER
Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest. By Rudy Wiebe. Toronto: Vintage Canada. 2006. Pp. 391. $22. U.S. edition, Intercourse, Pa: Good Books. 2007. Pp. 391. $15.95.
This unusual memoir covers only the early years of Rudy Wiebe’s life’from his birth in Speedwell, Saskatchewan, in 1934, through 1947-1949, the first years of his family’s residence in Coaldale, Alberta. For the Wiebe family of seven children, the Speedwell years were a hardscrabble pioneering life in an isolated settlement of recent immigrants in the northern coniferous (?boreal’) forests. Coaldale offered a more steady life and a better education in a railroad town of mixed population. World War II began and ended in the interim.
For most readers, the historical and emotional appeal of the book will no doubt be its graphic re-creation of life on the western frontier of Canada. Wiebe’s depiction of rough living in makeshift log houses and discouraging hard work in stony fields is balanced by his awe at the pristine natural surroundings and the warm humanity (?gentillesse,? 175) of individual family members and their close-knit community. For readers of Wiebe’s prize-winning fiction, the book becomes also a ?portrait of the artist as a [very] young man,? as Wiebe increasingly, through the book, ruminates on the origin of his fascination with language, words and storytelling. The book probes in a personal way the question raised by his famous short story, ?Where is the voice coming from’?
Wiebe’s voice as a writer came from the land, ?this earth,? as refined by the community and humble schools that nurtured him. He was surrounded by adults with endless stories to tell from Russia and Paraguay of painful sufferings and migrations. His chief muse was his older sister Helen, who told him stories until he could read them, and whose diary, or notebook, preserved the dates and events that are the backbone for Wiebe’s chronicle. Sickly all her life, she recorded in her diary the course of her own fatal illness and the deaths of people in her community and probably influenced Rudy’s own sober writing, which is ?rarely funny? (236).
Home and church life gave him Low German proverbs, hymns, Psalm 90, the evening prayer, Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible and The Way of a Man with a Maid. At school he read the dictionary, a book of Greek myths, Grimm’s ?The Fisherman and His Wife,? Riders of the Purple Sage, Jean Val Jean, Elsie Dinsmore, Rock of Decision and Toilers of the Sea. No wonder his Coaldale school yearbook in 1948-1949 identified his ?weakness? as ?fiction? (385).
Clearly, Speedwell gave Wiebe the setting for his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. The fictional Wiens family resembles the Wiebe family. Wapiti, like Speedwell, is almost exclusively a community of Mennonite immigrants, quite separated by distance and culture from English Canada. The cultures of both Speedwell and Wapiti center on the church and the little school. But unlike the novel, Crees and Metis only pass through Speedwell occasionally. There are Christmas pageants at the school, but no violence or sexualized teachers disrupt the scene. The preacher is gentle, no heavy-handed tyrant runs the community, and the worst kind of religion comes from a mysterious ?walking stranger,? who moves through the community proclaiming, ?Beware the wrath to come!??which so fascinates the uncomprehending young Wiebe.
Considering the warmly humane Mennonite experience in Speedwell, one wonders about the origin of the darkly drawn Mennonite experience in Wapiti in Peace Shall Destroy Many. Was such darkness present there in Speedwell, but just not properly perceived by the nave, innocent boy? Or did the darkness surface later, in the Coaldale Mennonite church? One answer is suggested by the way Wiebe frames his autobiographical narrative. It begins and ends with three memorable images from his fiction.
The first image in the prologue to Of This Earth replicates the final image in Peace Shall Destroy Many, of Thom driving the family home in the winter night landscape, ?staring skyward . . . driving them towards the brightest star in the heavens.? Wiebe’s image for the life and truth of Speedwell is even more positive. The winter sky during the family’s bobsled ride is ?sprinkled with light but sometimes, abruptly, flaming out like an exploded sun, a shower of fire and frightening until it swims away into waves fading out in rainbows: there, God lives in such light eternally . . .? (2).
In that same heavenly light Wiebe’s mother and father sing a hymn in a haunting soprano and tenor duet’?Here on earth I am a pilgrim / And my pilgrimage will not be very long? (2)?just as they do in the short story, ?Sailing to Danzig,? which later Wiebe metamorphosed into what is probably his finest novel about the Russian Mennonite experience, Sweeter Than All the World.
In the final paragraph of the epilogue to Of This Earth, Wiebe, now a master of words, makes of them a ?bridge? that links him with the land’yes, like the bridge over the Oldman River in Lethbridge (387), but also like the cables that his ancestor Adam Wiebe in the early 1600s fashioned in Danzig, which in turn are linked in ?Sailing to Danzig? with the metaphor of the woven cable of love and faith that he perceives in his mother and father’s duet.
Such opening and concluding images celebrate and, if necessary, redeem the Speedwell experience. Wiebe, as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan author, has taken on the mantle of Heinrich D. Friesen, ?the classic Russian Mennonite village bard? (83), who, since childhood, ?was called by God to poetry? (82). Friesen’s task was ?commemoration? (83), not condemnation, of communal life.
Subtleties like these have deservedly made the book a best-seller in Canada, highly praised by critics, and winner of The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. My only quibble is that the text has not been well served by its physical format. The publisher (Vintage Canada, the edition I read) used cheap paper, on which the small, old photographs are badly reproduced, even though their details are so very crucial for Wiebe’s reconstructing of his early life.
Although books by Canadian Mennonite writers are seldom published in the United States, Of This Earth was recently released in the United States by Good Books.
Goshen College Ervin Beck
Menno Simons and the New Jerusalem. By Helmut Isaak. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press. 2006. Pp. 158. $19, U.S.; $20, Can.
In his 1975 Essay on Theological Method, Gordon Kaufman argued that theology is an exercise in ?imaginative construction.? In recent decades the same insight has been applied to the methodology of history. A prime example of this approach to history (as well as some of the problems it raises) is the present study of Menno Simons by Helmut Isaak.
Isaak attempts a re-reading of Menno’s theological pilgrimage through a careful textual study of the various editions of his writings, placed in the context of the agitated religious history of north Germany and the Netherlands from 1534 to the late 1550s. He presents a picture that conforms to current scholarship about the evangelical Catholic dissent in the Netherlands of the 1520s, sometimes called Sacramentarianism because of its challenge to traditional Catholic doctrine regarding the sacraments. He also sketches the emergence of the following of Melchior Hoffman, and the more or less nonviolent coming to power of Melchiorite Anabaptists in the Westphalian city of Mnster after their success in elections to the town council in February 1534. Isaak constructs a very plausible connection between these broader events and what we know of the religious development of Menno Simons, a priest in Pingjum and Witmarsum in Frisia from 1524 to 1536. He argues that Menno got his doubts about transubstantiation from the Sacramentarians and his rejection of child baptism from the Melchiorites; moreover, Isaak writes, Menno probably accepted adult baptism from the Melchiorites and became a ?covenanter? in 1534. Isaak takes the writings of Melchior Hoffman, and, up to a point, of Bernhard Rothmann, as contributions to Menno’s spiritual and theological formation. From them he received a Christology that greatly diminished Mary’s role in Christ’s humanity and a soteriology that stressed the new birth and sanctification of the Christian believer. Isaak suggests that Menno, like other Melchiorite Anabaptists in the Netherlands, was at first positively disposed to the Anabaptist regime in Mnster and only turned against it when Jan van Leiden presented himself as the new King David, and when emissaries from Mnster tried to arouse the covenanters in the Netherlands to violent uprisings against their governments. During this period Menno held his dissenting views as an evangelical Catholic priest, taking a Nicodemite attitude of outward conformity to the officially established religion.
Only after the failed revolutionary Anabaptist uprising at nearby Oldeklooster in March 1535, in which Menno’s brother Peter lost his life, did Menno come into a spiritual crisis that led to his abandoning his priestly calling early in 1536. Isaak argues that Menno, in his first years as an Anabaptist elder, was a spiritualist, although opposed to the more extreme spiritualism of David Joris; and that in the 1540s he strove to win the government and church of the Netherlands to his understanding of the Gospel of Christ. Only in the 1550s, under the combined impact of persecution from the Catholic government at Brussels and the emergence of the Reformed religion in the Netherlands, did Menno come to see his ?New Jerusalem? as a separated minority church living under the cross, the body of Christ, ?without spot and wrinkle? like its perfect Lord.
This interpretation of Menno implicitly challenges the views of previous scholars such as William Keeney, who tended to incorporate Dutch Anabaptism into a Swiss-Schleitheim evangelical Anabaptist model, or Cornelius Krahn, who saw ecclesiology as the connecting thread in Menno’s works. Recent scholarship (with the characteristic exception of Abraham Friesen) has unanimously accepted Menno’s Melchiorite identity, but there is no book that draws this picture so vividly as Isaak’s present one, by giving serious consideration to the commonalities of Menno with both Hoffman and Rothmann. Isaak engages Menno’s writings carefully, noting the changes from early to later editions and the shift in emphasis from the 1530s to the 1540s to the 1550s. One result of this textual analysis is to increase greatly the probability that ?On the Blasphemy of Jan of Leyden? is an authentic work of Menno’s, although perhaps not published until the seventeenth century, well after his death. Isaak shows a correspondence between the text of the ?Blasphemy? and the Meditation on the Twenty-Fifth Psalm, The New Birth, and both the earlier and later editions of the Fundament-book. I also think that he is right to correct my contention (following Karel Vos) that the ?Blasphemy? was a refutation of Bernhard Rothmann. Isaak makes good sense of Menno’s writings about government, arguing that Menno seriously adopted the notion of godly rulers directing their subjects to true religion, as found in the Old Testament models of Joshua, Hezekiah, Josiah and others. Here is no Schleitheim conception of government as a godly institution ?outside the perfection of Christ.?
Still, this interpretation of Menno’s spiritual pilgrimage from evangelical Catholic to spiritualist Melchiorite to Mennonite elder wielding the ban is heavily dependent on Isaak’s assumptions about the order of Menno’s writings. According to Isaak, the Spiritual Resurrection was Menno’s first writing (?could well have been written as early as 1534?) and reflects his evangelical Catholic phase, followed by the ?Blasphemy of Jan of Leyden? (1534-1535), after which appeared The New Birth and the Meditation on the Twenty-Fifth Psalm (?must have been written after he left the Catholic church, before his ordination as elder’), which reveal Menno’s spiritualist individualism, which had begun to ebb with the publication of the first version of the Fundament-book. It would be ungenerous and inaccurate to say that this order of composition of Menno’s writings is no more than an ?imaginative construction? by Isaak’it is based on suggestions by W. J. Khler, Karel Vos and H. W. Meihuizen that have been pieced together by Isaak. However, this is not the order of publication of Menno’s works, so far as we can judge by preserved editions. The indispensable source on the publication of Menno’s works remains Irvin B. Horst’s meticulous Bibliography of Menno Simons; in it Horst’s commentary shows just how fragile is the scholarship about ?time of composition? with which Isaak works. This criticism is not intended to question the worth of Isaak’s interpretation’it tends to be convincing, and it is very stimulating. However, it is an apt illustration of the point that good historical scholarship cannot claim certainty.
Queen’s University , Kingston, Ont. JAMES M. STAYER
Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish. By Tom Shachtman. New York: North Point Press. 2006. Pp. 283. $25, U.S.; $33.75, Can.
When Amish youth turn 16, they move into a new phase of life called rumspringa, a time of increased freedom, exploration and peer contact. Many people have encountered this term through Lucy Walker’s documentary, Devil’s Playground; UPN’s so-called reality show, Amish in the City; or news coverage of deviant activity, such as drug arrests in large Amish settlements. From these portrayals, outsiders might assume that rumspringa equates to wild parties and dramatic rebellion. Most Amish, however, define it as one Amish elder did: ?It’s simply a time of increased freedom when our youngie [youth] can get together and also begin courting.?
The cover of Tom Shachtman’s book Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish does little to dispel the rumspringa-deviance connection. It features a sensationalized dust-jacket image of an anorexic-looking Amish teenage girl lighting a cigarette in the back seat of a car. But looks and covers can be misleading. Despite its unfortunate cover choice, Shachtman’s book does more than expose the dimensions of Amish adolescent deviance, especially as experienced in the large settlements of Elkhart and LaGrange counties, in Indiana, and Lancaster County, in Pennsylvania. He also casts light on other significant challenges facing Amish teens and their parents today.
The book accurately captures authentic voices of the wayward segment of youth. Shachtman, a veteran freelance writer, had access to the 300 hours of filmed interviews in Lucy Walker’s archives. He quotes extensively from these and from his own interviews with scores of young people, male and female. For example, Gerald Y. is torn between his enchantment with the party life and his fear of dying and going to hell. For a time, Lydia T. decides to leave the fast track, and ?settle down,? when her father offers her a customized carriage’and later a house of her own’if she ?joins church.? At the extreme is Faron Yoder, an 18-year-old bishop’s son who has been in and out of reform school and has been selling drugs to other Amish youth to support his $100-a-day crystal methamphetamine addiction. He eventually ends up in prison.
Another strength of the book is that Shachtman understands the sometimes anxiety-provoking, often giddy sense of freedom that accompanies the 16-year-olds? entrance into rumspringa. In this rite of passage, boys traditionally receive their own horse and carriage, and for the first time in their lives, boys and girls may socialize without regular adult supervision. Now the peer group assumes major importance. Youth must ?make it on their own? rather than depend on the family for their status and sense of agency. Shachtman also documents the ongoing struggles of conscience that wayward youth face as they behave badly, flouting the church’s teaching on the wages of sin and God’s certain judgment to come.
In addition to recognizing the centrality of the Christian faith for the Amish, he also understands other core values and institutions. This book offers a window onto Amish life that portrays the complexities of adolescence’and parenting adolescents’in a variety of contexts. He understands the importance of the Amish work ethic, and charts the rising concern over the impact of children growing up off the farm. He acknowledges the importance of Amish schooling and the necessity of hiring teachers who support and embody Amish values. He also attempts to explain, from the Amish perspective, the role that excommunication and shunning play in maintaining the integrity of the community.
Throughout the book, however, Shachtman writes from a questionable premise that Amish parents, as good Anabaptists, believe that their teenage children need to experience the world in order to make a fully-informed adult commitment. He assumes that a totally parental-hands-off rumspringa is essential in forming and maintaining an Amish identity. Thus, according to Shachtman, most Amish parents not only tolerate but accept this unimpeded ?time out? period for young people. Part of the problem may arise from Shachtman’s lack of contact with or interest in the broad spectrum of Amish life, which limits his understanding of the dimensions of the typical experience.
Although the voices of those he interviewed and voices of the youth interviewed for Devil’s Playground are authentic, the sample is biased and unrepresentative, neglecting both the majority of large settlement youth who avoid the excesses of Amish adolescence and the thousands of youth from more conservative small settlements. In short, in a book entitled Rumspringa Shachtman scarcely touches on the normative rumspringa experience.
Contributing to the problem of an unrepresentative sample is that typical Amish youth are not likely to go on camera with a stranger-outsider. Inebriated teenagers hanging out at the local 7-Eleven store on a Saturday night are more conspicuous and accessible than teenagers visiting at home with their families or playing volleyball with peers. To the extent that the obedient ones appear in the book, they are peripheral, one-dimensional figures. Such an omission would be more understandable if his book were entitled Extreme Rumspringa, which the book’s dust jacket image implies.
Another serious omission stems from Shachtman’s apparent lack of awareness of the so-called ?supervised singings? movement that has developed in the last twenty years, originating in Holmes County, Ohio. In most communities, the weekly or biweekly singing is the main social event for youth. Even though religious songs are featured, the Sunday night singing serves as the quintessential social event for meeting one’s peers and seeking a mate. Alternative singings began when a minister and a handful of concerned parents became troubled by the rebellious kind of rumspringa that many of them and their children experienced. Despite considerable opposition from the traditionalists (?youth have always behaved this way’), this founding group instituted a parent-supervised singing that required young participants to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and other forms of drugs. The adults also developed written ?guidelines? spelling out other expectations. Any young person who agreed to the rules could join.
Eventually opposition diminished, and the Ohio movement gained a critical mass of support. This movement has now emerged in parts of Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Many observers, including this writer, regard the development of this alternative singing as a potentially seismic change in Amish society’which, incidentally, will provide a grand opportunity for sociologists to study Shachtman’s rebellious rumspringa-retention hypothesis.
Knowledgeable readers should be willing to overlook a few factual errors and misperceptions in the book, none serious enough to negate Shachtman’s overall contributions. For example, the author states that ministers preach in High German, when in fact, virtually all Old Order preaching today is in dialect. And contrary to his claim that Mennonites do not have a rumspringa, the several horse-and-carriage Mennonite groups also experience this running-around stage.
More serious, in my judgment, is Shachtman’s belief that Amish culture is ?reflexively misogynistic.? Unless one equates distinct gender roles and male authority with misogyny, I believe he is mistaken about his misogyny charge. Amish culture clearly defines gender roles, and men undoubtedly hold all formal power in the church. However, in my fifteen years of close association with many Amish people, my conclusions are similar to those of Karen Johnson-Weiner (MQR, April 2001, 231-256) in believing that Amish women function with considerable power in most areas of Amish society. Certainly not all females embrace the gender-based status quo, and certainly one can find individual males who abuse or exploit females. Overall, however, Amish men genuinely respect and love their spouses, mothers and daughters.
As one interested in the future of the Amish, I was intrigued with Shachtman’s final ?essay? about this subject. As they increasingly move into nonfarming occupations, he predicts that they will need more education to survive, and that like Hasidic Jews, the Amish can maintain their separation and core values ?without sacrifice of the community-first ethic. In fifty years, rumspringa will likely be redefined in broader terms, such as permitting the finishing of high school or a stint in college before the young person has to make up his or her mind to become an Amish adult? (271). I suspect that high school and college educations would herald the end of Old Order society as we know it. If he is right, I think that Shachtman’s future Amish will look a lot like today’s modern Beachy Amish who drive cars and use power-grid electricity, among other things, but dress and worship plainly. Also, if his predicted rumspringa changes occur, the Amish will lose far more youth than the 15 to 20 percent who now leave, just as today’s Beachy Amish have significantly higher attrition rates than do their Old Order counterparts.
In summary, my greatest concern with this book is that despite his mild disclaimers, Shachtman’s extensive descriptions of the rumspringa extremes will lead readers to assume that such experiences are normative, even though much evidence exists that a deviant exploration of the world is not necessary to produce contented Amish adults. Rather, I would point to warm nurturing parent-children attachments and healthy, united communities as central to Amish retention.
Messiah College RICHARD A. STEVICK
Diaspora in the Countryside: Two Mennonite Communities and Mid-Twentieth Century Rural Disjuncture. By Royden Loewen. University of Illinois Press and University of Toronto Press. Pp. 331. 2006. Cloth: $75, U.S.; $70, Can. Paper: $25, U.S.; $32.95, Can.
Royden Loewen’s Diaspora in the Countryside offers compelling evidence that the central theme of twentieth-century ethnic Mennonite history in North America was not the recovery of Anabaptism. Rather, it was the transformation of rural Mennonite communities into diasporic ones. In this important book, Loewen analyzes two Dutch-Russian, Kleine Gemeinde communities: the heavily Mennonite Rural Municipality of Hanover (also known as the East Reserve) in eastern Manitoba, which includes the well-known town of Steinbach; and the comparatively obscure Meade County, located in southwestern Kansas, where Mennonites were a distinct minority. Mennonites began settling the East Reserve in 1874, while Meade was a secondary Mennonite settlement, started in 1906.
Loewen, who has published extensively on the Russian Mennonite experience in North America, is well positioned to capitalize on the potential of transnational comparative history. As a native of the East Reserve, he passed through Meade during youthful visits to relatives in Mexico. Now the chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Loewen deftly and empathetically negotiates diaries, church records and local histories, allowing for an intimate portrait of the communities in question.
In his analysis of rural worlds transformed, Loewen eschews a simple modernization narrative of television-viewing, skirt wearing, book learning and other forms of acquired worldliness. Modernity, he avers, contains ?nothing inexorable or inevitable? (xv). Yet he does posit that something very fundamental occurred in the mid-twentieth century in Hanover and Meade. That something was what the historian John L. Shover (on whom Loewen leans heavily) termed the ?Great Disjuncture’?a process that saw a steep decline in small family farms and the transformation of agriculture into a more corporate, technology-savvy and market-driven enterprise. The Great Disjuncture, Loewen writes, brought an end to the ?common rural culture [that] prevailed in many quarters of North America? (5). A skeptic might wonder just how established this rural culture was in Mennonite communities that, when the Great Disjuncture began, were only a generation or two removed from pioneer life. The residents of Hanover and Meade surely noticed the changes, however.
Diaspora in the Countryside considers the Great Disjuncture in Meade and Hanover from several angles: economics, the natural environment, class, ethnicity, lived religion, gender and migration. Notably, the book begins, not with church life (as readers of Mennonite histories might expect), but rather with land and the economic bottom line. Meade and Hanover farmers were ?creatures of nature? whose work lives revolved around the respective cosmologies of ?dust bowl? and ?snowdrift? (35). As such, they adapted to, and even embraced, the market controls imposed by their national governments.
Among the seeming winners of the Great Disjuncture were members of the new, town-dwelling Mennonite middle class. Without reducing Meade or Hanover to national stereotypes, Loewen explains how material progress served to reinforce a sense of ethnic identity for Mennonites in avowedly multicultural Canada. For Meade Mennonites, who composed only around 20 percent of their county’s population, nationalism was often another word for assimilation.
Loewen offers a different take on assimilation in his compelling treatment of evangelical Christianity. Evangelicalism has tended to act in a ?progressive? (that is, enabling) manner vis–vis modernization (82). While a brand of Christianity that emphasizes inner piety, proselytizing and the moment of conversion hardly represents an affirmation of secular change, evangelicalism nonetheless clearly challenged the religious order of rural Mennonite communities. Evangelicalism triumphed most clearly in Meade, but it left its mark in Hanover by contributing to divisions among the Kleine Gemeinde. There, debates played out in the Bruderschaft, or ?brotherhood meeting? of male church members, the minutes of which Loewen puts to good use. In keeping with Mennonite precedent, some traditionalists chose to shun, as it were, with their feet, moving to Mexico and then British Honduras. At the same time, as Loewen makes clear, ?evangelical purity? could serve as a new form of ?boundary maintenance? for North American Mennonites who had assimilated in other ways (94). They could retain their industrious ways and reinforce their reputation for sobriety.
The Mennonite diaspora, Loewen notes, ?was not a typical diaspora? (4). During the Great Disjuncture, some plain-dressing Mennonites sought refuge in the humid jungle of British Honduras, while more fashion-conscious Mennonites moved to the suburbs of Winnipeg. The former, some of whom Loewen follows to the Spanish Lookout Colony in modern day Belize, maintained their ?antimodernity? through ?cultural reformulation? (170). In adapting to tropical agriculture, they carved out a niche as ?agricultural innovators within a Third World economy? (172). They also made Low German a language of worship and cultivated ties with Swiss Mennonite neighbors.
Winnipeg, a very different diasporic destination, warrants a book unto itself. The rise of Winnipeg as a Mennonite capital paralleled (in greatly magnified form) migrations in other Mennonite communities to adjacent cities such as Goshen, Indiana, and Harrisonburg, Virginia. As Loewen demonstrates, though, Winnipeg, and even more so Denver, also tell a quite different story. Many urban migrants left the church and, ultimately, any sort of Mennonite identity whatsoever. Thankfully, Loewen treats these ex-Mennonite Mennonites (for lack of a better term) as worthy historical subjects. He sympathetically describes the ?residual Mennonitism? of several Meade County residents who moved to Denver (217). His work here is trickier, but arguably more rewarding, than delineating the more familiar advent of urban Anabaptism, which he also does well.
Although my quibbles are minor, some parts of the book work better than others. Loewen’s thematic approach occasionally leads to chronological confusion. I am not sure, for example, when precisely Low German went out of fashion in Hanover and Meade. The two chapters on gender’which cover the ?rise and fall of the cheerful homemaker? and the ?new Mennonite man? (124, 148)?beg the question of the extent to which these are ethnic stories. Did gender ideologies among rural Mennonites simply change along with everyone else’s? While admirably sympathetic toward his rural subjects, Loewen (who himself attends Steinbach Mennonite Church) exhibits less patience with cosmopolitan Mennonite literature as a product of the Great Disjuncture. A Complicated Kindness, for example, by Steinbach native Miriam Toews, is much more than merely another narrative about the trauma of shunning’the novel is genuinely funny, ironic and, I think, rather self-aware.
At first, I wished that Loewen had studied a more ?representative? group of Mennonites. What about the much larger Mennonite Brethren or General Conference traditions? My mind changed, however, as Loewen effectively turned the representative question on its head (although I am not sure how intentionally he did so). One of the most striking things about Loewen’s book is how few of his subjects made the Anabaptist turn of Harold Bender and others, which coincided chronologically with the Great Disjuncture. Diaspora in the Countryside demonstrates the possibility of writing a powerful book about twentieth-century Mennonite history that is only in part Anabaptist history.
Diasporas require at least two sets of coordinates. The more familiar one concerns a lost or distant homeland, shared memories, or beliefs and practices that seem to transcend time and space. But the other essential coordinate, of course, is the world itself into which a people is scattered. Loewen, then, tells both a Mennonite and a North American tale, an approach scholars of recent Mennonite history are wise to emulate. This is rural history, environmental history and, most assuredly, Mennonite history, as well. I highly recommend it.
St. Louis, Mo. STEVEN P. MILLER
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The Mennonite Quarterly Review
MQR 82 (January 2008)