A while ago I was standing in the bookstore, staring at the magazine rack and found a few publications that dealt with the subject of writing. As I flipped through the articles on how to write a good first sentence and how to find an agent that won’t rip you off, I found a profile on Canadian and Mennonite author Miriam Toews. A few years ago her book A Complicated Kindness was on the Canadian top ten books list for a number of months, it won the CBC Reads contest and sold a tonne of copies. It was also required reading for my Mennonite Literature class at Conrad Grebel College. Since then I’ve become a collector of MennoLit, and so I was excited to hear about her latest novel.
Irma Voth is the name of the book, and it is the story of a young woman from a conservative Mennonite Colony in Mexico who has to break free from her controlling parents and her emotionally detached husband to discover herself in the real world. I’ve read the first ten pages and I like what I’ve read so far, and when I finish, I’ll probably put up a review of it somewhere.
After reading A Complicated Kindness and reading the reviews of this book, I’m not expecting a positive portrayal of Mennonite community life or a defence of Anabaptist theological understanding. Reviews by more professional literature critics are now circulating. If you saw the April 9th issue of the Globe and Mail, you might have seen two whole pages dedicated to a long story about her and a full length review of the book. The author of the article writes at one point, “Mennonites are hot, and Toews their unlikely exemplar.” It’s like the commercial with the Mini-Wheats sitting in heated milk where one of them says, “Mini-Wheats are so hot right now.” Are Mennonites the new vampires?
We could respond in a few different ways to this sudden popularity. We could try to cash in on it by trying to sell other books (What better motivator to finish my novel?). We could lay back with the understanding that whether we’re hot or not, “this too shall pass.” Is it possible that we could use this trend to fill more pews in our churches?
While the author is only talking about literary depictions of cultural Mennonite life, Anabaptist spirituality is also increasingly popular in many circles. The Naked Anabaptist is a book by Stewart Murray, from England, about what it means to live out Anabaptist spirituality without Mennonite culture, and it’s selling like hot cakes. Anabaptist networks are springing up and growing all over the world in places without traditional ethnic Mennonite influences. Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor of the largest church in Canada, proudly teaches Anabaptist theology to his multi-site Brethren in Christ congregations.
It might sound crude or opportunistic to say that we should cash in on this popularity, we are obligated to respond in some way. Even though our nation is at war (with soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Libya and probably a few other places) politicians won’t touch the subject during this campaign because those are unpopular wars. There is a greater tolerance these days for us to talk about peace theology. There is a greater interest in the separation of church and state. Society is sceptical of religious figure who are corrupted with political power and political leaders who try to manipulate religion to suit their personal agendas. Being separate from the world has been at the core of our theology for centuries. People are more willing to hear about our understanding that enemy love and others centered living is at the core of the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught us about. There is a greater interest in community theology, where we do church as a group of equals, where the gifts of each member are valued and utilized in worship, and where we trust that the Spirit empowers everyone, not just the person standing at the front, to interpret Scripture and the whole community benefits from that sharing process.
We as a church are trying to do church that way and to take what our spiritual ancestors initiated and apply it to our ever changing world. We can share with others exploring these issues what we have learned, but we do not live it out perfectly and we should be careful to call ourselves experts on these issues. When we speak about these issues, we are still called to do so in gentleness and truth. We need to admit that authority within any institution, including our own church structures, has corrupting power and so we all need to be careful. While we have separated ourselves from government power structures, we still need to respect the leaders that are installed over us, whether we agree with them or not. Even though we have historically been separate from our governments that have waged wars throughout the world, as Christians, we still bare the legacy of injustice many of those wars left behind. Finally, while we believe in community values and treat each other as equals, we don’t share our possessions, we rarely challenge the unhealthy patterns and decisions each of us make as individuals. Other people becoming interested in community theology should also make us more interested in applying those values at a deeper level as well. For as much as have been doing things wrong, we also need to learn about what other Christian faith traditions have been doing right for the last 2,000 years.
But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together." - 1 Corinthians 12: 24b-26 (ESV)