The gap in Mennonite literature

September 20, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Since the 1960s, Mennonite novels and poetry have graced the Canadian literary scene. Writers such as Rudy Wiebe, Miriam Toews, Sarah Klassen, and Patrick Friesen, to name just a few, are well-known within and beyond Mennonite circles. Aside from the numerous published books of prose and poetry, there are now academic departments dedicated to the study of this phenomenon, journals, websites and conferences focusing on Mennonite writing, and the Mennonite literary magazine Rhubarb. To continue in the spirit of back-to-school, I thought I’d bring up this topic.
I’ve been interested in Mennonite literature for a long time, and even had the chance to take a course on the subject a few years ago with Professor Hildi Froese Tiessen at Conrad Grebel University College. During that course, one of the major issues that struck me with particular force is the often-rocky relationship between Mennonite literature and Mennonite theology. Writer after writer describes the church as a rigid, constraining environment, which rejected and tried to squelch his or her creativity. The portrayal of pastors and church leaders is significantly less than complimentary in many poems and novels. The contradictions and hypocrisy within Mennonite communities are recounted in great detail. Many writers seem grateful to have left the Mennonite world – especially the church – behind them. Along these lines, Maurice Mierau can describe a writer as someone “making art out of one’s own experience and history, even when that history is different from the official version of propaganda and pulpit.” He even goes so far as to speak of Mennonite writing as “post-colonial” in that it overcomes the Mennonite tendency of “colonizing themselves” (“Why Rudy Wiebe is not the Last Mennonite Writer,” pp. 71, 75-6). These are fairly harsh words.
I don’t doubt that these sentiments stem from actual personal experiences with the historic Mennonite church and community, which is truly tragic. To force people to choose between their faith community and their creative gift and vocation is incredibly cruel, and understandably traumatic. So the recounting of these stories, while difficult, raises some valuable and necessary questions about certain aspects of Mennonite community, practices, and traditions, and can potentially lead to self-critique and reform within the Mennonite church.
But what is equally tragic is the way in which writers who have left or been pushed out of the church are so dismissive of Mennonite theology (so “Mennonite” is understood predominantly as the Germanic cultural/ethnic sense). As a theology student, I sense an absence in much Mennonite literature, where reflections on faith consist in little more than a passing reference to a Bible verse. In my view, this guts Mennonite culture, leaving a hollowed-out shell without the crucial core of Mennonite faith. There are exceptions, of course, such as Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China, which was greatly influenced by John Howard Yoder’s peace theology (see this article), but in many cases, there is little depth to what writers have to say about theology, if they say anything at all.
So why is this? I suspect that part of it is that it’s fashionable for secular artists and intellectuals to look down on religion, without fully understanding religious worldviews. But part of it is also that many writers have not had contact with the church since the 1960s, so they assume, as reflected in their writing, that nothing has changed within the Mennonite church since then. But my experience growing up in the Mennonite church bears no resemblance to the descriptions of hierarchical communities which excommunicate anyone showing evidence of independent thought, as in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, one of the most widely-read “Mennonite” novels. I grew up going to Mennonite schools and later universities which encouraged intellectual and artistic creativity – precisely because Mennonite theology has developed and blossomed at the same pace as Mennonite literature. This means it has dealt with many of the difficult questions raised by writers, but from a different point of view. The role of the theologian and the role of the writer or poet are not so different after all.
So is the current definition of Mennonite literature in some ways the universalizing of a generational experience? I think that’s part of it. As Hildi Froese Tiessen observes, quoting Andreas Schroeder, the somewhat younger “west coast Mennonite writers seem ‘very comfortable with their Mennonite upbringing, […]. It seemed we weren’t any longer threatened or imprisoned by it,’ he remarked; ‘we could afford to acknowledge its many advantages and strengths as well as its failings without feeling we had to buy into the faith or the lifestyle uncritically’” (“‘There was nothing to be read about Mennonites’: Rudy Wiebe and the impulse to make story,” p.10). I think it’s this tone which will carry Mennonite literature forward into our generation (especially since being Mennonite no longer means one is automatically a Germanic cultural/ethnic Mennonite). And, since we no longer have to choose between faith and art, I hope yet-to-be-written Mennonite poetry and prose will create a space for more profound engagement with faith and theology.

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