Anabaptism, identity and culture

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of Anabaptist ReMix: Varieties of Cultural Engagement in North America, Lauren Friesen and Dennis R. Koehn, editors (Peter Lang, 2022)


“The roads out of town are clear in all directions” – Jeff Gundy, “Emblems of the Times” (315)

This volume brings together a variety of writers to explore their personal engagement with Anabaptist identity and the wider culture. It is a fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking, and occasionally frustrating book that offers much fruitful reflection on North American Anabaptism in the 21st century, and a unique addition to the collection of recent books that question and complicate the pillars of 20th-century North American Mennonite identity. To Liberating the Politics of Jesus and Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision, we might add Anabaptist Remix.

This review begins with the final line of “Emblems of the Times” because the editors identify it as essential. From the introduction to Part VII, “Poetic and Artistic Expression”: “Jeff Gundy’s poem…underscores the entire theme of this volume: a road that leads out of town” (313). We are left to discover how the book takes up this theme, and what we are to make of it.

This review cannot comment on all of the worthwhile essays, autobiographical reflections, poems, and more in this wide-ranging volume. There is a lively conversation to be had among the various contributions: some artistic, some analytical; some complicating others’ assumptions; some diving headlong into complexities that others smooth over from a distance. Your thinking about Anabaptist identity in 21st-century North America will be broadened by engaging with this book.

Instead of careful conversation with each contribution, then, we must address the overall framing and project that this book claims to undertake. The editors have taken pains to mark the roads out of town “in all directions.” They present the need to “leave town” in order to engage with culture and the wider world. While this image is an accurate representation of the editors’ view, it is inadequate and tends toward essentialism and ethnocentricity. Instead, the many and varied contributions in the volume are better understood by imagining an ever-changing band of travelers on a road that stretches beyond the horizon, before and behind.

Many contributions seem to fit appropriately into the “roads out of town” theme. For example, this volume has a keen interest in the arts: theater, music, poetry, and visual art. For many contributors, Anabaptism may have been the place where they came from, as it were, but they found a deeper sense of connection and truth on an artistic path. Essays by Charlene Gingerich (“Beauty Happens”) and Julia Reimer (“Negotiating the Blade: A Dramatic Reverie on Faith, Institutions, and Theater”), for example, express this beautifully. Sometimes this path leads to “pushes” out of town, by townsfolk who are suspicious of that road and its travelers (Gingerich and Reimer both experienced this). In other cases, however, writers find deep complementarity between their artistic lives and Anabaptist values, as in the essay by volume co-editor Lauren Friesen (“‘Be Just, and Fear Not’: Theater as Restorative Justice”).

For some contributors, the roads out of town can be roads of escape. Sometimes the escape is from old-fashioned or traditional ways of understanding “Mennonite identity.” In various essays, writers problematize Harold S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” which has served as a focal point of North American Mennonite identity for the past 80 years. Daniel Shank Cruz (“Mennonite Literature’s Queer Decolonial Anabaptist Vision”) engages with this well. As the social and intellectual landscape shifts, and the concerns of Bender’s day don’t seem as pressing, Mennonite writers seek new paths, feeling confined by the town that Bender helped build.

In some cases, though, finding a way out can be vastly more urgent, as shown by Cameron Altaras (“Voice of the Residue: The Reckoning of Intergenerational Female Wounding”) and Ruth E. Krall (“Healing the Wounds of a Violated World”). Each of these contributors reflect on the subjugation and violence that women have experienced in Anabaptist communities. Many women have found that the town brings injury and death – in order to live, some will need to flee, whether or not the road is clear.

Much can be made of this “roads out of town” theme. But in the end, the volume shows the theme’s weakness as a frame for these important discussions of Anabaptist identity, as demonstrated by the two essays in Part II, “Anabaptism and the Shifting Terrain.” First, volume co-editor Dennis R. Koehn begins his essay (“New Perspectives on Human Nature and Images of the Divine”) by saying, “Many of the authors in this volume describe personal journeys from rather closed hierarchical Mennonite communities to a more open and creative engagement in the larger culture, while retaining some basic Anabaptist and Mennonite values” (23). He wants the reader to view cultural engagement as a “departure” followed by only loose association with Anabaptism and its “values” (which values?). Inexplicably, however, he goes on to compile and conflate several conflicting spiritual typologies to paint a portrait of humanity’s full spiritual development. In Koehn’s construction, the most spiritually developed human bears a striking resemblance to Koehn himself: a highly-educated 21st-century white American liberal, with all the accompanying cultural assumptions. The “road out of town” here is Koehn’s beckoning to his backward townsfolk to come toward his light. This raises many more questions than it answers for me, and makes me suspicious of the project. In addition to the intellectual hubris, this perspective does not reckon with all the real struggles for life and identity discussed throughout the volume.

In the following essay (“Secular Mennonite Social Critique: Pluralism, Interdisciplinarity, and Mennonite Studies”), Maxwell Kennel uses the term “secular Mennonite” to refer to “anyone who considers themselves to be a Mennonite (by identifying with the name) but does not necessarily see Christian theology or assent to doctrinal truth-claims as the primary determiner of their Mennonite identity” (58). Many people in North America would identify that way, and many of them do great work, relevant to this volume’s project. I have struggled making sense of this essay, and I have discovered that my struggle came from my effort to fit it into the “roads out of town” frame I inherited from Koehn and Friesen. Kennel’s work, in fact, does not fit neatly within that paradigm. It is here that I found that the paradigm breaks down, and in the breakdown we can make better sense of the volume as a whole.

Kennel wants his approach to be plural and interdisciplinary. He engages with “Secular, Philosophical, Political, and Literary Mennonites” (56 ff). He notes that both academic theology and academic history are reluctant to make normative and prescriptive claims about identity (53). He does want to be able to make claims about Mennonite identity, but not by being limited by either history or theology – and especially not by their academic norms.

Again, this is where the editors’ image breaks down: if Anabaptism is a town, and if we are marking “roads out of town,” then history might be the buildings of the town, and the holders of land and title who have lived there for generations. Theology might be the walls of the town, a protective hedge to keep “outsiders” from disturbing its purity. Surely, in that case, the only way to engage with culture is to leave behind these limits, remembering one’s origins there but no longer truly being a part of the town’s life and work. But as Kennel rightly points out, this simply does not do justice to the richness and plurality of contemporary Mennonite identity. Instead, the “town” image points to a rather reductive idea of what Anabaptism is, and who Anabaptists are. Not only that, but it severely limits the imagination of who could move into town, and how. I fear that in this image, the only real road into town runs through the cradle.

I propose a new image: Anabaptists as a diverse and ever-changing band of travelers on a road. This road isn’t leading out of town, but stretches beyond the horizon behind and before the travelers. Travelers can join and depart from the group at any time, for any number of reasons. Some will travel the road only for a while, others will commit to it. People may have chosen this road with conflicting motivations. This is what Kennel sets out to describe in his “Secular Mennonite Social Critique.” Who are these travelers, what are they doing together, and what do they have to say about the world around them?

My critique of Kennel’s essay is that his view is limited mainly to the band of travelers – who’s present, what they’re concerned with, and what they’re saying about it. It is a fascinating group, to be sure, but the road itself is a character that requires careful attention. The road is history (where the road has been, who has traveled it and the experiences they had), and it is also theology (something teleological, drawing us onward: what our purpose is and what’s beyond the horizon). Describing the road can’t fully describe its travelers, but also the road makes a strong claim on those who take it. The travelers will be discussing the world around them, to be sure, but what will form their collective identity are the stories they tell about the road they’re on – where it’s been and where it’s going.

This new image, of a road that is continually gaining and losing members, shows its utility when race plays a role. Contributors like Vincent Harding (“The Beggars are Rising, Where are the Saints?”), James Samuel Logan (“The Ground and Educational Ministry of Ethics”), Lawrence Hart (“Connections Past, Present, and Future), or Bryan Rafael Falcón (“Hexadecaroon”) share certain Anabaptist theological and ethical commitments, but long to have  different conversations about race, justice, and identity than they can have with folks who think Anabaptism is “a town,” from which the residents can occasionally leave to meet foreigners like these. If instead Anabaptism is a road, open to any who chose to travel it, these conversations are essential, not optional and not simply curiosities.

With this new image in mind, I’m drawn to Rachel Epp Buller’s contribution (“Letters to the Future”), a series of poetic reflections on the tradition and practice of embodied knowledge – “quilting or stitching, crocheting or paper-cutting, dancing or letter-writing” (326). For her, this embodied knowledge reveals how we engage with tradition and imagine the future, through connecting with each other. We live in changing times, and we can no longer live in our intellectual and cultural homes of the past: “All the stories have collapsed into one another” but “we become responsible for each other in the ruins” (331). It’s this responsibility for each other that makes us need to read this book: who are we, what are our stories, and how do we mind the journey together well? Anabaptist ReMix is a collection of stories of those who have been on this journey. Let us welcome their contributions. It is a way of honoring the future of Anabaptism, whatever it may be.

Voices follow us, accidentally coinciding;

unknown stitchers influence one another

We will become something other than we were

– Rachel Epp Buller, “Letters to the Future” (333)