Writing Mennonite identity

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of Reading Mennonite Writing: A Study in Minor Transnationalism (Penn State University Press, 2022)

When I think about influential Mennonite writers or thinkers, some of the first who come to mind are Uncle Gordon (Gordon Kaufman), Vincent Harding and Howard Zehr. These are, unfortunately, all men, but women have also heavily influenced my Mennonite identity and theology, including my mother and grandmother.

Rob Zacharias’s book, Reading Mennonite Writing, is not about this kind of Mennonite writer. Rather, it’s about authors who write about what I would call the symptoms of Mennonite values or even irrelevant byproducts. This book adds to the convoluted and de-centered conversation around the identity of white ethnic Mennonites, a conversation whose relevance to following Christ is not always evident to me.

Zacharias recognizes and criticizes the nature of what most Mennonites seem to consider the “genre” of Mennonite writing. He points out the flaws in the way we tell the history of Mennonite writing and the way it has been limited. He gives credit to several authors who are working to expand the field of Mennonite writing and values and supports their contributions. He writes, “My hope is that [Reading Mennonite Writing] demonstrates how by loosening our investment in the specific set of paths and possibilities we’ve inherited by understanding it as a form of minority writing, we might better foster the work that has been underway to explore a more expansive version of the field” (219).

Zacharias includes several authors as case studies for the work of an expansive Mennonite literary field, including Miriam Toews and her 2011 novel Irma Voth and Casey Plett and her 2018 novel Little Fish.

It is important to recognize that I write this from a particular moment in time, in a particular context. Right now, my reality is Guatemala City, Guatemala, Central America. From this perspective, much of the conversation that Zacharias entertains about Mennonite identity seems overly intellectual, complicated and difficult to relate to the essentials of Christianity. Even an expansive “ethnic Mennonite” identity is of questionable importance to following Christ. The amount of energy and desire that goes into wanting to belong to the “ethnic Mennonites” seems misplaced. I do recognize my privilege in saying this.

I recognize, too, that this book was likely not written for me, and that to someone else it might be more insightful or meaningful. But as a true ethnic Mennonite who does not find the traditions and identity outlined in what Zacharias would consider traditional Mennonite writing to be particularly meaningful or valuable, I find this conversation frustrating.

As I read this book, one passage continued to come to mind – Philippians 3:4-8, which reads: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”