Is any other faith group so concerned about its identity as Mennonites? What group, other than the Mennonites, has produced more scholarly articles on its reason for being?
identity crisis, terms snatched out of the vocabulary of psychotherapy, have appeared on the Mennonite scene only in recent years. Is it a sign of angst of a peoplehood sliding into decline? Or is this concern evidence that this group is mobilizing itself for a new thrust in mission?
The subject of Mennonite identity has sufficient drawing power that more than one hundred gathered for a conference on this topic on the Bethel College campus, June 15-18, 2000. Twenty-six presenters, each limited to fifteen minute
manifestos, spoke with prophetic abandon on their particular perspective of an Anabaptist vision for the future. At the close of the conference two speakers, Glen Stassen and Paul Keim, each offered forty-five minute summations and reflections as a one-person
listening committee. The twenty-eight presentations published in this volume capture the lively and stimulating conversation of the conference. Here is a book where scholars will find a rich deposit of provocative leads for study and discussion. Beyond that circle, a wider reading public will be intrigued with this sprightly and many-sided discussion focused on a small, serious-minded religious group grappling with its identity amidst the turbulent currents of modernity and post-modernity.
Sixty years ago when I first began to take note of Mennonite writings, I encountered a literature that seemed so bland. Articles in church periodicals had a careful sameness, a safe correctness. Not so the presentations at this conference. In the twenty-eight articles one finds a lively mix of piety and skepticism, sober admonition and mischievous anecdote, lyrical flights and somber warnings, and a generous sprinkling of self-depreciating humor.
It is a daunting task to review this book, a smorgasbord of Mennonite commentary. Each manifesto is unique and compact, so distilled. I suggest that the book should be read only a chapter or two at a time. Read and ponder. One is struck by the candor of the writers. They even blurt out their thoughts without customary academic qualifiers and disclaimers. In their openness and vulnerability, there is intimation that the speakers were accepting their audience (and now we as readers) as a trusting fellowship. One immediately recognizes that this was not a typical academic conference with its facade of scholarly detachment. Along with the honesty of the presentations, I am impressed with the variety of perceptions and styles of approach. Here is a rich diversity. And, most important, they all contemplate with high seriousness their Anabaptist heritage. In this is a non-verbal bonding that suggests the presence of unity and transcendence in diversity.
One senses among the writers a lingering, forlorn hope that
a single, unifying vision will be able to animate our increasingly diverse community. After listening to twenty-six statements from Mennonites, Glen Stassen, a Baptist, had the temerity to single out four
mustard seeds in their midst that give Mennonites a particular identity:
You have: The way of Jesus.
- Peacemaking practices under the Lordship of Christ
- Christ-centered biblical hermeneutics
- Churches with definition and commitment
- Visible churches that make a difference
If this core listing had been submitted to a committee of the twenty-eight speakers, the final draft would probably have been revised, with, perhaps, some additions.
One finds among the writers healthy commentary on what they think is wrong with Mennonites. Glenn Stassen, the outsider:
You don’t know how to brag on your tradition. . . . You have very high standards . . . not everything is [can be] perfect. Paul Keim adds to this list: the loss of heroes and prophets . . .
the loss of boundary definitions . . .
a theology that does not relate to women with honor and respect . . . a peace theology that is undermined by a
stubborn persistence of a church/world dualism . . .
a simplistic analysis of conflict . . .
an ethic of conflict avoidance . . .
difficulty with coming to terms with the limits of perfection . . .
the perpetuation of an ethnicity that is perceived as elitist, exclusionist, and arrogant . . . a people
searching for a spirituality that suits [them] . . .a people who have
bought into a culture of consumption.
The above is only a starter in the Mennonite inadequacies and imperfections the writers have listed. I laid down the book with a feeling that these writers are carrying a burden of anxious activism: calls to engage the world, articulate the vision, confront the powers, confess all the sins. It gets exhausting. But to add more, this searching for identity seems so American. One of the gifts that bless North American Mennonites is their network of friendships around the globe. The uniqueness of Mennonite identity surely is linked to a sense of having dear sisters and brothers in many countries, even in lands of the enemy.
Among the delights of Anabaptist Visions are the many whimsical and poignant images and stories: Brenda Martin Hurst’s tale of cars for boys and hope chests for girls, Katherine Jameson Pitts’ account of rearing their third child – Abby, Vernon Rempel’s wind and a barbed wire fence, Ritch Hostetler’s ditty of off-the-wall singing, Paul Keim’s homemade dandelion wine, and many more.
This is an extraordinarily stimulating book. In reading it one is drawn into the dialogue. Immediately you become engaged in adding your contribution to Anabaptist Visions. I urge that one read this and find others with whom to discuss the varied visions of Mennonites, a house with many windows. Here is a book to be recommended to study groups and Sunday School classes for reading and discussion.
North Newton, Kansas