Minding the Church is a collection of fourteen autobiographical essays framed by an introduction by the editor and three response-essays. The three respondents are intended to represent a view from the pew within the Mennonite church (Harriet Sider Bicksler), the thoughts of an academic person from outside the Anabaptist tradition (David Hoekema), and an "insider" perspective from a leader in Mennonite higher education (Shirley Hershey Schowalter).
The central fourteen narratives are candid and well worth reading. Much of the drama in these essays is due to the struggle of the writers to work out a meaningful professional life in academia and a Christian identity. Many of the narratives are about how the authors first break away and then come back to the stories and people and values with which they had struggled for their individuation and authentic faith. In the words of Eugene O'Neill, they struggle to make the force behind (which for these writers includes Mennonite/Anabaptist communities into which they have been cast by birth, marriage, or other life events) express them rather than being an infinitesimal incident in its expression. Or, in the words of Jeff Gundy, a poet and professor who has the first autobiographical narrative in the collection, they struggle to "disentangle what is truly personal, truly theirs, from the welter of ideas and styles in which we are all immersed." Of course, they all arrive where they started and know the place for the first time, to paraphrase lines from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding"; otherwise they would not be in the collection. That is, all have negotiated some relationship with the Anabaptist tradition and the Mennonite church. Faith stories by academics is the true subject of the collection and the reason I would recommend it to readers, especially to Mennonites.
The fact that the book is in honor of E. Morris Sider, professor emeritus of history and English Literature at Messiah College, who is described as having "a long and productive career as a historical biographer," makes the collection of personal narratives especially appropriate.
For further positive remarks about the book, very like those of the three respondents in the text, I invite readers to see Lucille Marr's review in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Scholars Network Newsletter (March 2003: 7-9). I hope there is room in Anabaptist scholarship for some friendly, collegial critique in the interest of continuing the dialogue the book initiates, for that is how I hope the following comments will be perceived.
Whatever the genesis and evolution of this work, the impression this reader comes away with is that the title, introduction, and responses try to impose an agenda onto the work other than the one that is obvious: faith stories of academicians who are Anabaptist Christians. The effort fails. It fails because the introduction is full of theses or questions that need analytical argument and the autobiographical narratives simply do not and cannot serve that purpose. It not only fails in a way that is ineffective in achieving its goals; it fails in a way that alienates some readers. The book's title marks out a large territory for exploration, a territory with widespread ownership and investment, especially when the Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite colleges are in the process of trying to forge a new relationship. Yet, the book fails to give any coherent treatment to or deliver any clarity about any of the subjects mentioned in the title. Moreover, the editor's introduction of the contributors as persons who "devoted their intellect and creativity to the service of the church" is an overstatement at best and hardly prepares the reader for the continuing and sometimes fierce struggle of the writers for personal fulfillment within the particular church and church-related environments that they live. As Harriet Sider Bicksler points out in her response to the work, the dominant common themes are (1) the tension between the writers and the church, especially the Anabaptist church, (2) the feeling that their work is misunderstood, mistrusted, ignored, condemned, even vilified by the church and fellow church members, and (3) the call by scholars for the church and Anabaptists Christians to be less judgmental and to embrace the ambivalence and contradiction that comes with living with partial knowledge. Jeff Gundy sets the pattern that is repeated throughout when he reports that his relationship with the church and that of his artistic Mennonite "compadres'" have been "ambivalent" and "complicated" at best and "torturous" at worst. He speaks of fleeing or being chased to the fringes of the church and beyond. Another theme conspicuous because of its absence is the idea that the relationship between the church and scholarship should be mutually beneficial rather than simply in service to the church.
The essay by Alvin Dueck offers readers the most insight into these tensions and conflicts. He points out that Anabaptist theology and academic ideology and ethnoreligious families of origin are not simply ideas or knowledge that we can consciously categorize and prioritize but are ways of maintaining life, maintaining multiple selves, that shape us without our awareness. All these need to be relativized with humility and gratitude.
To be sure there are multiple definitions of "church" in the various essays ranging from rigidly rule-controlled organizations, to the redeemed community (Christ's body) on earth, to specific worship centers in specific communities. In the autobiographies "minding the church" is often like minding the old and foolish King Lear by his faithful daughter Cordelia whom he mistreats and misunderstands. Perhaps the most hopeful element of the book is that all the writers seem to be Cordelia-like in their devotion to the church. The most depressing element is the image of the Mennonite churches and church leaders (some of them academicians) that inadvertently comes through.
Another expectation generated by the title is that the book will say something about "scholarship in the Anabaptist tradition"--its character, quality, quantity. Not only do we not learn anything about Anabaptist scholarship or what such a phrase could possibly mean, we learn almost nothing about the scholarship of the writers. And even if we had, the sample is so small and provincial that it still would not justify the collection's subtitle. Lydia Neufeld Harder brings the following questions to the biblical canon and to the theological tradition in which she works: "Who was included and who was excluded in the scholarly discourse in which I participated? Were certain people's writings excluded because of race, color, gender, or political commitments?" I suggest she, the editor, and all readers could well apply those questions to this publication. Why are Bluffton, Goshen, and Messiah the only "Anabaptist-related institutions" mentioned by the editor or represented in a collection with this title?
If this book had actually treated the subject in its title ("scholarship in the Anabaptist tradition") or tried to give representative examples of it, I would be unhappy that the scholarship produced by faculty at Bethel College, Hesston College, Tabor College, Fresno Pacific University, Canadian Mennonite University, Conrad Grebel College, Eastern Mennonite University, other Mennonite colleges in Canada, and scholars around the world is not represented in the selection of contributors. Since it does not, the loss is the variety and richness in the stories of the struggles to integrate faith and scholarship that a broader, more representative selection of writers would have provided. In the Western District Conference of the Mennonite Church USA, for example, women would not have been discouraged from studying theology or aspiring to be ministers, but there would have been other inspiring and cautionary tales of faith struggles that would have enriched the book.
The three respondents at the end try to bring the introduction and autobiographies together in a way that gives unity to the work, which means for the most part that the interpretive strategy suggested by the editor guides what they select to treat. We finish the book with no progress on the question with which the books opens: whether there is such a thing as "scholarship in the Anabaptist tradition." Shirley Hershey Showalter in the final response-essay to the collection issues an Emersonian call for pioneering Anabaptist scholarship and simultaneously questions whether there is or should be a distinctly Anabaptist mode of scholarship. I applaud her for both the call and the question and would like to see a cogent analysis of either.