So there’s these three rural Mennonite women visiting New York with their husbands, and they decide to venture out to a musical without their men along. After the show they decide to eat dinner in their hotel’s top-floor restaurant. They step into the elevator, and who should enter behind them, but a big black man with his big dog. . . .
The Reggie Jackson Urban Legend, as author Ervin Beck calls it, is not only a prominent chapter in this collection of essays about Mennonite folk culture, but it is itself an origin tale of sorts for Beck’s years of studying, collecting, and publishing articles about
MennoFolk. It was the tale about the Mennonite women’s high-rise encounter with the famous baseball player that prompted his subsequent studies of Mennonite folklore. And those studies yield here an interesting range of topics, including
Inter-Mennonite Ethnic Slurs,
Origin Tales and Beliefs,
CPS Protest Songs, and
The Relief Sale Festival.
Before venturing into these different categories of Mennonite folk culture, Beck devotes his first chapter to a summary and brief explanation of four functions of folklore, concepts he borrows from anthropologist William Bascom. Applying Bascom’s analysis, Beck suggests four functions of
Mennofolk beyond the most immediate value of entertainment: all four of these--validation, education, social control, and compensation--function to maintain Mennonite cultural stability. So, for instance, a tale about Menno Simons preaching in a barn, falling into a molasses barrel, and having his leggings licked might serve to validate the sweet tooth of Mennonite children in Holland. While many stories serve to educate proper behavior or encourage social control, others provide members of the culture with a sanctioned form of rebellion, allowing people to compensate for feeling oppressed by those same social controls. One of Beck’s examples of a compensation story takes the form of a mother’s instructions to her young daughter:
When the Lutheran preacher comes, hold on to Mommy’s purse tight and don’t let go, no matter what. When the Salvation Army preacher comes, stand in front of the food pantry and don’t move, no matter what. But when the Mennonite preacher comes, you crawl up on Mommy’s lap and don’t get off, no matter what!(34)
As Beck notes, years ago the punch line of this story may have seemed obscure to some Mennonite readers, but when some church leaders were charged with sexual harassment, the meaning of the story emerged more clearly, suggesting not only a compensatory function but an overtly satirical one. As illustrated by this example, folk stories can have more than one function, and changes in historical or social contexts can change their function over time.
Most readers of this book will appreciate it primarily for its entertaining collection of humorous stories, a handful of reproduced photographs, and 25 color figures--11 of these in the chapter on Old Order Amish
Painting on Glass, and 14 in the chapter devoted to
Indiana Amish Family Records.
For readers curious to join in Beck’s analysis of the function of Mennonite folk culture, his examples and commentary might prompt further questions and debate. For example, the urban legend involving Reggie Jackson may indeed exhibit various positive characteristics of urban Mennonite life, and the happy resolution of the tale may indeed suggest a redemptive theme. But surely this tale also reveals uncomfortable racial anxieties, which Beck acknowledges. And readers may disagree with the generally optimistic interpretation Beck gives it--although to his credit, he invites such disagreement. The fact that this tale circulated in many different American rural settings and among many different ethnic subgroups doesn’t ameliorate its problematic nature when told by Mennonites. Indeed, as becomes evident in other examples in this book,
MennoFolk is often quite entangled with AmericanFolk, suggesting that the boundary between mainstream American culture and Mennonite culture is often blurred. So, for instance, a riddle joke told near Goshen, Indiana goes like this:
Q: In a room full of Amish people, how do you get everyone’s attention? A: Say, (48). Yes, those horse and buggies look mighty peculiar in that parking lot, but their owners are shopping at America’s largest retailer, like everyone else. How distinctive, finally, is Mennonite folk culture?
We are going to Wal-Mart
A similar question arises in the book’s excellent chapter on CPS protest songs, which includes the texts of several protest songs written not by Mennonite conscientious objectors, but rather by the Socialist
bad boys of other CPS camps. As Beck notes, these songs are hardly
Mennonite folklore, yet he also claims their sentiments as increasingly complementary to the activist peacemaking that has emerged in Mennonite church institutions, and among Mennonites in Christian Peacemaker Teams and students in peace studies programs at Mennonite colleges. That earnest Mennonite Christian activists would reclaim the songs of leftist agnostics is further evidence of the cross-fertilization of
American folk culture.
In light of such paradoxes, Beck’s closing chapter is especially fitting. In it he contemplates whether Mennonite relief sales function as
folklorized or as
carnivalesque festivals. If the former (borrowed from Marianne Mesnil’s terminology), then such sales would appear to be culturally conservative venues that merely reinforce the commercial or ideological purposes of self-interested authorities. If
carnivalesque, as the term is defined by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, then such relief sales undercut any
official authority, reversing cultural norms by giving temporary license to all sorts of fleshy (carne) excess. One of the book’s many enjoyable and provocative lines arises in the context of this discussion, and it may serve as a clue for how Beck answers his own thoughtful question. As one relief sale enthusiast put it,
Get fat for Jesus