This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Secular Church

ne weltlijch Kjoakj

Canterbury Cathedral, UK
    The Economist Newspaper’s anonymous Bagehot (bă zjᵊt) column for 10-16 December chooses to focus its intellectual lens on the Church of England.  What does the Church of England have to do with economics and finance?  Bagehot’s answer is simple – too much and too little.

     What does the Church of England have to do with Mennonites and Anabaptists?  Actually, not a whole lot – The reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were not good for English Anabaptists or for Dutch reformers living in their realm.  Like the Lutherans on the Continent, the English monarchs, as heads of the new Anglican Church, persecuted the Anabaptists on the grounds that they were too radical and a threat to the peace.
    But Bagehot has something else in mind entirely – he or she is focused on the relevancy of the traditional English church to an increasingly secular English society.  Bagehot quotes the British Social Attitudes Survey in that only 20% of English refer to themselves as Church of England – only half of those who identified as such under Margaret Thatcher.  Half of England apparently now identifies with no religion at all.  Where then does the Church maintain its relevancy and influence?
   Mennonite demography is by its nature a loosely termed phrase.  There is no official Mennonite Attitudes Survey.  In that Mennonites have long been divided by questions of ethnicity versus religion and who makes up the gemeinde (gә mīndә), there is little agreement as to how many Mennonites there are to survey. 
Urban Mennonite church in Amsterdam, Neth
    Much of the increase in American “Mennonite” churches has been due to the conversion of non-ethnic Mennonites to Anabaptism rather than birthrates.  In as much as only membership numbers are currently reported or tracked in North America, there is no way to estimate how many ethnic Mennonites actually attend church or feel religious, nor any reason to believe that ethnic Anabaptists are more or less religiously affiliated than their non-Mennonite neighbours.  In Canada, various polls indicate that only about 20% of Canadians attend weekly religious services.  Christians in the United States seem to be in a stronger position – 40% of Americans reportedly attend weekly services.  Unlike Britain, 80% of Americans still purportedly feel that they are part of the larger religious structure.  Though Bagehot does intuit that based on the ability of the Church of England to impact social debate and generate effective headlines, religious numbers are possibly much higher in the UK as well. 
    In both the Mennonite and English instances, we find a growing population of secular ethnic citizens who are yet often strongly influenced by the traditional religious structures with which they no longer officially identify.
    Church attendance would be the only realistic measure of the active Mennonite cultural identity.  So amongst Mennonites, even if we go with the higher estimates of 40%, of North American Mennonites remaining in the church context, we are still looking at a rapidly increasing proportion of Mennonites who are secular.  Amish retention rates have been loosely estimated to be about 80%.  Bagehot’s relevance then becomes an examination into the role and place of the traditional Mennonite religious superstructure to a rapidly secularizing Mennonite social identity and a secular Amish identity that is growing less rapidly yet increasing numerically.
    Note:  Mennonite demographics are notoriously difficult to estimate – these numbers are meant to be taken very loosely, to note possible trends, not the results of scientific estimates.
    Why is this important?  According to Bagehot, in England, despite Britain’s status as an overwhelmingly secular nation, people are beginning to search for something beyond “shopping for stuff” and “groping for something more profound.”  To Bagehot, an indicator of this new spiritual longing is the popularity of Christmas carols and Christmas performances in 2011.
    Writes Bagehot, “The evidence that the Church of England is returning to the centre of public life is ambiguous.  True, religious music is popular.  In some places that shows a yearning for faith.  But if cathedrals are increasingly popular, it is in part because they are anonymous, …  there is no danger of being asked to visit a sick parishioner afterwards,” (Bagehot).  But then Bagehot notes the catch, “Business is also booming for commercial carol concerts in non-church settings, where a mince pie and nostalgia are as much the lure as harking the singing of herald angels,” (ibid).  For Mennonites, substitute verenika suppers at the Co-op in Winkler or volunteering for the Schmeckfest celebrations in the United States over attending services.  Part of Bagehot’s spiritual longing might in fact be merely the desire for belonging and community in general – a secularized, ritualized spiritual experience.
    The upshot of Bagehot’s article is that the Church of England has refashioned itself as the social conscience of the secular nation – but in fact, holds only tenuous ties to the nation as a whole.  There is a place and a need for moral confidence, for ethical direction, and even for a sense of belonging.  Bagehot seems to support ecclesiastical efforts in all of these areas.  Yet somewhat conservatively, Bagehot nostalgically seems to be asking for something more – for a bit faith, some theological leanings, some talk about religion – a bit more church.
    Admittedly, writing for the Economist, Bagehot also has an ulterior agenda.  He or she is in fact seemingly questioning the Anglican Church’s newfound role as spokesperson for the oppressed – or what is in Bagehot’s parlance, the Welfare State.  Bagehot would be assumed to be against such an agenda and might in fact be insinuating that the church ought to mind its own business and be a bit more cooperative with conservative financial interests that are trying to save the nation’s economy (ie become more pertinent by becoming more marginalized).
"The City" London's Financial Dist
    I offer two observations.  First, that Bagehot admits that the financial sector impacts the church and that these impacts have an ethical dimension.  The Church and the City, as the financial district of central London is termed, influence and speak to each other.  Bagehot notes but does not say that often the City and the Church are in conflict over the ethics and perspectives of a given event (the City seeks to the save the nation’s economy, the Church is more concerned about the nation’s souls).  He or she is at the same telling the church to be relevant yet at the same time to back off where it is not concerned.  Indeed Bagehot pulls out the big guns – quoting Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s where she opined that “church-going is not about wanting ‘social reforms and benefits’ but about spiritual redemption and, indeed, God,” (ibid).  Bagehot warns “If the church cannot offer a message more spiky and distinctive than social democracy in a clerical collar, it will fail…” (ibid).
St Pauls Cathedral, London
    Yet, being that voice of spiritual perception and moral clarity is exactly what the church is attempting to do.  Bagehot notes that in the 1940s, the Church of England withdrew from its charitable operations in education, hospital services, relief work and other social endeavors and turned these operations over to the state.  Where once the church was dominant and able to direct the social consciences, and pocketbooks, of the nation as a whole, private charity did in fact prove to be a realistic and effective social option.  Today, it would not be realistic to expect the 20% or so of English who attend church to maintain all of these social services on their own.  Nor would it be fair to do so.  The church is left with only its power to convict and to speak to the people.  The power of the purse is now elsewhere.
    Mennonite institutions are facing similar crises – their burden to extend their client bases and ability to raise funds is falling on a smaller and smaller proportion of Mennonites, both ethnic and religious.  While an argument might be made that only those with specific values in accord with the organization’s aims should participate – it is a rather shallow, short-sighted argument.  As with many Jewish or other ethnic-religious organizations, the traditional social service extensions of the historic church or gemeinde-identity need to and should find ways to reach out to and include greater numbers of the Mennonite diaspora – especially organizations such as the MCC which arguably operates under a cultural rather than strictly religious identity. 
    One might add that such organizations might also beware that they do not define themselves out of a support base by incorporating unrealistic political or ethical demands on the populations they represent or turn to for funding.  Does an a retirement home really have to adopt an official position on gay marriage?  Is it essential that a community clinic support abortion-type services which it does not offer anyway?
    In a way, this is what Bagehot is warning against – telling the church of England to speak its mind but to not get overly partisan.  The Church must often strive to represent the nation, community or gemeinde as a whole – making allowance for differing ethical perspectives while fostering an inclusive dialogue as to what proper ethics might include – a tenuous, but necessary position.  Realistically, the church must now succeed at this while depending on the full support of a rapidly decreasing or secularizing membership pool.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
    While the church must be effective in its traditional spiritual roles and must be inclusive of varying political and ethical roles, it must also know where to put up a stand – and do so as a larger, more inclusive social institution, not just the spokespiece of a dwindling minority congregation.
    The Church of England speaks for 20% of the nation – yet speaks to all English citizens.  The English church has a cultural impact greater than its membership and the English church indeed carries a cultural heritage burden (perhaps privilege?) that is currently disproportionate to its actual numbers. 
    While many Mennonite Churches (both on the right and the left) would gladly focus only on the active membership of similarly-minded individuals, as an historic and ethnic organization also, it holds a larger authority and bears a greater burden than just that it would chose to accept or who choose to accept it.  Despite a reputation for banning and shunning members in the past (an often exaggerated occurrence), Anabaptist churches have historically been rather responsible in this regard, yet a growing Fundamentalism on both sides threatens to marginalize both the church’s witness and the communities to which it naturally owes reciprocal obligations – and it must learn to do so from a position of weakness.  While a Mennonite may or may not choose to attend a Mennonite or Brethren church, one is less convinced that a Mennonite church still has the authority to strip an individual of their cultural identity or to ignore the church’s obligation to minister to that individual.
    My second observation is that this obligation does indeed go both ways.  As Bagehot points out, the church turned over its social services to the state.  Bagehot fails to define how, with a declining membership, the church could have done otherwise – in fact, it seems fortunate that the church voluntarily took these steps while it was relatively strong.  Bagehot’s failing is compounded in that no explanation is given as to why it is right for the church to carry on these activities and presumably for the active membership to voluntarily contribute to these causes, and yet it would then be wrong to compel each individual to help meet these same needs through a compulsory and presumably fair,  public tax burden.  The justice of a social program lies in its effectiveness and need not on whether or not it is voluntary or compulsory (in Evangelical Mennonite circles, such giving is understood to be compulsory anyway, even if it can only be enforced by God).  If Bagehot is already contributing his or her fair share, he or she should be happy that others are doing likewise.  If Bagehot wishes to contribute more, there is normally provision for that option as well.  Neither Bagehot nor Margaret Thatcher seem to have a lot of room to complain.
    Back to the Mennonites – the various Anabaptist groups have always been known for their generosity.  While we have been called penny pinchers (or stretchers) and would often rather save a few cents eating an overly ripe banana over paying more for one in its prime, I have never known a Mennonite or Amish who stinted on their charity.  Incorporating ethnic Mennonites into the long-term structures of charitable Mennonite fundraising and organizations along with their religious kin is a way to recognize both a ministerial obligation and the chance to share the burden more equitably.  A church must minister to the needs of an aging matriarch in the congregation, regardless of her children’s membership status.  It then makes sense to welcome them into the fundraising obligation as well. 
    A typical Mennonite matter that will not make sense to many non-Anabaptists, is the argument that the Lord will provide both the service opportunity and the resources to meet it without the church-community looking to expand its role in either regard.
Samaritan Woman at the Well
    This is a good, traditional and faithful answer.  Yet Christ seems to speak directly to the mutual obligations of the ethnic spiritual community and its innate inclusiveness in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well and in his inclusive reaching out to Zaccheus, Mary, Cornelius and Nicodemus – all ethnic kin (even the Samaritans) and representative of those who made practical secular decisions in contrast to maintaining acceptable spiritual identities.  Christ ministered to them and expected them to support his ministry as well.
    Bagehot quotes retired Church of England Lord Harries, “If you love your neighbour, you must have a view on policies that affect his welfare,” (ibid).  Just as the English church must accommodate both Thatcher and Harries, the Mennonite church must also learn to “mind its traditional spiritual role” to the religious membership, while speaking for and creating a sense of cultural belonging to the increasingly secular and non-member Anabaptist diaspora in the church’s secondary role as traditional culture bearer and cultural conscience.

  • Bagehot, "God in austerity Britain," The Economist Newspaper, V 401 no 8763, 10-16 Dec 2011, p 63.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

en lostijch Wienachte ...Fröhliche Weihnachten!

    Enjoy Sean Quigley of Winnipeg, MB's new Christmas gift...

from CBC-Winnipeg -- "Drummer Boy speaks to me so much," he said. "The whole song is a story. It's about this boy who gets word of Jesus being born and he goes to see him and he doesn't have anything to give him; he's like 'I don't have money, I don't have gifts to give you. But I can play my drum and that's more than enough'."


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Story

Dominico Ghirlandaio, The Nativity, (1482), SS Trinita, Firenze, IT,

Lukas 2

 1 Nu pasead daut enn dee Tiet daut de Kjeisa Augustus en Beschlus jeef daut de gaunse Welt sull ennjeschraewe woare.     2 Dit wea daut easchte Mol daut de Mensche ennjeschraewe worde aus Kjiereenius rejiare deed enn Sierean.
    3 En aule jinje sikj ennschriewe lote, no de Staut wua see tus heade.
    4 En Joosaf kjeem uk fonn Galilaea ut dee Staut Natsaret, no Judaea, no Doft siene Staut dee Betlehem heet; wiel hee wea fonn Doft sien Staum en Famielje;
    5 omm sikj enschriewe lote met siene feleefte Fru Marie, dee met Kjint wea.
    6 No kjeem daut so erom daut waearent see doa weare dautet Tiet wea daut daut Kjint sull 0jebuure woare.
    7 En see brocht aea easchta Saen to Welt, wekjeld am enn, en laed am enn ne Kjreb enenn, wiel doa kjeen Rum wea enn daut Gausthus.
    8 Nu weare doa Schophoad enn dee Ommjaejent, bleewe doa enn woakte aewa aeare Haead enne Nacht.
    9 Meteemol kjeem doa en Enjel fom Herr, en Gott siene Harlichkjeit shiend omm an eromm, en see aengste sikj seeha.
    10 Oba dee Enjel saed to an: Engst ju nich, dan kjikjt! ekj brinj ju ne groote Freid waut fa aule Mensche es;
    11 dan Fendoag es enn Doft siene Staut fa junt en Heilant jebuure, daut es Christus de Herr.
    12 En dit es fa junt en Teakjen: jie woare daut Kjint finje enjewekjelt, en enn ne Kjreb lige".
    13 Platslich wea doa bie daem Enjel ne groote Schoa Enjel dee lowde Gott en saede:
    14 "Je-eat sie Gott em hechste, en oppe Ead Fraed mank Mensche dee goot jesonne sent."
    15 En aus dee Enjel fonn an trig nom Himel fuare, saede dee Hoad eena tom aundre: "Dan wel wie nu no Betlehem gone en dit seene waut paseat es, waut de Herr onns haft weete lote."
    16 En see spoode sikj, en funje beid Marie en Joosaf, en daut Kjint enne Kjreb lige.
    17 Aus see daut jeseene haude, muake see daut aulewaejent bekaunt waut an fonn daut Kjint wea jesajcht worde.
    18 En aula, dee daut heade, wunndade sikj aewa daut waut de Hoad an fetalde.
    19 Oba Marie leet sikj daut aules to Hoat gone, en bedocht sikj daut aules.
    20 En dee Schophoad jinje trig, en lowde en feharlichte Gott fa aules waut see jeheat en jeseene haude, so aus daut to an jesajcht wea.

Note:  This content is (c) Elmer Reimer, 2001.  The source for this material is which offers a Plautdietsche translation of scripture.  This posting is believed to be in compliance with the stated terms of use from this source.

Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 Mennonite Theater

    2011 was a good year for Mennonite Theatre.  Patrick Friesen’s The Shunning was resurrected to much acclaim for its 25-year anniversary while Jessica Dickey probed the mysteries of communal forgiveness as demonstrated by the Amish of Nickel Mines after the Schoolhouse Shootings in 2006. 
    For Anabaptists, these two works make positive bookends for a debate on the place and role of community in the life of the individual and the communal response to violence.  For sociologists, the two works help clarify and advance questions of identity formation and maintenance in communal societies.  For North Americans, both works provide rare private glimpses into the lives of their oft-misunderstood Anabaptist neighbours – introducing them to our archetypes, our lives, our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses.
Note that while I have studied Friesen's texts and the background of events at Nickel Mines, due to the distance between Chicago and Winnipeg, I could not view these two productions personally.  This article is comprised of reviewing texts and critical reviews of the productions, researching the background of the plays and speaking with friends and acquaintances who were fortunate to see the productions.  The purpose of this post is to raise awareness of these two works.
    First produced in Winnipeg in 1985, Friesen’s dramatic adaptation of his well-known poem of the same name, continues to provoke curiosity, sorrow and questions regarding social violence. 
    Like others, CBC reviewer Joff Schmidt generally approved of Robb Patterson’s direction and of Mike Shara’s portrayal of Peter Neufeld.
Courtesy and (c) CBC Canada.
    The Shunning is set in rural southern Manitoba.  Neufeld, a Mennonite farmer, begins to question certain tenets of his faith such as God’s intention to send persons to hell.  Neufeld is shunned for his lack of belief.  Schmidt says it well, “… he is ‘shunned’—a horrible form of imprisonment where he remains in the community, but no one, not even his wife and children, is allowed contact with him until he gives in to the church,” (CBC Theatre Review, 11 Feb, 2011).
    Like other deeply personalized accounts of alienation and degredation (Dan Franck’s La separation comes immediately to mind, with tinges of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery), Friesen takes the audience from a time of peace and happiness in a small community, within a young family, inside an old traditional culture, to a tortured experience of loss of identity, familial standing and compassion.  Drawing similarities with Milan Kundera, Friesen’s Neufeld makes the mistake of doubting the essential truth of the community (gemeinde).  While his doubts are not serious, or even life-changing, they yet threaten the essential conformity necessary for the preservation and continuance of the tight Mennonite culture – a society founded on the blood of martyrs and continued in a perpetual line of refugee immigrants struggling to find acceptance and peace – an historic journey that has strongly influenced their character and their theology.
    To be fair, there are two sides to the argument Friesen portrays.  Agreeably, Friesen is depicting scenes of spiritual violence (now referred to as social violence).  At the same time, much of that violence is directed at preserving the community against assimilation and cultural aggression by North America’s dominant Anglo-American majority.  As a Mennonite, I find myself sympathetic to both sides of the story and yet know all too well the shiver of fear when one is suspected of running afoul of the communal expectation.
    Two items stand out in Friesen’s presentation – the setting of the prairies as a place of comfort and the familiarity of the soil, yet an empty horizon that can be isolating or clarifying depending on the circumstances.  Secondly, the fact that The Shunning is still as applicable today as it was in pre-War Manitoba indicates that we as Mennonites, might yet have some cultural resolution to pursue.
    Dickey’s Chicago presentation, The Amish Project, is much more hopeful – and yet, amusing in that unlike Friesen who grew up Mennonite, Dickey has purportedly had little actual contact with the Anabaptist culture. 
     The Amish Project follows the life of the Amish community near Nickel Mines, PA.  In 2006, Charles Roberts, IV, a local milk delivery person, rather inexplicably took the Amish occupants of a small one-room schoolhouse hostage and shot ten girls before committing suicide. 
    Dickey picks up immediately on the United States’ fascination with this story – unlike other tragedies, people found something unexpected and hopeful in the way the Amish came together and shocked popular culture by publically forgiving the man who had murdered five children and wounded five others.  People were genuinely shocked with the Amish actually reached out to Roberts’ own family and consoled them for the loss of their husband and father, assuring them of the community’s forgiveness.
    Instead of venting pain and rage, the Amish quietly tore down the site of the shootings and rebuilt the school elsewhere.  Popular response to the Amish reflects how truly Nickel Mines has witnessed of their relationships to Christ and Anabaptist heritage to the greater culture.
   Tony Frankel, a non-Mennonite critic for The Chicago Theater Review, wrote of Dickey’s premise – “What kind of community forgives instead of resorting to a knee-jerk reaction of blind revenge?  What do they people do to mourn and work through such as unspeakable crime?”  Yet Frankel hits on Dickey’s weakness – “Unfortunately, we will not find a deeper understanding of this event and its aftermath…” (Theater-Chicago, 28 Sept 2011).
Courtesy and (c) Theater-Chicago.
    Dickey’s play revolves around a single actress (Sadieh Rifai) playing several roles.  Despite Frankel’s criticism, many non-Mennonite acquaintances in fact found the presentation compelling and commendable. Yet, one can see where the structure leads one to confusion – the cultural spirit of the “Amish” comes through where Rifai had trouble communicating the spirit of the individuals portrayed.  The importance of The Amish Project comes in the exploration as to why the Amish reacted the way they did – the weakness is that while the story is told artistically and compellingly, Dickey demonstrates no understanding of the strength and faith that unites the Amish into a strong unified Fellowship.  People wanting to view a compelling story can leave happy.  Those wishing a deeper encounter with Amish cultural criticism will, of necessity, leave disappointed.  The Amish Project is pure Hallmark, not quite PBS.
    Friesen’s The Shunning and Dickey’s The Amish Project deal with opposing understandings of Mennonite and Amish cultures.  Friesen, an insider, bares the dark seamier side of social violence that can occur when faith and trust are misplaced and abused.  Dickey, an outsider, falls back on a real-life demonstration of a slightly romanticized perspective of life within a strict, tight-knit, traditional, religious community.
    These two plays are compelling because neither world can exist without the other.  The Amish were able to reach out to the Roberts in many ways because they were not members of the community.  Only by pursuing the strict traditional social controls criticized by Friesen are they able to maintain the community that gave them the strength to move beyond the tragedy and to reach out to others.  Yet in maintaining these strengths, there will be casualties and too often, abuse.  Both plays are opposing faces of the same coin.  Both plays make for compelling commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of both the Anabaptist culture and its critical relationship to or juxtaposition with the dominant North American culture. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turkey Red, a Heritage Wheat

Turkey Red (c)

    The latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine (Dec 2011) contains an excellent discussion of heritage wheat varietals and reincorporating them back into local flavors and regional economies.
    In An Amber Wave, Jerry Adler notes, “… there’s something about wheat.  It speaks to the American soul like no other crop, even much more valuable ones, which is most of them.  Find a penny from before 1959, and what you see on the reverse are two iconic stems of wheat, not a bunch of arugula,” (Adler, p 60).
    It seems that wheat is the newest heritage seed craze popular with backyard gardeners, hobby farmers and even more established farmsteads seeking to diversify or to preserve a regional heritage.
    One of the most interesting tidbits comes from Adler’s interview with Abdullah Jaradat of the USDA indicating that wheat is one of humanity’s most diverse crops, growing in eco-zones as diverse as the equatorial highlands to Alaska.  Jaradat pinpoints two moments of “natural hybridization” that formed the current plant – first between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, and secondly, in Iran near the Caspian Sea some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.  In the article, Jaradat explains that wheat is comprised of a genome that is the longest yet decoded – including the human genome.  Part of the complexity is that those ancient hybridizations combined three distinct plants into our modern crop source, (Adler, p 64).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Christmas Carol

Gerard van Honthorst "Adoration of the Shepherds" (1622), Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany


en Wienachts Leet

    Russian Mennonites love to sing and Christmas is no exception.  In our family, we would meet at our grandparents, have a holiday dinner, and then later in the evening, celebrate with a lighter Christmas fastpa of pluma moos, tweibach, peanut brickle, dipped pretzels, and of course, pfefferneusse (papenuts).

    One of our favorite carols (en Wienachts Leet) was Silent Night (ne stell Nacht).   Stille Nacht was also one of the few Christmas carols that all could join in singing in German.

    Stille Nacht was composed by assistant pastor Josef Mohr and the church organist, Franz Gruber, in the small Alpine village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg.  It is a story well worth reading this season. 


Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb' aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund'.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!


Silent night, holy night
All is calm all is bright
'Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav'nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

 Lyrics courtesy of .

Friday, December 9, 2011

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (1946 – 2011)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
en Fäauadeel
     The New York Times (06 Dec 2011) reports that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has passed away in Toronto.  Young-Bruehl is a biographer and Freudian philosopher – as the Times reports, best known for her bestselling classics Hannah Arendt:  For Love of the World, and Anna Freud:  A Biography.   
    Arendt is a political philosopher and émigré from World War II, being known for both having dated the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and for her own studies of Totalitarianism and moral investigations into the origins of the Holocaust.  Freud, the daughter of the great psychoanalyst founder, followed her father’s footsteps into his profession and made numerous significant contributions to the study of psychoanalysis.

     Young-Bruehl would be of interest to Mennonites – especially Russländer Mennonites, for these biographies alone. 
    Apart from her father’s depth of clarity into the individual consciousness, both Sigmund and Anna Freud also expended considerable energies studying and analyzing group consciousness and relationships – especially that of the rising Jewish ethnicity in fin-de-siécle Vienna.  Sigmund represented the intellectual and cultural arrival of the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe.  Only in 1867 were the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire recognized as equal citizens and granted full civil rights.  So Sigmund had ample opportunity and reason to strive for a better understanding of the entire Jewish experience in Central and Eastern Europe, including matters of assimilation, segregation and the formation or retention of cultural identity.  Many of Freud's observations and thoughts are possible progenitors of later Mennonite sociological models such as Calvin Wall Redekop’s Embarrassment of a Religious Tradition, and that of the Ghost of Ethnicity.
    Anna Freud continued her father’s interests in both the individual and the collective identity.
Hannah Arendt
Anna Freud
   Hannah Arendt is useful for understanding some of the darker areas of the Mennonite and Amish psyche for she probed the depths of the individual’s relationship to the greater society in morality, identity and conformity.  She attempted to understand the individual morality that had recently justified the horrors of the Holocaust in the minds of those who carried out its day-to-day operations.   
    Her conclusions were startling simple.  To Arendt, evil (such as the Holocaust) was banal.  Decisions to participate in the slaughter of the Holocaust, she found, were simple and mundane, almost bureaucratic.  The people who committed the atrocities were normal people of no particular special giftedness, ideology or depravity – merely people who felt they had a job or a task to do.
    Though most Mennonites and Amish participate in a lively intellectual tradition involving theological and historical debate, criticism and analysis, it would behoove us to pay more and better attention to other fields such as sociology, psychology, governance and economics.  As we enter into an age of Modernization with greater conflict between the group and the individual and fuzzier boundaries between moral stances, a closer study of Arendt should help us to identify and clarify further issues of pertinence to our own culture.  Greater cultural criticism by our own poets, writers and artists requires that we search harder for our own cultural self-understanding.
    For Russländer, Arendt also provokes uncomfortable questions regarding our own relationships to mass cultural disasters such as the Holocaust and the Halodomar.  To what extent were we aware, culpable or even victimized by these events?  Did we do enough to prevent them?  These are questions that we have quietly shunted away from for decades.  Yet, if our shared cultural heritage of the Golden Age in Chortitza and Molotschna is going to have lasting impact, this is an era and these are the questions with which we will one day have to deal much more effectively.
    Amish and American Mennonites are not be let off the hook so lightly either – for their fight against, or tolerance of the slavery of African-Americans prior to the Civil War is just as pertinent to Arendt’s models as is the Holocaust.  One might be interested to go so far as to examine the wars against First Nations and Native Americans in the United States and Canada and the many benefits accrued to the Mennonite and Amish communities as North Americans by these wars.
    Additional writings by Young-Bruehl might serve to guide us further along this path.  Beyond her major biographies of Freud and Arendt, Young-Bruehl, herself an accomplished psychoanalyst, contributed writings such as The Anatomy of Prejudice and soon-to-be-released Childism.
    Where Freud establishes group and individual identity formation and its conflicts, and where Arendt explores the moral bargaining between the individual and society (or lack thereof), Young-Bruehl deals with the relationships between the group and the individual as a moral issue.  Previously, I have referred to this as the need to resolve the difficult group relationship to the traditional Anabaptist archetype, der Anderen – those who belong to the group but are differentiated in such a way that their right or feeling of belonging is mitigated.  In Young-Bruehl’s modeling, the mitigating factor she would explore is that of prejudice.
    Margalit Fox, writer for the New York Times, summarizes from Prejudice that Young-Bruehl identified four types or strains of prejudice, being racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia (see citation below).  Each of these manifestations, Young-Bruehl felt, emanated out of deeper complexes – the obsessional, hysterical and narcissistic.  Note that these are all misdirected preoccupations or sorts of fear – fears that have plagued the Anabaptist world – of the other (der Anderen), sex and the fulfillment of self.
    What is necessary is that more Anabaptist intellectuals, writers and students seize upon writings such as Freud, Arendt and Young-Bruehl to obtain and adjust models through which we might better understand ourselves, our culture, our motivations and our sins.
    Young-Bruehl’s latest work, Childism promises to provoke further controversy and critical self-criticism  as we seek to understand it and apply her observations to the relationships between Anabaptists and their children and between the child and the grosse gemeinde or greater community.  Recent documentaries such as The Devil’s Playground, and controversies such as the debate between church and ethnicity or the inclusion or exclusion of gay and lesbian youth from the community promise to be informed by this new work.
    Young-Bruehl did the Mennonites and Amish a great service by preserving the biographies of two great intellectuals who promise much in the self-analysis of the Anabaptist identity.  Young-Bruehl’s own writings promise further insights and revelations into our own unique experience.  The challenge in her death is for us to take up this task for ourselves and better explore some of these issues on our own – communally.

  • Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Classics, 2006, p 336.
  • Cuddihy, John Murray, Ordeal of Civility:  Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity, Beacon Press, 1987, p 272.
  • Fox, Margalit, "Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Who Probed Roots of Ideology and Bias, Dies at 65," New York Times, New York, NY, USA, 06 Dec 2011, p A27.
  • Martin, Sandra, "Elisabeth Young-Bruehl dug deep to understand the roots of prejudice," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ONT, Canada, 07 Dec 2011, from downloaded 07 Dec 2011.
  • Redekop, Calvin Wall, "Embarrassment of a Religious Tradition, The," Mennonite Life, V 36, Sept 1981, No 3.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Henderson, Nebraska, ca 1876

    These are images of the early Petersgemeinde (EMB or Bruderthaler) and Mennonite Brethren pioneer settlements in Henderson, Nebraska. Henderson includes Mennonite settlements five to twelve miles north/northeast of Sutton.  The images easily invoke an aura of Courier and Ives -- note the windmills and buggies.  The images are from Daniel Kauffman's archive at the Mennonite Church USA Archive in Goshen, Indiana.  Note that all images are (c) copyright to the Mennonite Archive and may not be republished without their express written permission.
    For those of us from a Bruderthaler heritage, these are the villages of Isaac Peters, Bernard Kroeker and Cornelius M. Wall, just to name a few early leaders.  This would have been the time that the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren or Petersgemeinde were being incorporated into the Nebraska and Minnesota Conference of the Mennonite Church.  The Petersgemeinde or EMB joined the English-speaking American Mennonite conference rather than affiliating with their fellow German-speaking Russlander refugee-immigrants.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Driedger's Madonna Revisited

(c) St Peters Basilica .org

   I reread Driedger’s collection of poetry in response to some critical observations received following my review.  The criticism the original review received is definitely valid from an art history perspective regarding the facts of the Pieta’s history, yet the review itself, as an interaction with the actual text as distinct from the Pieta and the sculpture’s history outside of the poem, remains valid.  The facts regarding the Pieta are that there were indeed several incidents of vandalism and that the term Pieta does reference a certain form of artwork portraying Mary holding the body of Christ as a composite work.  Often an emotional aspect of the work is also included in the definition of the term.  

Regarding the text, I would offer the following further observations:
  • Driedger makes is clear that she is referencing the vandalism of 1972, and she specifically mentions the vandalism to the face and “the finger” as reported in Time Magazine.
  • The Madonna’s fingers (four of them) were actually broken off in a separate much earlier incident and controversially restored in 1736 by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Lirioni.  Details are relatively difficult to come by apart from the fact that Lirioni has been criticized for possibly changing the sculpture to affect a more “rhetorical” flourish to the position of the fingers.  It is this flourish to which Driedger responds.  (How much of the repair is readily apparent today?)
  • While Driedger attributes specific import to the incident of 1972, her poem addresses the artwork as she viewed it later in person, in Rome, after the repairs to the 1972 incident were made.
  • By referring to the statue as “she,” I believe that Driedger is making a common colloquial error by non-Catholics of confusing or failing to differentiate between the Pieta and the Madonna component of this pieta.  This error could derive from traditional Mennonite usage of the term, or she could be intentionally playing with these references.
    Given these clarifications, I think that my original essay retains its credibility and is a pertinent reading and engagement of the text.  The poem itself does not follow the historical timeline of the sculpture and Driedger seems to take some artistic license with its factual history.
Other things became somewhat more apparent in the rereading:
    There are no further references to the Pieta or to Catholicism in general in this collection, so the term Madonna is not within itself a direct unifying concept.
Without referencing any scholarly articles, I, lacking any further qualifications, have found in dealing with poetry that there are at least four types of titles (my labels and differentiations):  
-  The Thesis Title – conveys the main explanatory premise of the collection  
-  The Unifying Title– Indicates the unifying themes of the poetry 
-  The Indicative Title – points to the poem that most clearly demonstrates the themes tying much of the collection together. 
-  The Non-sequitur or Arbitrary Title – has no direct, intended relationship to the individual poems

    I believe that Driedger’s title is no 3 – Indicative.  

        I would also augment my ideas somewhat with the following points:
    There are at least five possible ties between the Pieta and the title “Madonna”:
1.      The Pieta – the Madonna is portrayed as an element within the work and it is clearly on the female figure that Driedger focuses.
2.      Her grandmother Katharine – and her need to sustain and nurture Johann (a sort of literally defined Pieta) – acts of nurture and sacrifice (a bit of a stretch maybe).  Does Katharine as a “Madonna” carry and nurture the fallen identity of her husband, Johann, during the shunning?
3.      Dreidger herself – a theme of strength and becoming (overcoming?)
4.      A Reflection on Womanhood or the Feminine in general (other poems reference additional idealized cultural icons of womanhood such as Barbie dolls, secretaries… – in that vein, was Toth, the vandal, acting out on an anti-feminine attitude, anti-Female, anti-Goddess, anti-mother (the masculine Christ figure was apparently untouched)?  Was Michelangelo any of those things (by idealizing the form)?  Were either the sculptor or the vandal pro-feminine in contrast to the other?  Is there an odd sort of conversation occurring between the sculptor and the vandal that Driedger is inserting herself into?  If so, did Michelangelo and Toth both exclude Mary and/or the feminine from this conversation?)  Elaborate.
5.      Iconoclasticism – Laszlo Toth, the vandal, was seemingly described alternatively by the press as a terrorist, as an iconoclast and as simply insane (outside the acceptable variance of normative behaviors).  Is Driedger an iconoclast?  Was Johann?  How do the poems reflect differing concepts of normative behavior, or of social conformity?  Could Driedger be criticizing society’s inability to appreciate and uphold diversity?  Could there be a neo-Marxist interpretation of Driedger’s poetry?  Is labeling and defining individuals an act of violence or oppression?  There are numerous questions to explore in this direction.
     I also find in the Pieta a cycle of three themes effectively bind the collection together and are seemingly referenced in most of the poems:
  i.     An Act of Aggression (Vandalism, Abuse, Bullying, Sex, Shunning)
 ii.      An Attempt at Restoration (or its absence)
iii.      Defiance or Resistance (challenging the status quo, creating your own identity)

     I would not see this a merely a movement from gemeinshaft to gesellshaft, but rather a critic or analysis of the self within the gemeinshaft
    This needs further thought and elaboration – more that can be explored in a blog post.
Detail of Mary's fingers.  (c)

Other notes:
    Driedger’s poem only focuses on the blow to her face and the repair to her finger (it appears that her entire arm was actually broken off at the elbow in 1972 and I have found most reports to claim that the statue has been restored to its exact previous condition to that point – in other words, that the strangely curving finger is the genius of Michelangelo, not the result of vandalism.  Yet, we also have the controversy over Lirioni’s much earlier repairs – did he change the pose or did he faithfully recreate the original?)  – regardless that finger remains a viable focus then for the book – so the review is entirely valid and my reading is definitely consistent with what Driedger wrote.  The comments, I believe however, are great conversation points on which to elaborate.
    Usage of the term “Rome,” which Driedger clearly uses to describe or situate the Pieta, may be cultural also.  To many Anabaptists, the term Rome is synonymous with Catholicism (remember, we are pretty much cultural hold-outs from the late-Medieval, pre-Modern Radical Reformation).  Geographically, Michelangelo was Florentine – but the Pieta was commissioned for a tomb in Rome and remains in Rome (it was later moved to St Peter’s).  So the comments reflect my clumsy wording, and Driedger’s use of the term ... but again, I mentioned that we do not have a "Madonna" in our tradition – so I think that Driedger is using the traditional Mennonite understanding of Rome as indicating both the Renaissance and Catholicism while referencing the Pieta as a Madonna and incorporating many aspects of the statue’s genre, geography and history into those references.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Sheepish Identity of the Amish

Courtesy of and (c) Jeff Corriveau.
    Jeff Corriveau’s 27 November comic-strip featured his star character Mamet, a sassy attention-grabbing sheep, assuming an Amish identity in order to attract women at the local bar.
    Mamet defends his scheme in that he feels women are attracted to the mysterious unknown of men who are culturally different from themselves.  But… his scheme backfires when one of the bar grazers snaps a photo of Mamet with her girlfriends.  Mamet comes undone yelling out, “No graven images, you soul-stealing monsters!!!!”  Then the delusional sheep grabs the camera and stomps it into the ground.
    “Okaaay, guess we can cross off “Amish,” is his conclusion.
    As enjoyable as Corrivau’s comic is, I find that it contains two cultural truths.  First, general culture tends to oversimplify even those traits it finds admirable in the culture and identity of others.  Second, that many Americans are content with only the most superficial cultural understandings of others -- a fault less noticeable amongst others such as in Canada.
    In many ways, Mamet’s choice of Amish was probably not the best.  While many Americans do face Amish, Hutterite and Conservative Mennonite culture with a mix of curiosity, fascination and often even suspicion, their understanding of Anabaptist cultures tends to go no deeper than the fact that many Anabaptists dress differently and often drive different sorts of vehicles.  Many American diners are not even fully comprehensive as to why their premium Hutterite chickens (or Turkeys in this holiday season) are innately Hutterite.  So there is an aura of mystery or at least, non-understanding.
    But, that being said, most Americans do often view Amish and Mennonites as simply like everyone else but in funny costumes.
    Corriveau knows enough to understand that Mamet’s intentions and behavior are inconsistent with Anabaptist tradition and cultural values.  He differentiates Mamet from the Amish when Mamet loses his temper and smashes the camera.  Anabaptist values of gelassenheit (humble submission or submissive humility) and non-resistance would discourage such episodes (not that Amish or Mennonites are perfect in this regard).
    I am not saying that all Anglo-Americans are similar to Mamet.  That would not even make a good generalization.  Yet, there are core differences in basic cultural value formation between that of the Anabaptist ethnic cultures, and those of the greater Anglo-American culture.  I am not sure that one is actually any better or worse than the other, but they are definitely distinct.
    Is this a useful cultural distinction?  On the part of the Anglo-Americans, it is.  Mennonite-Americans, Amish-Americans and Brüderthaler-Americans, like all American ethnic groups, have contributed a share of distinctive values, perspectives and traits that have helped shape the American identity – if to a somewhat less extent than the prevailing Anglo-Americans.  In the case of the ethnic Anabaptists, we have established a cultural – sometimes even religious – witness to the value of community, the necessity of true separation between church and state, the value of a simple lifestyle and the witness of non-resistant pacifism.  While we have often found allies and common interests with others, these have always remained minority, if honored, values.
    Is this distinction useful for ethnic Anabaptists?  It must be.  If it is not, and we allow ourselves to fully assimilate, the charge of preserving this cultural heritage and the value witness of our fathers and mothers will simply disappear and be forgotten.
    The Anglo-Americans have us at a bit a disadvantage in that they have a label for us – Amish, Mennonite, Russländer – all conveniently hyphen-able to designate us as a unique American experience.  Apart from the Amish epithet “Inglisher,” we do not have a similar label for the larger culture from which we are to be differentiated – against which we might measure our core values.
    Ironically, there is not even a decent moniker for United States-ians.  The closest appropriate term – Usonian is the most correct but in the United States, is most often used to refer to a particular architectural design style from Frank Lloyd Wright.
    Canadians are a bit more fortunate.  Unlike the United States, Canada has long recognized the role of other cultures in establishing their nation – specifically that of the French-Canadians and that of the First Nations.  While the term Canadian Mennonite does not differ much from Mennonite-American, the larger dominant society in Canada is most-often referred to as Anglo-Canadian.  At least there is a differentiation.
     For the most part, I guess that while I will continue to use the term Anglo-American to refer to the dominant culture in the United States – and the culture into which most immigrants and sub-cultures eventually assimilate, I will also increasingly refer to the terms United States’ and United Statesian
    On the other hand, maybe I am being a bit premature.  Are we really all that different?
    While I am not sure Corriveau meant to be ironic, there is an amusing coincidence of timing.  It appears that just as Mamet was exploring his Amish-side in Deflocked – leading to most un-Amish-like violent behavior, so too were the somewhat un-Amish Amish members of the Sam Mullet clan being arrested in Ohio for violent attacks against fellow Amish and anti-Amish hate crimes.  Maybe Mamet is more Amish than Corriveau realized.
    Of course, the moral of this all is that if we forget to preserve the heritage and cultural values that differentiate us from everyone else, that for which we are labeled differently or seen to be exotic and mysterious, then we fall into danger of being just like everyone else.  We are either of this world, or that one … whose values will win out?

On a similar vein -- I would strongly recommend Tony Norman's Pittsburgh perspective on the Sam Mullet gang -- see link below.


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