Archives For Mennonite


Rhoda Janzen - Does this Church...Unfinished Business

A Feature Review of

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems

Rhoda Janzen

Hardback: Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
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Reviewed by Meghan Florian

Those who read Rhoda Janzen’s first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, might remember it as a story about coming home. At a turning point in her life, Janzen returned to her family’s home to put herself back together, and in so doing began to make a new kind of peace with her Mennonite roots. In Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? Janzen’s characteristic humor and wit are just as prevalent, even when the story of her life takes some less than funny turns.

If Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was about a returning to a childhood home and revisiting who you once were, then Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? is about learning how to be your adult self in new ways. It is about unfinished business. Janzen, who has not had much interest in practicing Christianity, finds herself back at home and begins dating a man named Mitch. Mitch is a Christian. But not just any Christian. This new boyfriend is Pentecostal, and attends the kind of church known for boisterous singing and dancing and speaking in tongues. If a woman who grew up Mennonite – singing four-part harmony and sitting politely in her pew – and who is now a somewhat religiously cynical scholar is going to find faith as an adult, this is not quite where one would expect it to happen.

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Julia Spicher Kasdorf - Poetry in AmericaReflecting on Nostalgia, Loss, and Flight

A Featured Review of

Poetry in America

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Paperback: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
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Reviewed By Alex Dye.

There is a universal longing, a part of the human condition, which causes one to reflect on and desire for the past.  Whether a Christmas in which all of the siblings, uncles, and cousins attended and nobody was belligerently drunk, or that great Sunday afternoon movie spent in pajamas on the couch.  We enjoy remembering our families, for better or for worse, and those influences which helped to shape us.   And yet along with that nostalgia is a natural sense of loss, moments that cannot be recaptured or changed.  In Poetry in America, author Julia Spicher Kasdorf writes on the paradoxical longing and loss by interweaving stories of the past and present with self -reflections on her person as an author, artist, mother, and woman.

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Mennonite Literature, not a term often spoken of or written about in literary circles, nor is it a section that one might find at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble. I would venture to say that the average reader in North America would either scratch their heads at this genre or recall authors like Beverly Lewis and Wanda Brunstetter and the abundant industry of Amish/Mennonite romance novels.

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The Apple Speaks: Poems by Becca J.R. LachmanA Densely Woven Fabric
of Faith, Longing, and Embrace

A Review of

The Apple Speaks: Poems

Becca J.R. Lachman

Paperback: DreamSeeker Books, 2012.
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Reviewed by Caitlin Mackenzie.

We are an increasingly nomadic culture, moving into new jobs, new cities, and new technologies every couple years, out of choice or necessity. We are people whose loved ones live all around the world. This is both to be celebrated (I, for example, love that my only brother lives in San Francisco) and mourned (I miss him 361 days out of the year). And I’ve read enough Wendell Berry to know my sense of ontological identity does not go unaffected by such relational fragmentation. We are a people still searching for a place with an ache for home that can never be comforted. We are not always meant to go home, but to find or create our own. This is what the reader discovers in The Apple Speaks: the sore muscles of one thoughtfully and intentionally tending new soil.

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Widening the Circle - Joanna ShenksA Review of

Widening the Circle:

Experiments in Christian Discipleship

Edited by Joanna Shenk

Paperback: Herald Press, 2012.
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Reviewed By Alex Dye

I feel fortunate to have been in college during the time when Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way began to rise to popularity.  His writings, the movement, and a healthy dose of The Psalters (alternative Christian worship music and vagabond group) really expanded my understanding of the person of Christ, the call to discipleship, and the Christian vocation.  The idea of intentional communities pooling their money together and seeking to bring justice to inner city neighborhoods was new and exciting.  Of course, what I would come to realize soon enough that while these practices were exciting, they certainly weren’t new.  From the interracial work done at Koinonia Farm at Americus, Georgia, to the Reba Place community near Chicago, and even the Hutterites, a branch of the Anabaptist movement formed in the 1600’s who lived together and pooled their resources, Christian discipleship and intentional living, since the church in Acts, has dotted the timeline of Church History.

In her book, Widening the Circle:  Experiments in Christian Discipleship, editor Joanna Shenk collects the stories of 20th century discipleship communities and movements connected with Anabaptism, especially of the Mennonite Church, and crafts together a unique history of these various efforts.  She organizes the various chapters into three bodies of time:  the First Wave (1950s and 60s), the Second Wave (1970s and 80s), and the Third Wave (1990s to Present).

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A Brief Review of Death and Life in America:
Biblical Healing and Biomedicine
Raymond Downing.
Paperback: Herald Press, 2008.
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Reviewed by Rev. Karen Altergott.

Is biolife an idol and biomedicine an overly powerful force in contemporary society?  What is a Christian to do when confronted by a beast of a system that seems able to name our problems, control and limit the potential solutions, and make any choice other than biomedical intervention seem foolish?  The option of considering bio-psycho-socio-spiritual healing requires somewhat more of both patient and practitioner.  Biomedicine, while not ultimately to be rejected, is quite reasonably questioned.  The independence from God that a pure mechanical and physical approach implies should be completely and clearly rejected.

Death and Life in America provides an excellent overview of healing as Jesus healed into the Kingdom of Heaven, and healing as modern physicians, including the author, have healed. Physicians heal through the advances of biomedicine in the Kingdom of this World.  While dancing on the edge of gnosticism with the division between physical and spiritual, Downing basically places biomedicine in the realm of the world.  He labels medicine as one of the principalities and powers, and since it is tied up with power over others, the market, the illusion of independence from God, it is somewhat dangerous to all.

On the other hand, the power of Jesus, Son of God, heals in another way.  The comparison of resuscitated life and resurrected life shows the difference between holding on to biolife and to entering God’s Kingdom and the new life therein. The central chapters provide a good description and analysis of healing in the New Testament record. The power of God through Jesus to name the problem humans face, to heal the body, mind, spirit, relationship, and to change the approach we have to life itself is incarnate healing, embodied healing.  If we accept that we are not autonomous from God, that medicine does not rule our decisions or our lives, then there is hope that healing – biomedical as well-  may be based on faith.  The concept of Christ carrying our pain, and of us carrying others’ suffering moves us into the realm of how are we now to live with one another in a very helpful way.  Acceptance of brokenness and suffering – and biodeath when it is time – is a major sub-theme of this book.

What then for medicine and healing?  Perhaps here is where Downing doesn’t go far enough.  With the burgeoning of alternative healing, by 2008 when this book was written, our good doctor could have taken some stance on the many ways of healing that Americans are seeking.  The next book might be notes from the resistance: what it means to combine healing as Jesus heals with a world that accesses – but does not bow down to – biomedicine.



Saving the Seasons.
How to Can, Freeze or
Dry Almost Anything
Mary Clemens Meyer
and Susanna Meyer.
Paperback: Herald Press, 2010.
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[ ]

Reviewed by Kate Roden.

Scroll down to the end of the review
for the recipe for Strawberry Freezer Jam
from this book!

Saving the Seasons is the newest cookbook from the publishers of the trifecta of beloved Mennonite cookbooks: Simply in Season, More with Less, and Extending the Table. This new work lives up to and expands the ideals of its predecessors.

In the nearly 35 years since More with Less first appeared on the scene, American kitchens have undergone some big changes, and not just in the shift from “autumn harvest” appliance colors to stainless steel.  In much of the country, the locavore movement is in full swing, folks are prioritizing where their food comes from and how it gets to them. They are looking for farmer’s markets and buying up farm shares and subscriptions on such sites as   Vegetable gardens, chicken coops and beehives are popping up in urban neighborhoods, and with the current DIY climate, and the financial necessities many families are facing, the More with Less approach to homemaking has new relevance.

The upsurge in interest in various arts of domesticity and homesteading means this book comes out at exactly the right time for a new group of novice gardeners who are wondering what exactly they are supposed to do with the 10 pounds of pickling cucumbers they accidentally grew.

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“Back-Stories and St. Benedict

A Review of
Unlearning Protestantism:
Sustaining Christian Community in An Unstable Age.
By Gerald W. Schlabach.

Reviewed by
Gregory A. Clark.

Unlearning Protestantism:
Sustaining Christian Community in An Unstable Age.
Gerald W. Schlabach.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2010.
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UNLEARNING  PROTESTANTISM - Gerald SchlabachThe back-story is everything.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s  After Virtue laid down a broad and devastating critique of modernity, and his call for another, “very different” St. Benedict makes sense only against that critique.  Gerald Schlabach’s Unlearning Protestantism follows MacIntyre’s narrative with two differences:  first, the critique of modernity is tied to an analysis and critique of Protestantism, and second, the St. Benedict we need isn’t so different from the first.

The first two chapters of Unlearning Protestantism show that Protestantism has been one important force in the development of modernity.  Protestantism came to be through narration of the context called for deep and thorough reform, and we properly consider as virtues the qualities of character that enabled the reformers to act as they did.  But soon that drive for reform detached itself from the context and set itself up as a principle valid on its own merits.  Schlabach articulates “the protestant principle” in the language of Paul Tillich: “because all human institutions fall short of God’s standard, they are always subject to ‘prophetic’ critique and reform” (24).  Making the principle the basis for community life leads to “the Protestant dilemma”: all institutions, including Protestant churches, are always subject to critique, to being rejected, overthrown, or dismissed as superfluous.  Protestantism is the principle of instability.  The Enlightenment has seen itself as completing the Protestant Reformation ever since.  Schlabach’s second chapter, “The Matter of Continuity,” shows how the drive for perpetual reform played itself out in Mennonite “tradition of dissent” in the 20th century.

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A Review of

War, Peace, and Social Conscience:
Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics
Theron Schlabach.
Hardback: Herald Press, 2010.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith

As a young college student in the shadow of the first Iraq war and trying to sort out what I thought war (and peace), I picked a book off my Dad’s shelf that had been a textbook during his college days at Goshen College.  That book was Guy Hershberger’s War, Peace and Non-Resistance, and it helped to nudge me in the direction of a commitment to nonviolence and to reflect upon the logic behind the many varieties of Christian nonviolence.  I have re-read this important work several times over the intervening years, and as I mature, I find myself agreeing less with Hershberger and at the same time, having a deeper understanding of why this was such an important book.   And now, Theron Schlabach has written an authoritative work on Hershberger’s life and ethics.  Hershberger was likely the most significant Mennonite ethicist prior to John Howard Yoder, and thus Schlabach’s new book is an important contribution to Mennonite thought.  Schlabach chronicles how Hershberger rose from his humble beginnings among the Amish-Mennonites of Southeastern Iowa to become professor at Goshen College and one of the most respected Mennonite thinkers of his time.  Although little known outside Mennonite circles, one of the most significant contribution of Hershberger’s work was the distinction — introduced in his book War, Peace and Non-Resistance — between non-resistance (a literalist interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to “resist not the evil man”) and non-violent resistance.  One of the most striking facets of Schlabach’s book is that it narrates how Hershberger’s perspective evolved over the course of his life after the publication of War, Peace and Non-Resistance.  Schlabach’s description of this development is focused primarily on Hershberger’s engagements the the Civil Rights movement and particularly with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Schlabach makes a compelling case that — at least later in his life — Hershberger’s understanding of non-resistance was more complex than mere passivity.  Schlabach says:

In 1975, at age seventy-eight, Hershberger was still pondering his exact position on nonviolent resistance.  And he was taking counsel from various voices in his church.  He was not at all fickle, not quick to move away from the convictions he had long held.  He still approved deeply of King’s kind of nonviolent action, yet he did not give it simple, unqualified, blanket endorsement.  Ultimately he wanted to be a disciple of Jesus, not of King.

Yoder scholars will be interested in Schlabach’s account of how Hershberger’s work in the later years of his life was influenced greatly by Yoder’s theology, particularly Yoder’s critique of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian ethics.  I don’t imagine that this new book on Hershberger will find a huge audience, but nonetheless it is a well-researched and graciously-written work that is a major contribution to the history of Mennonite theology.


A Brief Review of

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.
Rhoda Janzen.
Paperback: Henry Holt, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

It’s not every week that we review a title that tops a New York Times bestseller list.  But then again, it’s not every week that a book on Mennonite culture tops the bestseller list; in fact, this might be the first ever.  Honestly, I didn’t pick up Rhoda Janzen’s delightful memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress with the intention of reviewing it.  Our family was on a weekend away, and I wanted for once just to read a book for fun, so I stole this one from my wife’s stack.  And fun it was — side-splittingly hilarious at times — so much so that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell others about it.   Mennonite… tells the story of Janzen’s settling back into the life of the Mennonite community in which she grew up and had previously left behind, after her husband leaves her for a man he met on a certain gay website.  Janzen is a gifted storyteller, spinning her own tale in a frank and humorous manner.  This is not a quaint or idealized account of Mennonite life.  Indeed, Janzen’s work may come across to some as coarse — for instance, launching into the book with a comical take on polio, shriveled arms and breasts — but it has a sort of ring of truth to it: crappy things happen in life and we struggle to come to grips with these realities, whether by force of sheer willpower or by jest… or both.  Ultimately, Janzen’s story is about belonging to a people, and about the beauty of a community in which no matter how fast you have run away from it, is ready to embrace you when in all your complexity when you come stumbling home.  Isn’t this the sort of loving community that we all long for in our deepest desires?  And Janzen, in telling her story here, returns the graciousness that has been extended to her, describing her Mennonite community with deep affection, yet being willing to speak frankly of its flaws.  On one level this is a frolicking, conversational memoir that has the feel of sitting around a dinner table listening to Janzen spin the tale of her experiences, and yet there is a deep undercurrent here of our vulnerability as humans and our longings to be part of a family and a community that is bigger than ourselves.  For whatever reason you would pick it up, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. is a rich and rewarding read, one that you will not want to miss!