“A New Generation of Hagiography”
A Review of
The Fugitive: Menno Simons.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
The Fugitive: Menno Simons.
Paperback: Herald Press, 2008.
Buy Now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Menno Simons, a leader in the Dutch Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century whose name would be borrowed to identify the Mennonite churches, is a significant figure in church history and yet one about whom little is generally known, especially outside the Mennonite tradition. Simons, ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1524 at the age of 28, would eventually come to question and then renounce the Catholic Church, and was re-baptized in 1536, severing the last strand of his ties with Rome. Following his resignation from the Catholic priesthood and his subsequent rebaptism, Menno consigned himself to life on the run, pursued as a traitor by the Roman Church and the church-aligned local authorities. Around the time of his renouncing of Catholicism, he wrote in his journal:
With God’s Spirit, help, force and hand, I left my good fame, honor, and name, which I had with people… Voluntarily, I went in misery and poverty under the burden of the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ, in all my weakness, fearing God, searching for real and true believers in God.
And yet Menno, unlike many of his fellow Anabaptists, eluded the pursuing authorities for a quarter century, dying of illness at the relatively old age of sixty-six.
This adventurous story of Menno’s life, his abandonment to the way of the cross and his courageous trust in God’s provision has been re-told in Myron Augsburger’s recent book The Fugitive.
This book, however, is difficult to classify; its rear cover lists it as “FICTION / Christian /Historical,” but although a few creative liberties are taken in fleshing out the story, this is a work of non-fiction, a narrative history or to use Augsburger’s own words from the book’s preface, “an attempt to interface his life with his writings and events of his time.” Perhaps the closest descriptive analogy would be to call it hagiography, an inspirational story of a saint’s faithfulness, but one imagines that categorizing it as such would render it unmarketable; how many bookstores, after all, and especially ones outside the Eastern Orthodox traditions, can you think of that have sections for hagiography? However, unlike traditional hagiography from the Early Christian era, which often incorporated wildly unbelievable elements to illustrate the supremely virtuous character of the saints whose stories were being recounted, Augsburger is very carefully here to tell Simons’ story in a manner that is as factual and believable as possible. Following in the rich tradition of the biblical writer of Hebrews (chapter 11, especially) Augsburger tells the story of Menno’s faithfulness for the purpose of building up Christ’s followers today, so that we might “run with endurance the race set before us.”
Augsburger alludes in the book that he intended to make the book accessible for younger audiences and indeed there is — as there is with most hagiography — often a didactic feel to the writing. Although Menno’s life has many of the dramatic elements that make for a great story, one should not pick up The Fugitive expecting to be entertained. So then, why is it a significant book? Above all, it is significant precisely because it is hagiography; the stories that it tells challenge our notions of what it means to be faithful to the way of Christ. Secondly, it is important because it presents an immensely accessible account of sixteenth century Anabaptism. In an age when Constantinian understandings of the Church are increasingly losing their viability, Anabaptism offers us a way of Christian faithfulness that is ambivalent toward traditional cultural understandings of power (James Davison Hunter empahsizes these points in his brand new book To Change the World, see the excerpt below and watch for a review of his book coming here in the near future.) I imagine that The Fugitive would be an excellent way to begin a conversation with youth about the Anabaptist way of faithfulness to Christ, and more generally, what it means to for the church to exist without the Constantinian desire to control cultures. Perhaps The Fugitive will function for this generation and ones to come as The Martyrs’ Mirror did for many previous generations of Anabaptists, teaching them what it meant to abandon the sword and the lust for power and inspiring them to be faithful church communities, even in the face of the most severe persecution.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!