A Feature Review of
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems
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.
Throughout the book, Mitch becomes a defining character in Janzen’s life. She knows that Mitch’s church is a very important part of his life, and if she wants to be a part of that life in a serious way that she needs to give church a chance. In one memorable scene early in the book, as Janzen prepares for her first church date with Mitch, she reflects on the way that going to a guy’s church is a form of meeting his family. She stresses about what to wear, and models her best “church-lady outfit” for Mitch, asking, “Does this church make me look fat?”
Mitch, ever endearing and to the point, says, “Relax already…It ain’t a law firm.”
And so, they go. And over time Janzen starts to connect to the church, first from a safely removed distance, but eventually in a life changing, movement of the spirit kind of way.
Not long after this, however, Janzen is diagnosed with an aggressive, advanced stage breast cancer, and is prepared to break up with Mitch as soon as she learns the seriousness of her situation. The relationship, she believes, is too new to bear this kind of stress. It is too much to ask of a new boyfriend to stick by her side through chemo, a mastectomy, a life threatening illness. Mitch, again, simple and stalwart, says he isn’t going anywhere.
The book is, in a way, a testimony to how God works through surprising relationships and unexpected situations. First, Janzen starts dating a Christian – surprise! Then, she visits his church and keeps going back – surprise! Then, she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Surprise.
Even as she writes about the fears and challenges of dealing with cancer at a relatively young age, Janzen maintains a poignant yet humorous tone. For some authors this would risk coming across as trite, particularly from those with a faith background who might bow to the pressure to sound hopeful all the time, yet Janzen maintains the kind of honesty about both her courage and her fear that is so vital to the memoir genre. She comes across as someone you would want around if you were going through a crisis, just to help keep things in perspective.
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? is a story of strength and faithfulness – the inner strength Janzen shows as she remains upbeat and positive even at the lowest points of her cancer journey, the support that her mother and sister and other far away friends show during that time, the devotion of a man to the woman he loves, the power of the prayers of God’s people, and ultimately, the presence of God in Janzen’s own life. Even before she details her path to healing, it is clear that there has been a miracle in her life. Indeed, many small miracles.
Toward the beginning of the book Janzen writes, “I had unfinished business with God. What did I believe about God, really? For so many years I had been drifting on a gentle current of Christianity, as when in a paddle boat you get out to the middle of the lake and stop paddling.” As a writer and a scholar, Janzen navigates the personal and spiritual alongside probing questions theology and practice in a way that reveals how none of these are separate after all, that the Christian life is an amalgam of the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and indeed, physical self.
After Janzen’s diagnosis, people start to pray for her. Friends and family, but also churches in Chile, the congregations her public speaker father talks to, relatives she’s never met. She is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. She writes, “As far as I could see, there were two ways to read this situation. Either all that prayer mattered, or it didn’t. And I needed to make up my mind.” Rhoda Janzen’s memoir asks her readers to consider the power of prayer and the diversity of the body of Christ. Physical healing is only part of her story, and what is most moving in Janzen’s tale is the poignant way she learns to love and be loved by someone who is so different from her, and how that love changes them both.
Meghan Florian is a writer, scholar, and nonprofit communications guru. She blogs at http://www.femmonite.com/
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