Worldly (in Low German: weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen
I was immediately charmed by the bold way in which Rhoda launched into a discussion of body parts and secretions. To be honest, it reminded me of those late-evening chats round the dinner tables of my childhood, when the adults got raunchy in a diasporic Mennonite flavor of Low German, a language that seems to have grown directly out of the earth. I guffawed at Rhoda’s brittle, brilliantly funny sentences, causing people in nearby seats on the plane to crane their necks to see what was so hilarious. I cringed when she described her interactions with some of her relatives and in-laws.
Of course, Rhoda’s story is uniquely her own—a visit back to her Mennonite family and the community in California in which she had been raised, after her handsome husband Nick left her for a guy named Bob whom he had met on gay.com. However, as I read on, I began to get the feeling that Rhoda’s back story intersects mine. I saw similarities:
- dramatic and drastic flights from our Mennonite Brethren roots
- ability to whip up dinner for ten with an hour’s notice
- puzzling early choices in men
- happy-go-lucky academic demeanor
- quest for meaning
- ultimately, respect for and participation in the values and principles of our parents
When I got home from my trip to Portland, I emailed my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, to tell her about this book. Of course, she knew about it. Being the leading Mennonite feminist writer means she’s always got her finger on the pulse of Mennonite literature.
Not surprising. It’s a fun parlor game among Mennonite Brethren people to dig up these kinds of family connections. In fact, given the small gene pool, it’s not unusual to discover that you are related to another person in more than one way (Come to think of it, at the funeral of my husband’s grandmother Ruth this past summer, I discovered that my paternal aunt Susie was married to the grand-nephew of the man who married my husband’s grandmother’s sister. Was that fun for you? If so, you may be a Mennonite Brethren.)
Some of the details in this essay are drawn from an extensively-researched history of my grandfather Jacob Funk, which my mom is writing. The history of this side of my family begins with the August 1, 1789 arrival of 20-year-old Frantz Peter Funck and his young wife Maria at Kronsweide, near Zaporoschye, South Russia, in the first group of Mennonite immigrants from Prussia. I also dug up a history of my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk, which mom wrote awhile ago. From these pages, and a few other sources I had handy, I was able to delve into the history which Rhoda and I share.
I already knew that some time in the 1500s, some of our Dutch ancestors read the Bible for themselves, and felt led to disobey the state church (and thus, the state) and re-baptise themselves as adults. These rebels, our great-etcetera grandparents, were from the Flemish and Frisian areas of Holland. For their effrontery in claiming freedom of thought and action, they were burned at the stake, roasted on a slow fire, tied to the stake, drowned, buried alive and otherwise persecuted. (Read the Martyrs Mirror if you want to know more, but I warn you, it’s scary.)
The Mennonite survivors fled to the northern lowlands of Germany and the Danzig area, which later became Prussia. Here they lived from 1540 to 1790. They learned German, which became the language of God and Mennonite culture — Low German in daily life, and High German in church. Non-conformity to the “world” was important, both in their material and spiritual practices. They honed their spiritual approach, sometimes squabbling between themselves over culturally-related expressions of what exactly non-conformity meant. The Flemish Mennonites saw themselves as an elite, progressive group, and considered the Frisians low-brow. These two groups took their class consciousness and divisiveness with them to the Ukraine, where they migrated after an1786 invitation from Catharine the Great. Here they continued the great debate over how best to live a spiritual life. Frisians accused the Flemish of being worldly in their choice of clothing; the Flemish said the Frisians were less than spiritual in their style of houses and furnishings. They differed in their modes of baptism: the Frisians sprinkled, the Flemish poured. Who walked closer to God? was the question.
A small but fervent group of restorationists seceded from the mother Russian Mennonite church around 1860, calling themselves Mennonite Brethren. They considered themselves the true believers, as opposed to their cold, non-believing, worldly Mennonite neighbors. This group considered themselves really spiritual – when they baptized, they dunked the entire person!
My grandfather remembered these early Mennonite Brethren as intense people who tended to think that they were better than others. They were vigorously evangelical. They promoted an inward spirituality, spontaneous preaching, exuberant singing, and religious services of spiritual renewal. They believed that salvation was a personal experience which could be known and celebrated.
Rhoda and I grew up drenched in Mennnonite Brethren-ism. Her grandfather, Jacob Kornelius Janzen, joined with the Mennonite Brethren soon after the group formed. Not long after, my grandfather Jacob Funk also joined the MBs, because he agreed with their theology. My father was a Mennonite Brethren pastor. My mom is a famous Mennonite Brethren writer. Rhoda’s dad, Edmund, was for some years moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
When I was growing up in the MB church, it seemed to me that the folks in the church had an idea that they had a good handle on the truth, and the other branches of the Mennonite church were not as close to God. The GCs, or General Conference Mennonites, weren’t rigorous enough in their beliefs or practices, I learned. The GCs might go to heaven when they died, but then again, who could be sure.
In1984, my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, wrote a book, Who are the Mennonite Brethren?, which included an outline of the 1976 Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith. Jesus Christ, the Confession says, is the eternal Son of god, sent by the Father to reconcile a sinful humanity to himself. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, and lived a holy and sinless life. He was crucified and died for the sin of human kind and rose from the dead. He is now with God the Father, interceding for all who believe in him. He will come again to judge the living and the dead and to establish his eternal kingdom. Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible. He is the mediator between God and humankind. He came to redeem the human race from the judgment and power of sin and to reconcile men and women to God. Through his death on the cross, Christ became the sacrifice which was sufficient to atone for sin and which established God’s new covenant with humanity. The Holy Spirit lives in every Christian and transforms him or her into the image of Christ. He empowers the believer to follow Christ and to be an effective witness for him. The Christian is expected to live in fellowship with God and other believers and to join a local church at baptism. He or she helps to build the body of Christ with spiritual and material gifts. Nurtured through the Word, fellowship and prayer, the believer grows more Christlike and glorifies God by being a witness for him in everyday life. All followers of Christ continually need the forgiving, chastening and cleansing grace of the Lord. The fruit of the Spirit is increasingly evident in the believer’s life, especially in relationships with other people.
Whoa! that’s a lot of stuff to think through. I thought and thought and after several years concluded that maybe by the end of my life I might have some understanding of some of it. I couldn’t honestly say that I believed it all, or even substantial sections, or even one full sentence. Who or what exactly is “God”? What does “eternal” mean? Isn’t blood sacrifice a little. . . extreme? What about that nice Jewish boy in school…was Jesus not interceding for him, then? Seemed kind of picky of Jesus…no, I am not going to put in a good word to God for Howard, because he doesn’t believe in me. Yet I had said that I believed the whole Confession of Faith when I was baptised at 15.
At the conclusion of the chapter discussing the MB Confession of Faith, mother quoted a MB theologian as saying, “If there are articles in our Confession that a person cannot accept, then he or she should find a church with those teachings he or she can fully agree.” Mom said, “These words may sound hard, but it is important for all Christians to find a church home where they are comfortable with the teaching, with the approach to the Word of God, and with the ministry of the church.”
Well, I left the MB church, at the age of 19. I don’t know when Rhoda left, but I am guessing that confession of faith didn’t resonate with her either.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.