Sunday, February 19, 2006

Post-Modern Mennonite

I don't often write about my Mennonite roots, perhaps because it's just vaguely uncool, but mostly because I've largely forsaken the culture. Over the last few months, I've had a bunch of experiences that have me thinking about those roots again.

The dude in the photo is my good friend Lorne. He still feels deeply connected to his Menno background in Altona. We've had an ongoing discussion about the topic and it always gets me stewing. It's almost impossible to separate Mennonite-ness from the other big concepts in the conversation about our shared past -- small-town/rural life, farming, the landscape of our childhoods, the influence of churches, the dynamic of small-town schools -- since we grew up in areas that were populated exclusively by Mennonites, it's all sort of one ball of wax. Anyway, Lorne gets a huge kick out of hearing me go off about this stuff after we've had a couple of beers, and we ought to have these issues dealt with by 2030 or so.

As often happens in life, when you get kinda interested in something, all kinds of related stuff starts popping up. A couple of weeks ago I made the discovery that an online friend in Asia also has Mennonite roots, and I really got into a couple of posts from Lesa (more Altona connections): her review of a complicated kindness and some of her thoughts on creativity, both with due attention to Mennonite influences (and obstacles) from her upbringing.

Lorne knows one guy named Aiden Enns who has been a sort of rogue Menno, retaining his faith but pushing it in directions that ring true for me. He started the excellent Buy Nothing Christmas movement and did a stint as the managing editor of Adbusters, one of the most thought-provoking and transformative magazines of the past decade. Now he's started geez magazine in Winnipeg. While the religious angle isn't my thing, reading through some of the articles makes me think that there are certain non-faith values with roots in Mennonite culture -- anti-consumerism, pacifism, social justice, community, helping those in need, strong family ties -- that have shaped what matters to me. I'm glad to see that MCC has retained some of those values in their organization as well. These values are certainly not unique to Mennonites, but they have stuck with me even after the food, language, songs and faith have been mostly lost.

Editor Will Braun had a couple of short articles that caught my eye: one about new-school Mennos, listing all kinds of characteristics of younger, progressive Mennonites that I felt affinity with, and his quick review of the classic More With Less Cookbook, which just re-emerged on our counter when I went downstairs for a cookie. I also enjoyed Aiden's Upwardly Mobile Mennonite Blues.

So, will I be joining a Mennonite church or starting Low German lessons any time soon? Nah, I'm thinking this reflection isn't much about doing, but it's part of understanding more about being.


Garth said...

Great musings Jer on the menno-roots we share. I should note though that the values you called "non-faith ones" are in fact directly a part of what Mennonites would say is linked to faith -- anti-consumerism, pacifism, social justice, community, helping those in need, strong family ties, etc. Mennonites look to the life of Jesus and attempt to model that lifestyle.

I personally don't attend a Mennonite church but the faith I do have still is influenced greatly by those values as well. I am definitely more environmentally-conscious but I think most Mennonites do care about the situation of AIDS, corruption, poverty in Africa - and most are incredibly giving to those in need through organizations like MCC.

Granted, there are variety of Mennonites out there - some ultra-conservative types that come close to the Amish and some are abusive or chauvinistic. There is apparently even a Mennonite Mafia down in Mexico who clearly aren't following the values listed above!

I should note though that the community we grew up in obviously wasn't free from disfunction and there were those caught up in the rules but as a whole I think it was a great place to grow up in. There are many men and women that I respect greatly for their faith and values.

I don't think I was as sheltered as some but now as a parent I find that there is a need for safety and shielding for my kids. We aren't not going to let them grow up in a bubble but we do make an effort to scrutinize what our kids watch on TV and read books that have depth & healthy.

Just my 2 cents - good post Jer!

Garth said...

Oh I was going to mention Pat actually lent me a copy of Geez magazine and informed me of the Buy Nothing For Christmas campaign thing as well. Interesting articles and ideas - many that resonate with me as well. We did attempt to make our Christmas less consumerist this year by minimizing the gifts we did give but I think next year we might give gifts to africa - there are organizations that allow you to donate money to buy chickens, grain, etc. overseas.

Heather said...

Jer, I sometimes feel a little silly commenting to a post as well thought-out and written as this. I guess it intimidates me, because you are a much deeper thinker than I.

That being said, I will comment as I, for one, do still live in "that small town", attend that good 'ol Mennonite church, and can't wait to put my kids in school here. But NOT because I think everything about it is great. I think you've really stated very nicely how there are parts of the Menno culture you've held to, but there are parts you've had to let go. I think Ryan and I have done the same. I won't speak on his behalf however, because although we live here happily and by choice, I know that Ryan's reasons are different than mine. His past and outlook on community values differ, because we led very different lives growing up. I will say that I think my saving grace was having a mother who wasn't Mennonite. She kept me grounded, and reminded me of the outside world when I needed it. This sort of caused me to feel like somewhat of an outsider in high school. Mostly because I was okay with having a few drinks, and I knew I wanted to dance at my wedding, etc. But seeing as Ryan and I just went through a really tough time, it was amazing how the community pulled together for us. Meals in out fridge from neighbours, the thousands of prayers, and the hundreds of hugs in the church foyer - you just can't beat that kind of love. I wouldn't trade it for any amount of privacy or anonymity (even though I sometimes want it) in any other place, anywhere. I guess my point is, if you can find what parts of the Menno culture and/or faith that work for you and use it to shape your life, you can probably put a life together that you will find satisfying and wholesome. Personally, I am proud of my heritage AND my faith, and can honestly say that I took it all for granted until very recently.

Anonymous said...

Having had a fairly conservative Christian upbringing myself and also having been associated with a church group at one time that had Mennonite and Hutterite influences on it, I can understand how one can get turned off by the legalism of some of these groups.

However, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are a lot of great things I received from my own background. Take the meat and leave the bones. As I became a parent, I have a new appreciation for some of the conservative elements and values in my upbringing. I have often found that it is precisely some of those values- which make me different than the wider world around me. It is also those same values I am trying to instill in my own children- without degenerating into legalism. It's a hard task to teach the next generation- without making that mistake.

Spoke said...

Funny, many people talk about "roots" and "heritage" like its a death sentence. I live in a small town in White-wing Evangelical Alberta,Canada. Lots of the folks here go to church, and are in fact, "churched". Don't fling your "heritage" away if that means denying Christ. There are massive differences between GOING to church or BEING the Church.
I'm begining to hate the universal church. Fortunately I belong to an odd one that still allows Jesus full reign. Makes the Holdeman Mennonites go hmmmmm.

Jeremy said...

Hi Garth, thanks for these thoughtful comments. The values I listed were only "non-faith" from my own personal persective -- I realize that for most believers, the values and their faith are intimately tied together. Not so for me, so it's a bit of a journey for me to discover that some of these values really have shaped who I've become...even though I probably thought that I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater (from someone's earlier comment).

What I probably didn't articulate particularly well (at least based on the flavour of some of the comments) was that in the years since I've been gone from Rosenort, I've often painted the place with a negative brush by focusing on the ultra-conservative elements and dysfunction you referred to, and associated them directly with the Mennonite church...but I'm seeing now that I still share many more of the values I thought I'd left behind me.

On the other hand, I've often romanticized small-town life to the point where it couldn't possibly be as amazing as I thought. So another part of my journey has been to recognize this inherent contradiction. How could the church (and Mennonite culture) be all bad, and small-town life to be all good, when really it was all the same place? I was trying to maintain a split perspective that couldn't reconcile itself.

It may just be part of finally growing up a little; I'm seeing many more shades of grey and realizing that people are motivated in many different ways, even in a fairly homogenous community like our hometown.

Jeremy said...

Heather, I don't really buy into the "deeper thinker" thing. Everyone thinks deeply about things that matter to them, right? Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

It makes good sense to me that you and Ryan have done (and will be doing) the same sorts of choosing and selecting that I've been thinking about, both individually and together as a couple (especially when you have kids). I probably assumed that you'd automatically adopted most of the "shared values" of the place because you live there and attend church.

Not that these things can be easily quantified or defined, but I don't think my values have changed much. I would still really struggle to find core common ground with most of my old classmates, but I'm seeing now that there may be at least some shared perspectives that I might not have recognized before. Small steps...

Jeremy said...

Welcome, spoke. I probably didn't explain it well, but this post was a pathetic attempt to document my rediscovery and improved relationship with my heritage and roots after years of thinking I had escaped them. As if one could...

krista said...

I don't have anything insightful to add, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing. That was interesting to read, and I also enjoyed your friends review because I just finished the book myself.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the note, Krista. I read your review with interest as well -- I've wondered how someone without a similar background would perceive the book. Agreed, the plot isn't really the strength of the book...the whole thing really happens in the main character's head.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, as a graduate of the MB Seminary I have a different take on the anti-consumerism that some mennonites seem to idealize. When the scripture says he has given us all things richly to enjoy I wonder if that meant only "spiritual" things. And when the offering plate is passed for a new building or to pay the salaries of the pastor who is supposed to put something in it? If it isnt a consumer provider then who would it be? When the parable of the talents is read doesnt anyone Mennonite see some vague concept of consumerism there being rewarded somewhere? Has being a Mennonite been a nice way of saying "join our religious sect that models itself after the religious people Jesus confronted" It seems our social justice facade is just that. A facade that fails to critically evaluate its own tenants. And when exposed fails to respond in accurate descriptions of itself. I found one rule the Mennonites I worked with and studied with had two rules for mennonites. Rule 1 "we believe in community" and Rule 2 "you are not part of it"