Book review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Community, Mennonite, Religion, Theology with tags , on December 6, 2010 by fuzzysoul

I spent the weekend in Lancaster, Pa., which I repeatedly and annoyingly refer to as “ze Fatherland.” I was there for a family funeral, and I was stuck with a bad case of insomnia and an abysmal selection of television channels. So I pulled out my Kindle and finished reading Rhoda Janzen’s memoir “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” for a bit of topical entertainment.

Janzen is the rare English professor who can actually write. Nay, she can write really damn well. As a result, I didn’t stop reading this book until 2:30 a.m.

Trying to summarize this book is tough, because the underlying structure is simply Janzen’s account of a few months she spent with her Mennonite family after her life spectacularly imploded, complete with a crushing car accident and her husband dumping her for a man he met on the Internet. It’s intensely personal, but rarely self-indulgent. Even in the depth of the book’s most self-help, you-go-girl, chick-lit sections, Janzen’s self-effacing humor and zinging prose kept me reading.

Whether she is observing that “Mennonites tend to live in clumps” or recalling that “my mother braided my hair so tightly that my eyebrows buckled,” Janzen’s four-bladed wit cartridge scrapes her family for the bulk of the book’s material. While occasionally making her family look cartoonish, she seems to do so out of genuine affection or bewilderment, not spite.

If the book has a major flaw, it is one that can be induced by the reader. Janzen has written a humorous collection of personal anecdotes, not a work of sociology or historical scholarship. She tends to take personal observations and extrapolate them to sweeping generalizations, so take her broad pronouncements about Mennonite life with a bit of perspective. Her Mennonite clan came to America’s west coast by way of Canada and the Ukraine, so her family shares different religious and culinary traditions from those of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Her tendency to extrapolate carries over to the history section of the book, where Janzen gives readers a quick and dirty romp through the complexity of Anabaptist history. I e-mailed Janzen with a couple nit-picky questions about this section, and, to my great surprise, she quickly answered, addressing my questions and suggesting additional reading. So, beware this gracious professor, kids. She hands out lots of homework.


No greater love?

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Patriarchs, Religion with tags , , , , on November 25, 2010 by fuzzysoul

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

– John 15:13

I’m conflicted about the the story of Willem Janss of Waterland (Willem Hans van Durgerdam). In 1569, Janss hears that Pieter Pieterss Beckjen was about to be burned alive in Amsterdam and rushes to the city to comfort him.

However, when he arrived at the city, he was a little too late, the bar having already been let down on account of the execution. But his zeal was so great, that he had no rest till he might see his beloved friend either alive or dead; hence he, for a certain sum of money, had the bar unlocked and made haste to be present at said offering. When Pieter Pieterss Beckjen was brought forth to die, this valiant hero and friend of God, standing over against the place of execution, on the steps of the weighing office, called to him with a loud voice, saying, “Contend valiantly, dear brother.”

This was a touching act of selflessness, showing true devotion and brotherly love. And it got Janss predictably tortured and killed.

He was immediately also seized by the persecutors, thrown into prison, twice severely and horribly tortured, and, when he would in no wise apostatize, he was two weeks after the death of his dear brother, sentenced to the fire, to be burned alive, at the same place where his brother had died…

I don’t know. I’m not sure it was worth it. No one wants to die alone, but should someone risk death to comfort the condemned?

I got a tongue screw!

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Religion with tags , , , on November 5, 2010 by fuzzysoul

I love the Internet. This whole story, let alone this post, would not exist without it.

In late September, I posted my examination of the tongue screw, a medieval torture device used to silence condemned Anabaptists, lest they preach their heresy to the crowds of gawkers that came to watch them burn. I referenced the title of a new collection of prose and poetry inspired by the Martyrs Mirror, entitled Tongue Screws and Testimonies.

The collection’s editor, Kirsten Beachy commented on the post a month later, noting, “Apparently, you can purchase replica tongue screws for the edification/horrification of your Vacation Bible School class.”


I wrote her back immediately, trying to figure out how to get my hands on one of these replicas without sounding random and creepy. She appeared to understand my slightly unhealthy fascination and put me in touch with Terah Goerzen, author of the blog Forest of the Plains, who had her own experience with the replicas. Goerzen, thankfully, found my quest hilarious. According to her blog:

Replica tongue screws were commissioned by the Mennonite Board of Missions, which no longer exists and was absorbed into the Mennonite Mission Network. The idea was to use the tongue screws as OUTREACH! I can just hear it, “Come join the Mennonites. We have tongue screws!” “Oh wow, a tongue screw. Now I know this is the church for me!”

Apparently, I was their target demographic, because I found this idea to be awesome. Goerzen graciously put me in touch with a representative of the Mennonite Mission Network, who sent me one of these replicas, along with a copy of their house publication, Missio Dei.

The replica arrived in the mail today. Thanks MMN!

It’s powerful to hold this tongue screw replica in my hand. I don’t say that about many things. But there’s nothing ergonomic or user friendly about it. It’s cold. It’s heavy. It smells like raw steel and tastes terrible (don’t ask). It’s ugly, brutally fashioned by hand just like it would have been 500 years ago. It’s clearly designed to inflict pain and humiliation just like others before it.

It’s going to sit in a prominent place on my desk at work.

Fahrenheit 1557

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Patriarchs, Religion with tags , , , , , , on November 5, 2010 by fuzzysoul

Again, what the hell is it with the Rhineland? I’ve noted before that it tends to breed pogroms now and again, but it also seems like it can’t go too long without a good book burning.

The political masters of Haarlem in Holland weren’t content with just burning Jorian Simons and Clement Dirks in 1557. They had to burn their books too. In an age before assembly line production, this kind of destruction carried far more weight than it does today, when it is viewed as boorish, ignorant behavior. Books were handmade, rare and expensive in the 16th Century. The crowd stood by while Simons and Dirks were roasted, but they could not abide the senseless waste of a book bonfire. According to the Martyrs Mirror:

When they had finished their tyranny by strangling and burning, they, in order to quench their doctrine, also thought to burn their books …; but when books were perceived to be on fire, there arose such an uproar among the people that the lords took flight, whereupon the books were thrown among the multitude, who reached for them with eagerness…

Life is cheap. Knowledge is precious.

Life from death

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Patriarchs, Religion with tags , , , , on November 5, 2010 by fuzzysoul

The Martyrs Mirror has a consistent habit of, what they call in the news business, “burying the lead.” Take for example Maria van Beckum who, with her sister-in-law, was burned at the stake in 1544 in Utrecht. The story contains all the usual martyr template plot points and then cuts off as the women are tied to the stake.

It’s not until 32 pages later, in the story of Hans van Monster (awesome name), that we hear why Beckum’s death was particularly poignant. Van Monster’s story abruptly begins talking about a couple of dudes named Bartel and Gerrit, who witnessed van Beckum’s death.

…It occurred that these two young men were present when Mary van Beckum and her sister were offered up in the castle of Delden; and they testified that they heard Mary van Beckum declare publicly before the people, when she was placed at the stake, to be burned, “You shall see this stake at which I am to be burned grow green, by which you may know that it is the truth for which we here suffer and die.” These two young men, who heard this themselves, some time afterwards went of their own accord to the stake, and saw it flourish.

Mark of death

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2010 by fuzzysoul

In his groundbreaking 1992 novel, Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson imagines an ultra-libertarian future America where every government function, including law enforcement, is privatized. Rather than spend large sums on incarcerating criminals, privatized police forces instead tattooed the foreheads of suspects with their particular criminal predilection to warn future victims.

I always thought this was an creative narrative solution to the problem of decentralized law enforcement. But, upon reading the Martyrs Mirror, I came to realize that Stephenson wasn’t the first one to come up with this idea.

The Mirror records that in 1161 a group of 30 or so Germanic proto-anabaptists lead by a man named Gerard appeared in England. Church officials didn’t think much of them, writing:

Their principle leader was one Gerard, upon whom they looked as their lord and master; for he alone had a little learning, while all the rest were illiterate idiots, a very low and boorish class of people, and of the German nation and language.

King Henry II put them on trial in Oxford, and they were found by church officials to be heretics. They were sentenced to be scourged and banished.

They were then, according to the rigor of their sentence, branded on their foreheads, their leader receiving a double brand, one on his forehead the other on his chin, as a sign that he was their leader. Thereupon, their upper garments, to the waist, were cut from their bodies, and they were publicly scourged and cast out of the city. But it being a bitter cold winter, and no one showing them the least mercy, they miserably perished by the intense cold, which they were unable to bear on their naked bodies.

Another nasty way to go

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Church, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Religion, Roman Martyrs with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2010 by fuzzysoul

After the accounts of the ancient martyrs at the beginning of the Martyrs Mirror, the book settles into a pretty steady rhythm of burning, beheading, drowning and hanging. Standard horrible stuff.

But the Romans, now there was a bloodthirsty bunch who could get creative. Whether they were baking, burying or crucifying their victims, the ancients made sure to keep it spectacular.

Take the fate of Phocas, first bishop of the Church of Pontas in Sinope who refused to sacrifice to the god Neptune, for instance. Phocas met his end in 118 C.E. when the Emperor Trajan ordered him to be boiled alive in a lime kiln. Dang.

The Wikipedia entry for Saint Phocas, incidentally, tells a completely different story. In this tale, Phocas is a gardener who provides hospitality to soldiers who are looking for him. The soldiers do not know it is him for whom they are searching, so they take him up on the offer. As they sleep, Phocas digs his own grave and the confesses to the soldiers in the morning. The soldiers offer to let him off the hook. Phocas, however, insists that they behead him.