Archive for the Theology Category

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.


Of death and doughnuts

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic, Christian, Christianity, Church, Episcopal, History, Religion, Theology with tags , , , , on February 21, 2010 by fuzzysoul

I had to quibble, as I knelt at the altar this week to get the yearly marking of ash on my forehead, with the priest’s assertion: “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.” The familiar Ash Wednesday recital is a little off the mark. “Remember that you are but water” would far more accurate.

The fact that the human body has very little “dust” in it was reiterated to me today. The Lenten season is upon us, and, as part of my 40-day penance, I have pledged to ditch my obsession with Farmville and finish this stack of books sitting on my nightstand. I just plowed through The Name of the Rose, and now I’ve moved on to Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Given the usual tone of this blog, I am tempted to repeat the passage on the process of human combustion that Roach poached from W.E.D. Evans’ 1963 book, The Chemistry of Death, but I’ll spare the less-selective readers who may have arrived here in good faith, seeking something more uplifting in tone. [If you must read it, columnist Cecil Adams repeats the pertinent information here.]

No, we shall speak of tastier things, like doughnuts.

Stiff got me thinking about the Lenten focus on our mortality, and it got me wondering about Anabaptist Lent traditions. None immediately sprang to mind. There’s a good reason for that. It seems that Lent is still a touchy subject in Anabaptist churches. Apparently, the die-hard purists (and bad historians) of the 16th Century decided that Lent was too Roman, and ditched it, along with a bunch of other Church holidays. But some branches of the movement later softened and at least celebrated some aspects of Lent and Holy Week.

And, apparently, the food never really went away.

The Low Countries of Germany, Switzerland and Holland as well as areas of Pennsylvania and Maryland still celebrate a version of Mardi Gras/Carnival called Fasnacht. In this Fat Tuesday tradition, the food of choice is not pancakes, but a pillowy fatcake called, well, Fasnacht. Here in Maryland, at least in Frederick, they are known as kinklings.

What’s strange is that this Lenten delicacy apparently didn’t make the transition to Southern Maryland very well. I don’t remember my family making them, but I’ll ask around this year to see if the recipe still survives outside the Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Umberto Eco and the Fraticelli

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Religion, Roman Martyrs, Theology with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by fuzzysoul

A while back, I made a note about the Fraticelli in a cursory post about the cursory mention of the sect in the Martyrs Mirror. I was surprised to see the “Little Brothers” resurface in a book I just finished by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

I was introduced to Eco through his second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, released eight years after Rose and written in a much more mature (if still verbose) style. While Pendulum was set in modern day Italy and concerned with numerology and secret societies, Rose is set in an early 14th Century monastery and focuses on the precious nature of knowledge in the lifting dark age of medieval Europe. And it’s, of course, preoccupied with heresy, particularly of the sort preached by the Fraticelli and the proto-Anabaptist Waldensians.

Eco, a medieval scholar and first-rate brain, weaves the history of the Fraticelli and other heretical groups into the fictional plot of Rose, and it’s difficult to tell where historical sources end and his imagination takes over. Three of the book’s minor characters were historical figures, but the monastery in the book is completely fictional, as are the events depicted.

The book’s main character, William of Baskerville, makes mention of one St. Lawrence, who while he was being grilled alive, told his Roman executioners, “Eat, for it is well done.” Strangely, the Martyr’s Mirror makes no mention of Lawrence, but does record Leonard Bernkop’s echo of the famous quote 1,200 years later.

The book helped me with a burning question I couldn’t answer from an Internet search. I now know how priests are supposedly desecrated. Here is Eco’s likely well-informed description, through the eyes of his narrator, Adso:

And after he had been led out in all his priestly vestments, a ritual began, and one by one his vestments were stripped away until he remained in that little garment the Florentines call the “cioppa.” And as is custom when a priest is defrocked, they seared the pads of his fingers with a hot iron, and they shaved his head.

Whether the ritual as Eco describes it still held sway 200 years later in Cologne – when the Mirror cited it as a possible reason for William van Keppel’s mysterious survival – is up for debate.

Ultra Orthodoxy…

Posted in Amish, Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, Mennonite, Religion, Theology with tags , , on February 18, 2010 by fuzzysoul

The German magazine, Spiegel, has published an article on Israel’s ultra orthodox Jewish communities, which “live in a parallel universe cut off from the modern world in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion.”

Sound familiar?

At least the Stauffer Mennonites and the Amish are smart enough to allow Rumspringa

Hardcore idiocy

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christ, Christian, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, Jesus, Mennonite, Ordnung, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion, Theology with tags , , , on December 3, 2009 by fuzzysoul

The Pastoral Musings blog alerted me to a fresh collision between an outdated Old Order Mennonite Ordnung and modernity.

According to Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier newspaper, and Iowan state representative is now publicly lecturing the state’s attorney general about free speech law, because his Mennonite constituents don’t want to put tires on their steel-wheeled 19th-Century farm equipment, per county law.

I’m sorry, steel wheels have ceased to be a sign of plain, ordinary living and nor are they a free speech matter. They are now a bizarre throwback infliction on modern asphalt roads. These Mennonites are not digging in their heels over a matter of scripture, just a matter of personal identity. This is just good old Hochmut raising its head again, or it is an example of Anabaptists’ historical inability to modify their communities’ Ordnung without a nasty, divisive throwdown.

And oh, Mitchell County? If the Old Order Mennonites haven’t left Southern Maryland yet, they aren’t leaving your county anytime soon either, especially not in the middle of a recession.

Apropos of nothing

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, God, Mennonite, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion, Theology with tags , on May 1, 2009 by fuzzysoul

Overkilled by the Catholics – The Fraticelli of Italy

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Catholic, Catholic Martyrs, Christian, Christianity, Church, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, God, History, Martyr, Martyrs Mirror, Patriarchs, Religion, Theology with tags , on April 26, 2009 by fuzzysoul

The accounts of the 13th and 14th Centuries in the Martyr’s Mirror are a numbing parade of sweeping persecutions and executions. Just skimming the titles of the articles, I counted nearly 1,900 men, women and children burned alive by secular or church authorities for heresy in the two centuries. These killings often happened en masse – 100 or more at a time.

But there was one story in this swift deluge of 200 years of religious cleansing that managed to make me crack a smile.

In 1299, a sect of the Waldenses in Italy, known as the Fraticelli or “Little Brothers” (which share a heritage with the Franciscan monks) drew the jaundiced eye of Pope Boniface VIII. So incensed was the Pope by these poverty-loving, Jesus-preaching hippies, he went after them with the usual bloodthirsty ferocity that was in vogue at the time. But he was not content to slaughter the living members of the sect.

Said Pope caused these Fraticelli to be persecuted with so much violence that he not only spared not the living, but not even the dead; for he caused one Herman, who had been on of their principal teachers, to be exhumed 20 years after his death, and hisĀ  bones burnt to ashes… Thus they did also with the dead bodies of one Andrew and his wife Guillemette…

And I thought the martyrs were fanatical.