Martyrs

Vol. 1, No. 5

In 1660 in Dordrecht, Thieleman van Braght published the first edition of The Bloody Theater, better known as Martyrs’ Mirror in North American Mennonite culture. The second edition, published in Amsterdam in 1685, contained 103 etchings by the prolific Mennonite artist Jan Luyken. The book has remained in print for over 300 years and has been translated from the original Dutch into German, English and, in part, other languages. It is frequently claimed that “every” Amish home today contains a copy and that “every” Mennonite home used to do so—albeit, in both cases, usually unread.

Mennonites today have a love/hate relationship with the book. On the one hand, authors and artists appreciate it as the earliest and largest collection of artful narratives and images. And the average Mennonite stands in awe of the heroic stances taken by their Anabaptist ancestors in the face of the Inquisition’s mortal challenges to Anabaptist beliefs and commitments. Probably over 3500 Anabaptists were drowned, burned at the stake, drawn, quartered and otherwise tortured because of their Christian beliefs.

Yet the “martyr complex” that even today’s Mennonites are said to bear becomes a burden, or even a curse, as they try to negotiate the demands of their church community and what is required for them to function in mainstream postmodern, global culture. Must Mennonites be bound to their early history of humiliation and defeat? Can they affirm, or even understand, the fine points of Christian doctrine for which the early Anabaptists risked their reputations and their lives?

In 2009 a group of Anabaptist scholars met to brainstorm ways in which the role of Martyrs Mirror can be updated and renewed to undergird the current global Mennonite church. A conference, Martyrs Mirror: Reflections across Time, will be held at Elizabethtown College June 8-10, 2010. We may look forward to other new, and new kinds of, studies and programs.

Meanwhile, this issue of the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing illustrates the continued inspiration and relevance that Martyrs Mirror has offered to Mennonite readers, poets and critics. Kirsten Beachy is one Mennonite of a younger generation who has read Martyrs Mirror. She has not only read it but integrated its images, stories and lessons into her and her husband’s genealogies and her liberal arts education. She reflects the ambiguities and ironies that many Mennonites find in thinking about the book, and writes movingly and thoughtfully about its lasting impact on her. Rhoda Janzen honors her own reading in Martyrs Mirror by transforming its plain style and narrative into a complex poetic art, linking early Anabaptist suffering with wide-ranging literary and historical allusions--like the martyr in “Last Words,” who “instead of plain words . . . speaks in bright jewels, rubies and emeralds and aquamarines.” While Janzen offers us an ars moriendi, Julia Spicher Kasdorf finds an ars poetica for Mennonite writers in her analysis of Sidney King’s prize-winning film, The Pearl Diver. She finds that the film raises the question of the relationship between suffering and the artist-writer’s responsibility to individuals and the community in representing suffering for a public audience. It uses the Dirk Willems story from Martyrs Mirror to explore the central ambiguity of “whether sacrifice and separation can ultimately undo the Christian imperative to love and choose life.” Jessica Baldanzi reviews Janzen’s forthcoming memoir, which depicts with “wit and spirit” Janzen’s recovery from a traumatic divorce and her adult return, for an extended visit, to the close-knit, conformist Mennonite home and community in which she grew up.

These fine writings indicate that the influence of Martyrs Mirror has not necessarily waned among Mennonites, but has been transformed in a new context by a new generation of readers with new sensibilities. Oddly, English-speaking Mennonites have ignored the main Dutch title of the book—The Bloody Theater—and named it Martyrs Mirror instead. Both titles are metaphors that, if taken seriously, might inspire new insights and new writing. But The Bloody Theater, which implies fiction as well as performance, might also lead to new thoughts about a Mennonite literary theory.

In this issue:

  • 2 read more

    Me and the Martyrs

    by Kirsten Beachy

    Kirsten Beachy is one Mennonite of a younger generation who has read Martyrs Mirror. She has not only read it but integrated its images, stories and lessons into her and her husband’s genealogies and her liberal arts education. She reflects the ambiguities and ironies that many Mennonites find in thinking about the book, and writes movingly and thoughtfully about its lasting impact on her.

  • 1 read more Four Poems

    Four Poems

    by Rhoda Janzen

    Rhoda Janzen honors her own reading in Martyrs Mirror by transforming its plain style and narrative into a complex poetic art, linking early Anabaptist suffering with wide-ranging literary and historical allusions--like the martyr in “Last Words,” who “instead of plain words . . . speaks in bright jewels, rubies and emeralds and aquamarines.”

  • 2 read more

    An Insider’s Pearl Diver

    by Julia Spicher Kasdorf

    While Janzen offers us an ars moriendi, Julia Spicher Kasdorf finds an ars poetica for Mennonite writers in her analysis of Sidney King’s prize-winning film, The Pearl Diver. She finds that the film raises the question of the relationship between suffering and the artist-writer’s responsibility to individuals and the community in representing suffering for a public audience. It uses the Dirk Willems story from Martyrs Mirror to explore the central ambiguity of “whether sacrifice and separation can ultimately undo the Christian imperative to love and choose life.”

  • 23 read more Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

    Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

    by Jessica Baldanzi

    Jessica Baldanzi reviews Janzen’s forthcoming memoir, which depicts with “wit and spirit” Janzen’s recovery from a traumatic divorce and her adult return, for an extended visit, to the close-knit, conformist Mennonite home and community in which she grew up.