Review of Anabaptist Remix

Anabaptist ReMix: Varieties of Cultural Engagement in North America, ed. Lauren Friesen and

Lauren Friesen and Dennis R. Koehn, editors. 477 pp. Peter Lang, 2022. $109.95 cloth.


In late December 1943, a youthful 46-year-old scholar of the American Society of Church History stood behind the podium at the Men’s Faculty Club of Columbia University in New York City and delivered the presidential address. Harold S. Bender, born and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, had traveled the world since his youth, studying at Princeton, Tűbingen, and in 1935 earning his PhD in history at the University of Heidelberg. At the meeting at Columbia, he told a new story about the “anabaptists,” and he repositioned them for the wider world of church scholarship. He argued that the anabaptists were Christians who could not be comfortably slotted into Protestant or Catholic identities. By the same token, he espoused a biblicism that would elude both liberal and fundamentalist habits of mind. He wanted to get a little respect for his people. He did this by distinguishing between “Anabaptism proper” and the deformation of it, which had held the limelight for centuries in too much historical scholarship. For Bender, “original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism” could basically be summed up in the good guys--Grebel, Mantz, and Menno Simons. Then he calmly cast out the “aberrations”: “various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups.” Among these bad guys were the Zwickau prophets, Thomas Muentzer, the Peasant Wars, the Műnsterite debacle, John of Leyden, and so on.

Bad guys were, in the tradition of the Muentzer and Műnster meltdowns, subjective, mystical, tending toward anarchism, and prone to apocalyptic bouts of bloody violence. They were in some cases polygamous. These were the bad seeds, and Bender wanted to clear them from the field so serious anabaptist scholars could go about their business.

His address on this night was simply titled, “The Anabaptist Vision.” It would become a manifesto for Christian discipleship, community, and nonviolence. It would reposition anabaptist thought within the larger world of historical scholarship and cement Bender’s intellectual leadership in the Mennonite Church. Fourteen years later, he was honored in a collection of essays titled The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. By the time I read the book in the early 1980s, everyone was in on the joke that the book had to be trusted, what with key members of the Mennonite trinity involved: G. F. (God the Father) Hershberger, J. C. (Jesus Christ) Wenger, and H. S. (Holy Spirit) Bender himself.

Almost four score years since Bender landed the Anabaptist Vision in the Men’s Faculty Club at Columbia, how well has it held up? Reading the essays in this big tome called Anabaptist ReMix might hold clues. An alternate title could easily have been Anabaptism and Its Discontents, or Transcending Harold Bender. The tone of the essays, gathered from writers, poets, artists and scholars across a wide range of disciplines, ethnicities, and genders, and favoring the arts and humanities, suggests the Anabaptist vision is in need of real revision or that it has already moved on. In the case of many of the writers, a preoccupation with church polity is passe or even potentially damaging. As Maxwell Kennel remarks in speaking of Daniel Shank Cruz’s Queering Mennonite Literature, “Cruz reflects the broader discourse on literary Mennonite thought when he allows the name ‘Mennonite’ to apply to anyone who chooses to identify themselves as such” (67). This is a freeing concept! Cruz himself notes in his essay, “Mennonite Literature’s Queer Decolonial Anabaptist Vision,” “I am now outside of Mennonite theology’s boundaries” (290). He might be—if Bender were still setting the boundaries. For Friesen and Koehn, it’s pretty clear that Gordon Kaufman is doing that work now, and his Feuerbachian project in The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God (1981) gives ample room for thinkers like Cruz to run.

It is significant to note that the best-known Mennonite writer working now, Miriam Toews, lost interest in the institutional Mennonite church a long time ago. Kennel himself prefers the rubric of “Mennonite studies” to “Mennonite theology.” The latter is a subset of the former. Many of the writers in the collection identify their positionality in quite vivid, autobiographical terms. Musician Charlene Gingerich, in a chapter titled “Beauty Happens,” came out of the closet as lesbian at the age of 39, works as a musician in the Stratford Festival, and articulates a strong sense of Emersonian spirituality. She says, “god has led me down this path” (284). She begins her essay by meditating on the fact that though she self-identifies as Mennonite, she feels slightly queasy when she sits in the Mennonite pew.

Many of the essays take up the increasingly ugly spectacle of sexual abuse within Mennonite communities. Progressive younger Mennonites have good reasons for disillusion. In our recent history, we remember Peter Ediger, a leading Mennonite peace activist who was defrocked at Arvada in 1987. Apparently the counseling situations took him down a dark path. Then in the early 1990s the first media stories surfaced about John Howard Yoder’s abuse of women at AMBS that had been going on since the 1970s. Only in 2014 did the administration of AMBS make a statement about the scandal, and in 2022 Herald Press announced it was ceasing publication of Yoder’s books. The outrage is palpable, and one need only visit the MAP (Mennonite Abuse Prevention) website to dig into the unsavory thicket of compromised church leaders—all men, so far as I know. Urie Bender, Jan Gleysteen, Murray Phillips. And on and on.

How to understand this phenomenon? Men as practitioners of sexual abuse are not a peculiarly Mennonite phenomenon. Retrograde treatment of women by men, spanning everyday sexism to outright sexual abuse and rape, seems to be fairly universal across cultures and religions. For most of the women writing in this book, it’s the patriarchy, stupid.

For Cameron Altaras, one of the stronger writers in this collection, Bender catches some of the brunt. She notes that the fully male-inflected language of The Schleitheim Confession, held up by Bender as the sine qua non for anabaptist discipleship, reified male power in what he conceptualized as the “God-Christ-man-woman” structure of existence. Altaras quotes Bender’s own words about the head covering to make her point: “it is a necessity to preserved the divinely ordained social order from disruption and to enforce the lesson of women’s submission to man” (212). As Altaras puts it, the “radical” Anabaptists were never serious about implementing the priesthood of all believers (219). One grasps after reading so many of these powerful essays by anabaptist women that the road of male entitlement leads to some very destructive outcomes—and they may even pose an existential threat to the future of anabaptist communities.

What is refreshing about much of the book is the individual nuance of each writer’s story and the joy each one so fully expresses in living out their anabaptist vision through their vocation. In the case of Doug Hostetter, it’s the administrative challenge of education and peacebuilding in Vietnam. In another instance: Julia Reimer, a former professor of theater who now works as the collaboration coordinator with the Near Far Theatre in Fresno, California. As she so bracingly puts it, theater for her “feels more church-like to us than our actual churches” (383). An excellent survey of different kinds of Mennonites by Kennel in one of the early umbrella essays here sketches out the parameters of various groups: “Secular,” “Philosophical,” “Political,” and “Literary” Mennonites (56). This is language—and sociology—that goes beyond Bender.

Two of the most original essays address anabaptist attitudes toward the Earth. S. Roy Kaufman, a minister from Freeman, South Dakota, writes about the historic agrarian nature of most anabaptist communities after they were driven out of cities in the sixteenth century, the time of the Peasant Revolts. If the feminists in this book are fed up with the patriarchal theologians and their gender blindness, Kaufman wishes Anabaptist theologians would begin to apply some thought to the problem of agrarian communities being crushed by the weight and environmental damage of the industrial food system. Following Wendell Berry, Kaufman has a big problem with industrial farming. He says the notion of anabaptists as “an alternative community of faith capable of subverting and undermining the dominant social order in non-violent ways is as necessary now as it was in the sixteenth century” (266). The final essay in the collection, David Ortman’s “The Church on the Edge of Forever,” emphatically punctuates this insight. As fires and floods sweep the planet, care for the earth might be the most important task committed anabaptists do. The wise man in Ecclesiastes told us “the sun also rises,” but the real question might be whether we as humans—and other creatures in nature—will be around much longer to see it rise.

Anabaptist ReMix: Varieties of Cultural Engagement in North America, edited by Lauren Friesen and Dennis R. Koehn, brings together the thoughts and reflections of 31 significant Mennonite writers, artists, and preachers who are wrestling with questions of Mennonite identity, often from the position of their academic discipline or their artistic practice. Friesen studied theater at Berkeley and is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Koehn studied theology at Harvard Divinity School and the Chicago Theological Seminary. They are to be applauded for bringing together a very gifted group of writers who point the way forward in an ongoing and evolving anabaptist journey. A couple of caveats here: professional copyediting would have made the book even stronger. And at $109.95, the price point from Peter Lang seems egregious. The Kindle edition, even from Amazon, pushes $90. I don’t want to end by carping about price, but in the tradition of the cheap-ass Mennonite, I would insist that thrift remain a part of the anabaptist journey, too. Let’s pray together for a paperback version. The ReMix deserves readers.

About the Author

Daniel Born Daniel Born (pen name David Saul Bergman) is co-author with Dale Suderman of Unpardonable Sins (2021), a hardboiled crime novel about a Mennonite pastor in Lakeview, Chicago. Born, who holds a PhD in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, graduated from Tabor College and served as moderator of the Lakeview Mennonite Brethren Church in 1980-82. He is author of The Birth of Liberal Guilt in the English Novel (1995) and has taught literature and writing since the late 1970s. He is currently at work on a sequel to Unpardonable Sins, titled Prodigal Sons, set in the fictional central Kansas community of Marion Hills.