Poised to Embrace: The Literary Arts and Anabaptism

I have been living, studying, and working in a seminary setting for about thirteen years. My studies have taken me to two very different seminaries as a student and I am now employed at a third, also very different, seminary. Being part of communities that talk about “formation” almost non-stop, I have relished the opportunity to consider the ways that I have been shaped intellectually and spiritually by the literary arts.

When I began my undergraduate degree, I chose to major in history, in part, because it was my sense that we Mennonites reflect theologically through historical study, and I wanted to learn more about why Mennonites believe what we do. With this interest in theology, I started to pick up religion courses along the way, and in the fall semester of my third year of college, I decided to take a bunch of English courses. Looking back, I can see that it was my study of literature that helped me locate what it is I value about theological discourse, God-talk, if you will. As I cracked open the Western literary canon, I could own the fact that my interest in both historical and theological studies had always turned toward the humanities side of these disciplines rather than the social scientific modes some scholars use to explore religious themes and experience.

I gravitate in the direction of the humanities because this approach makes room for works of poetry, fiction, and creative writing that push us into worlds of metaphors, images, and symbols. Theological reflection that incorporates the literary arts has the capacity to make us more “humane” because when we swim in the mystical depths of metaphor, image, and symbol we are bathing ourselves in a universe of meaning that helps us experience reality in and beyond ourselves. If we take the Incarnation as our starting point, becoming humane—showing compassion to ourselves and others as we learn more about the world we live in—is one of the goals of Christian faith and religion.

This year my observance of National Poetry month included reading Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s poem “Prospect Park, Holy Week” to a group of friends gathered for dinner on Monday of Holy Week. The poem itself is a juxtaposition of lively symbols compared to the symbols of death, mayhem, and betrayal we hear in the final days of Holy Week. A day or so earlier, “Love after Love” by Derek Walcott appeared on the bathroom mirror posted there by my husband. And it occurs to me that it is never a good idea to contemplate servanthood, despair, hope, and human destiny without a healthy dose of poetry. Yet we persist in giving poetry its month and then turning back to the familiar words of the Evangelists that have formed us.

Christian God-talk is often very complex revealing theology’s former place in the university as the “queen of the sciences.” I question the purpose of theological speech that strives to take a problem-solving approach to faith. While the scientific revolution has brought us a great many gifts of insight and knowledge, I do not find that we human beings are more humane because we know how to split atoms. We have saved lives because we know how to prevent many diseases, but we do not know how to “cure” homelessness or addiction or sexual abuse or racism. The literary arts cannot cure these social sins either, but they, along with the visual arts, do open up pathways that help us as people of faith speak more honestly about our “human condition,” and no microscope alone can do that. Authenticity is a prerequisite for worship where we present ourselves before God and neighbor with the hope that Spirit-God will transform our lives and relationships so that the Earth may be filled with God’s great shalom.

I advocate for God-talk that is less concerned about erecting complex edifices that quickly engulf us and display our hubris and more concerned with returning us to the primordial foundations of the ground from which God drew our being. Christian sacred texts, both in and beyond the Bible, are filled with stories that have shaped our consciousness and served as a primer of symbols. As a theologian and practicing Christian, my work involves drawing attention to symbols’ formative power. When faith communities discuss their “God images,” they are typically trying to bring a sense of gender balance into the practice of Christianity. Many of us know how quickly polarized such discussions become, but the literary arts give us tools to break out of this very human but not very humane pattern. Archetypes and symbols represented by biblical images and names for “God” are powerful resources for our spirituality.

Whether it is because of David Whyte’s poem “The Opening of Eyes” or “The Fireman Poems” by Richard Smyth, that famous story from Exodus 3—the one where Adonai calls to Moses from a blazing bush—never sounds the same again. In a volume titled Liber Scivias, Hildegard of Bingen includes commentary on creation along with several illustrations of what she saw. Building on the symbolism of fire, The Book of Symbols explains, “In Hildegard’s vision, the brilliantly fiery, eyelike orb of the Creator God shoots a tongue of flame into the dark chaotic sphere, sparking the creation of heaven and earth and kindling the hearts of humankind within the lowly lump of clay, ‘each soul a spark awakened from the great living fire.’”[1] When we consider that around the world, “the heart, like the sun, is the central source of life, the seat of power, courage and strength” as well as the place where we keep our memories, thoughts, personality traits, and creativity, the idea of Spirit-God setting our hearts on fire does not seem so trite.[2] Of course we long for The One Who Is to keep our lives animated with generative sparks!

While we scholars love to debate whether a commitment to pacifism was a common denominator among sixteenth-century Anabaptists, one of the theological themes that I want to highlight is “regeneration.” Regeneration was a word in use among many Protestant reformers. What gave the concept a different emphasis among Anabaptists was the way they described the theme they encountered in places like John 3:5-8 and the Pauline epistles: in Christ we become a new creation, we are born again, regenerated. We are not simply justified and sanctified. We have a new nature.[3] Sadly, this theological innovation led to internal disputes about the nature of our new nature. For example, Anabaptists disagreed about how to read and follow the Bible’s commandments. Ought we apply biblical teachings by observing the spirit of the teaching or do we follow it to the letter, they wondered. They also struggled to discern what to prioritize: the believer’s inner life, marked by faith, rebirth, and regeneration, or one’s outer life of discipleship marked by obedience.

These questions impacted the worship life and aesthetic perspective of communities from historical Anabaptists to contemporary Mennonites in North America. Following the path of other reform movements of the time, Anabaptists shared Calvinists’ concern that visual art was not simply directing believers toward spiritual things but supplanting them, becoming idols rather than icons. Art historian Robin M. Jensen argues, “For many pious Christians, the invisible God’s primary and perhaps only reliable mode of self-revelation was Holy Scripture.”[4] With such a passion for properly and correctly interpreting biblical mandates, she adds, “Protestant Reformers emphasized the importance of words over the melodies in their hymns (sometimes banishing music altogether), were circumspect about the value of pictorial art, and were cautious about worldly and physical delights” citing John 4:23-24 as the basis for their viewpoint.[5] The desire to enact faithful worship that conformed to the letter and spirit of Jesus’ teachings, iconoclastic-minded Christians kept Jesus at the center of things by erecting austere worship spaces. And we know some Mennonite communities continue to avoid what they consider to be ostentatiousness and excessiveness by permitting only unaccompanied congregational singing

Historical Anabaptism’s prejudices against the arts have never been part of my immediate experience of Christianity. I know I am very fortunate in that regard, to be part of a new generation of Mennonites. Perhaps this is why I so often weave the literary arts into the classes I teach, the papers I write, the sermons I preach, and liturgies I lead — I believe that God relies on the literary arts to re-present the incarnational aspects of divinity to us. Here I harken back to the early Anabaptists’ optimism for what it means to be born anew in and through Christ. It is this legacy that I am pleased and challenged to carry with me even as I seek to accept previous generations’ preference for a simplicity rooted in an aesthetics of iconoclasm.

Even so, as a theological system, Anabaptism envisions a deep consonance between the inner and outer life of Christians. Faithful living strives to harmoniously weave together an inner, spiritual life and outer, lifestyle such that all Christians live a “priestly life” allowing us to be a dwelling place for God. In this way, regeneration honors life’s deeply creative processes, including the Incarnation that transformed the fundamental symbol of being human: the cross. How do I get here? By quoting Toni Morrison. In her novel Paradise, Morrison reminds her readers that from South Africa to Lapland, from Algonquin to Druid, the cross—the intersection of a vertical line and a horizontal line—is “the first sign any human anywhere had made.” She continues:

It was this mark, this, that lay underneath every other. This mark, rendered in the placement of facial features. This mark of a standing human figure poised to embrace…. Without this sign, the believer’s life was confined to praising God and taking the hits…. But with it, in the religion in which this sign was paramount and foundational, well, life was a whole other matter.[6]

If we listen to Morrison’s words, we will hear something new. To call ourselves Christians and to decorate our bodies, homes, and houses of worship with crosses is not fundamentally about worshipping a resurrected Jesus. No, the cross is not merely a recollection of Jesus’ cruciform body, it is a symbol of intersection and “reconciling antagonisms,” Anthony Stevens explains. He adds that its vertical and horizontal lines signal a unity and sense of completion: the four directions, the four elements, masculine and feminine, celestial and earthly, action and reflection, transcendence and immanence are all layers of its symbolism.[7]

Morrison calls us to take another, deeper look at something we have seen countless times and think we understand. Looking deeply into the mystery in this mark, this sign, this intersection, this crossroad we have the opportunity to discern the true meaning of formation that both shapes us and prepares us for transformation that reshapes us. The next time you look into, rather than at, a cross, may you see a human figure, alive with the spark of Adonai’s primordial fire and poised to embrace you.

[1] Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin, eds., The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (Köln: Taschen, 2010), 86.

[2] Ibid., 392.

[3] Harris J. Loewen’s hymn “New earth, heavens new” is an excellent example of an Anabaptist take on regeneration. In stanza three, the lyric reads, “New minds, wisdom new, Spirit of God moving; new law, covenant new, Spirit of life moving; new name, nature new, image of God moving.” Harris J. Loewen, “New earth, heavens new” 1992 (No. 299) in Hymnal: A Worship Book (Elgin, IL; Newton, KS; Scottdale, PA: Brethren Press, Faith &Life Press, Mennonite Publishing House, 1992).

[4] Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Series, John D. Witvliet, ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 60.

[5] As he is speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus tells her, “‘But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’” (John 4:23-24, NRSV).

[6] Toni Morrison, Paradise, paperback ed. (New York: Plume, 1997), 145-146.

[7] Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 242-243.

About the Author

Malinda Elizabeth Berry

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is graduate of Goshen College where she was a student in the first Mennonite Literature class taught by Ervin Beck. She has an M.A. in Peace Studies from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana and an M.Phil. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She currently teaches at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana where she directs the M.A. program and teaches a course in Theology and the Arts. She is also a member of the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies. She is the co-author, with Keith Graber Miller, of Wrestling with the Text: Young Adult Perspectives on Scripture (Cascadia 2007) and has published articles in Sojourners Magazine.