Humor: In This Issue

I grew up in a Mennonite congregation where our pastor-bishop once said from the pulpit, “People ask me why I never smile. The Bible never says that Jesus smiled. It says that ‘Jesus wept.’”

I grew up in a Mennonite congregation where our pastor-bishop once said from the pulpit, “People ask me why I never smile. The Bible never says that Jesus smiled. It says that ‘Jesus wept.’”

As a teenager I was puzzled by this statement, since one summer when I and other boys from the congregation worked for him on a pea-viner, I observed that he laughed as heartily as anyone at our reckless highjinks. Later on I understood his public persona when I read that, among Pietist groups in earlier years—not just Mennonites--it was conventional for ministers to invoke “Jesus wept” as proof of their sincere spirituality.

This issue proves that humor is alive and well in the virtual community of Mennonite writers. Authors asked to “write something humorous” seem to have had no trouble fulfilling this intimidating request. Responses came in early and good. I was especially delighted with Bob Johnson’s personal essay, “Mennonite Girls,” not only because it struck my funny bone but also because it vindicated a hunch of mine.

Mennonite sister cropped
Menniste zusje.
Ties Shaap-Stuurman, artist

In 1998 I published an essay that identified ten Mennonite-distinctive archetypes found in Mennonite life and literature, each one supported by an iconic image that “proved” its validity (“The Signifying Menno: Archetypes for Authors and Critics,” MQR, Oct., 529-48). One of the ten was of the “Mennonite Sister,” the fetching, desirable Mennonite girl who is alluring but seemingly unapproachable. The icon came from the “Menniste zusje” image on a card game designed and sold by the Dutch National Federation of Mennonite Sisters in 1979. I was criticized by friends for being able to cite only one instance of this Mennonite Sister in recent Mennonite literature, namely Hazel in Merle Good’s film, Hazel’s People.

So I was delighted when Bob Johnson submitted his delightful, perceptive memoir, “Mennonite Girls,” which amply illustrates the Mennonite Sister archetype, existing even in my own backyard of Middlebury, Indiana. Of course, I now realize, the archetype will mainly be clear to men from outside the Mennonite community who are attracted to Mennonite girls but have no hope of bridging the boundaries of a separatist community.

About his memoir, which is both lightly satiric and wistful, he says: “This was great fun to write. I tapped into memories I thought were gone. The piece was written with deep affection.”

Magdalene Redekop’s humorous memoir, “Farm Animals’ Desertion,” is not only longer, but more ambitious and complex. On the surface, it is an affectionate listing, one by one, of animals—both barnyard animals and pets—that have come and gone, and made a difference, in her long life. The title recalls W. B. Yeats’s last published poem, “Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which uses animals as metaphors for the major publications in his long career as a poet. Redekop’s animals are literal, vivid and charming, but no less metaphoric, since they inspire a kaleidoscope of associations that define the author’s personal history. We are regaled with images and anecdotes from her folk, rural origins and with quotations and allusions from her literary academic life that help her make sense of it all.

The whiff of mortality that surfaces in “Farm Animals’ Desertion” reminds us of the symbiotic relationships between humor and grief, laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy. One thinks of Romeo’s musing before his tragic end: “How oft when men are at the point of death / have they been merry.” Or Lord Byron in Don Juan: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, / ‘tis that I may not weep.”

This juxtaposition surfaces most boldly in the last poems written by Dallas Wiebe, which are collected in Monument: Poems on Aging and Dying (Sand Hills Books 2008), a chapbook published near the time of his death. The three poems included here had not been published prior to inclusion in the book, which deserves to be better known. Both “Let’s Pretend” and “Imago Dei” present the same speaking voice as in many of his early poems—wryly humorous, even sardonic—as the speaker faces, head-on, extreme aging that is a prelude to death. “Imago Dei” is even bold enough to challenge the Divine.

Wiebe’s “The Wonderful Circus” is not humorous. It is included here because it, like Redekop’s poem, uses Yeats’s “Circus Animals’ Desertion” as a springboard for a life review that includes a vision of dying. Wiebe seems to have deliberately misinterpreted Yeats’s poem for his own purposes. Instead of seeing “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” as the affirmative statement that Yeats apparently intended, Wiebe uses it as a negative view of life and death, to which he answers with glorious images of the afterlife from the book of Revelation. “No desertions for me at last. . . . I want to lie down in the beauty of the word.”

Humor in confronting an often deadly disease—cancer—is found in Rhoda Janzen’s poem, “Current Events.” Well known for her humorous memoirs, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and Does My Church Make Me Look Fat, in this poem Janzen laughs in response to a reprieve. The speaker celebrates a “looks fine” diagnosis with “MILEY CYRUS RAUNCHY DANCE.” The style of the poem, with its catalexis and playful trochees, seems to aim at doggerel, but it may also replicate the rhythm of the suggestive “twerk” dancing (from twist + jerk?) for which Miley Cyrus has become famous—or notorious.

As usual, and unlike Romeo, Jeff Gundy is “merry” in the face of life. His best known poems, “How to Write the New Mennonite Poem” and “The Cookie Poem,” are outright funny, and his poems almost consistently project a wry, sly, gently humorous view of experience. Constrained by the “Peaceful Menno Code,” what would you do or expect if Ernest Hemingway, first, and then Marie Antoinette visited your creative nonfiction writing class at Bluffton University, as they do in “Fifty Billion Planets”?

Paul Wiebe, since retiring from teaching and publishing in the field of religious studies, has devoted his time and effort to writing and self-publishing comic fiction. His four novels are described on the website komosbooks.com and are available from Amazon. We publish here one chapter from the novel The Church of the Comic Spirit, which contains twelve narratives, “the Bear Lake Scrolls,” as dictated by an angel to Fr. Alazon Lechlieb. Each chapter is a parodic version of a familiar Old Testament biblical narrative. Like Dallas Wiebe’s “Imago Dei,” and like Milton, they call into question, “the ways of God to men.” Wiebe says that God is the “comic hero” of the book.

Jeptha “Jep” Hostetler is a self-described “Mennonite humorist,” as well as medical doctor, professor, scientific researcher and professional magician. He has become well known in U.S. Mennonite circles for his public presentations on the healthful benefits of humor. I went to one, a skeptic, and was converted by laughter. In “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Monastery,” he uses his skill in scientific research to measure degrees of humor among monastics. The study comes from the four months that he and his wife spent as guest residents among a community of men and women Benedictines.

Hostetler’s aim was to test the effect on, or meaning for, contemporary monastics of St. Benedict’s Rule 7:59, which says, in part: “Only a fool raises his voice in laughter.” He was inclined toward such a study because he had long been “intrigued by the humor, or lack thereof, in Mennonite Churches, communities and institutions.” I know what he means, although just as his study of Benedictines mildly surprised him, he might eventually be able also to revise his perception of humor in Mennonite culture.

When I was researching humor in Swiss Mennonite circles in the U.S., it was easy to assemble a collection of hundreds of Mennonite joking narratives. It’s all contextual. In traditional Mennonite culture, laughter in church may be frowned on, but laughter and humorous performances are common in other domestic and public contexts, even funeral receptions. I will invoke my own raucous Lederman family reunions, where the highlight was my ever-young aunt Evelyn yodeling (which she had learned from her Amish neighbors) and imitating Minnie Pearl, both in singing and in costume, with a crazy hat from which hung a pricetag. Other evidence would include the authors who wrote for this journal issue, as well as Jep’s many merry friends.

Finally, this issue introduces Andrew Kreider as our occasional “featured poet.” Until now Andrew has been a self-published poet, author of three chapbooks and maintainer of a poetry blog. Like Paul Wiebe, his work deserves attention by a wider audience. Although many of his poems are humorous in a light-hearted way, the three published here are more “serious” examples of his work. On his website he calls himself the “Penguin poet,” as he self-identifies with “the (mostly) flightless bird that stays home and takes care of the young—highly acrobatic, able to move from land to water, at ease and a bit humorous, symbolic of intrigue and of the blending of light and shade.”

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.