Teaching Mennonite Literature in Conversation with Theology

For the last number of years, I have offered an annual course relating to the intersection of theology and literature at Canadian Mennonite University. The course is offered at the third year undergraduate level, and can be taken as either theology or English credit. We read both formal theological material and literature, including some poetry, but mostly novels. The relationship between literature and theology is broadly conceived: the impetus is not to use literature to illustratetheology, or to use theology to 'discipline' literature, but rather to bring these kinds of sources intoconversation with each other.[1] Put another way, what I'm not doing is simply reading theology, and then using the fiction as some kind of "illustration" of a theological or religious truth. I want to let the theology speak for itself, and the literature speak for itself–and then see what happens.

The course has taken several forms; for example, in one iteration of the course we read novels and formal theology written by the same person, namely Marilynne Robinson, a process which allowed us to read much of her oeuvre, with the result that our understanding of both her fiction and nonfiction writing was enriched considerably.[2]

A version of this theology and literature course is one given over to Anabaptist/Mennonite theology and literature.[3] In this paper, I will provide a broad description of the content of the course, and will also focus more closely on one particular novel and its accompanying theological essays (or vice versa) as a way of displaying the way the course proceeds.

My syllabus describes the course objectives as follows:
  This course seeks to understand Mennonite literary texts along with related theological writings.
  Upon completion of this course:

  a)  Students should have gained experience in close reading of Mennonite
     literary texts and theological writing;
  b)  Students will not have become well-versed in literary theories;
  c)  Students will have considered what it means to embrace a theology of

The course begins with a rather quick look at the relationship of faith and fiction, drawing especially on the work of Marilynne Robinson, who describes her work in both of these fields as a pursuit of beauty:

For the whole of my adult life, I have been interested in theology and the study of scripture. I have also been interested in literature, and, from time to time, in writing essays and novels. Theology is often disparaged as an intellectualization of what should in fact be a matter of experience and conduct or action. If I cared at all about the low regard in which it is held, in the churches not least, I'd have abandoned it and deprived myself of more than I can say. The habit of disparagement is coercive, destructive, impoverishing, and profoundly entrenched. Theology, like intellectualism itself, is beautiful if it is done well, and the beauty of it has fed my soul, and it has shaped every piece of work I have put my hand to.[4]

For Robinson, faith generates freedom explored in fiction. In sum, while cautious about the inherent dangers of reductionism within religion, Robinson nonetheless provides a positive example of fiction that does not reduce faith to comfort or empty moralism. Such a vision of the possibilities and capacities of fiction constructively shaped by faith has a place in Mennonite writing, in my view, which is not to say that it is entirely absent. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the Mennonite world needs fiction that is not utilitarian, not reductionistic, and not transgressive out of a sense that transgression and rebellion are necessary components of creative writing. It was not so long ago that Al Reimer argued that some of the most exciting work being done among Mennonites was being produced by those who are the most disenchanted with their Mennonite world, whose motives are anger and outrage, who are trying to expose, reject or write themselves out of their Mennonite experience once and for all–we need our dissident writers, argued Reimer, as prophetic warning voices.[5]

To leap to a recently published book by Jeff Gundy, it is clear that Reimer's sensibilities have not yet dissipated. Gundy's book is shot through with an explicit "fascination (mostly intellectual) with transgression, opposition, and 'heresy,'" claiming that "our most cherished traditions–religious, poetic, and other–all have their origins in transgression, opposition to received wisdom, rebellion of one sort or another."[6] His project, if not heretical must at least be heterodox, an experience in trespassing.[7] Gundy argues throughout the book that "we oftenthink of Mennonite poetry and fiction inrebellion against conservative, rural, communal repression."[8] Therefore, on the one hand, while Anabaptism has a reputation for legalism, literalism and utilitarianism (none of which sit easily with the poet's task), on the other hand, Anabaptists were rebels and, at least according to Gundy, so are poets. Gundy is the artist rebelling against Mennonite contempt for beauty's frivolity,[9] who nods at the putative necessity of cages, albeit empty ones, but clearly throws in his lot with open windows, doors that are ajar, and wings that enable escape. This transgressive element finds its way into my course, to be sure, but that dimension of Mennonite literature does not exercise totalizing shaping power in this course. Instead, I hope to display the kind of stance that Robinson counsels toward fiction and theology.

To the content of the course. It is important here to mention an important dimension of this Mennonite literature and theology course; namely, the inclusion of the historical narrative of Mennonite history, since many students come to the course without a rudimentary knowledge of the Mennonite story.[10] Further, since this course deals with literature, theology, and some history, students can use the course to fulfill an "Anabaptist Studies" academic requirement.

The shaping power of Martyrs Mirror for the production of Mennonite literature cannot be denied. A recent publication, Tongue Screws and Testimonies, edited by Kristen Beachy, provides an excellent resource for my course–Beachy has collected recently published poetry, essays, brief stories, and reflections, all of which are generated in one way or another by Martyrs Mirror.[11] The students are assigned a number of excerpts from Martyrs Mirror, including some of the introductory framing material written by editor Thieleman J. van Braght, exposing them to the theological concerns undergirding the collection and editing of these martyr tales. In addition, students are assigned specific excerpts which relate directly to the writings collected by Beachy.[12] What follows then is a series of class discussions based on material from Martyrs Mirror, in relation to poetry and essays by writers such as Joanne Epp, Julia Kasdorf, Audrey Poetker-Thiessen, Maurice Mierau, Di Brandt, and Jean Janzen. In addition, we read and discuss a very fine scholarly essay by Grace Kehler to help us think through literary and theological dimensions of the sources we are reading.[13]

Following our investigation of 'persecution and poetry,' we turn to the ground-breaking novel Peace Shall Destroy Many by Rudy Wiebe,[14] focusing on themes of peace and piety by reading a theological reflection on peace written by Rowan Williams.[15] Another section focuses on the nature and practices of the church by way of reading Miriam Toews's novel, A Complicated Kindness[16] in conversation with Menno Simons's theological reflections on the church's use of the Ban. In addition, we read Beverly Lewis's The Shunning, a sample of the most wildly popular Mennonite literature, namely Amish inspirational fiction,[17] as well as Dora Dueck's This Hidden Thing.[18]

I will explicate my attempt to bring Mennonite literature and theology into constructive conversation in a bit more detail by focusing on a section entitled "Sin and Salvation." Winnipeg author David Bergen's first novel, A Year of Lesser, is, among other things, an exploration of redemption, displayed most prominently in the experiences of Johnny Fehr, for whom salvation comes within the life of the church, but in ways that are frustratingly ephemeral. As a result, Johnny's search for salvation takes him beyond that which is proffered by his local church.[19] Lesser's local church is central to Johnny's search for salvation, although it is ultimately unable to mediate that salvation for Johnny, or at least so it seems to him. In order to clarify and heighten this focus on salvation and redemption, the class is assigned several essays which discuss sin and salvation in theological terms. The essays, both written by Stanley Hauerwas, are entitled "Sinsick," and "Salvation even in Sin: Learning to Speak Truthfully About Ourselves."[20]

The intent here is not to somehow have a theological account of redemption trump a fictional account; rather, reading a Christian theologian's account of these matters in terms of the relationship between sin and salvation opens the possibility that a theologically conceived account of redemption as understood by the Christian faith might sharpen the interpretation of Bergen's novel, especially as it relates to the kind of redemption Johnny seeks, thinks he finds, and also resists. It seems to me that it is important in a non-generic way, as it were, about the vision of sin and salvation shown in the novel. Put another way, Johnny is wrestling with the notion of Christian redemption, hoping that 'being saved' (repeatedly) will end his search. So, readers of the novel wrestling with the specifically Christian theological tradition regarding sin, salvation, and redemption will be better readers of the novel for having confronted that theological tradition, or so I argue.

If reading Christian theology enhanced our reading of A Year of Lesser, then so too did the fact that our class was afforded the privilege of having Bergen come to address the class in person. Winnipeg is home to a considerable number of Mennonite writers, Bergen among them. Our Mennonite theology and literature class therefore was able to read some theology together, then read and discuss Bergen's novel at some length. With that kind of exposure and experience in hand, we invited Bergen to our class–he was nothing but gracious, talking to us about his influences and the process of writing. In addition, he read from the novel and allowed us to see from his viewpoint what he considered to be important emphases in the novel; Bergen fielded questions and entered discussions with remarkable sensitivity and a level of vulnerability that was a gift to the class.

I describe this part of the course as a sample of some of the possibilities and complexities of teaching Mennonite literature and theology. Bergen does not claim to be a Mennonite in any religious sense, although he was raised as the son of a Mennonite pastor, yet his work is often described and read as "Mennonite literature." Bergen does not claim to be speaking or writing for the church, of course, but this novel deals with explicitly religious themes and characters; indeed, many of the characters' names can be classified as ethnically Mennonite–Fehr, Barkman, etc. And so, I found myself in a messy situation–-a Mennonite teaching at Canadian Mennonite University, offering a course in Mennonite literature and theology, not wanting to silence or distort either kind of voice, teaching work written by a non-Mennonite who is 'claimed' in some way by Mennonites, inviting him to speak for himself with a group of Mennonite and non-Mennonite students, hoping in all of this that all of us might find a way forward in understanding and faithfulness.

In conclusion, as I write this description of teaching Mennonite literature in a specific setting and with particular emphases, I find myself considering and reconsidering what kinds of sources to assign. I attended the Mennonite(s) Writing Conference held in Fresno, California in March 2015, a conference that was extremely helpful in terms of meeting writers and hearing papers about the multi-faceted enterprise that is named "Mennonite Literature." That conference featured for the first time a panel discussing LGBT fiction and literary criticism, signalling that another dimension of Mennonite life, thought, and experience is being treated under the kind of rubric under which my course falls. So, one of the changes I will make is to include a novel written by one of the presenters on that panel,[21] and search for theological writing that might enrich our conversations and understanding.

I conclude with a quotation by Daniel Coleman which expresses to a great degree the aspirations I hold for my students and me. "Reading is not solely an exercise to feed one's inner life. Rather, eating the book–not just nibbling at it, or having a little taste here and there, but eating it wholesale–produces a changed person, an empowered person, a different kind of person, and changed people means social and political change, too, not just personal change."[22]

[1] To provide just one example, the class read Anne Tyler's novel Saint Maybe alongside a theological discussion of forgiveness, one of a number of themes explored in Tyler's novel. This kind of reading together of literature and theology opens up possibilities of not only examining forgiveness on the terms of the novel, but allows us to think about the characters in the terms explored by theological writing on the same topic. When this approach "works," the experience of reading the novel and the essay are mutually enriched.

[2] I also felt compelled to have my students read some Jonathan Edwards, Ludwig Feuerbach, John Calvin, and Karl Barth – all of which enhanced our experience of reading Robinson's novels.

[3] For the purposes of the course, and for this paper, I am not making much of the difference between the terms "Anabaptist" and "Mennonite."

[4] Marilynne Robinson, "Credo," Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Spring 2008): 32.

[5] Al Reimer, Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present(North Newton, KA: Bethel C, 1993), 1-2; 56-57.

[6] Gundy, Songs From an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace (Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2013), 17, 18.

[7] Gundy, 21, 22.

[8] Peter Dula, "Review of Jeff Gundy, Songs From an Empty Cage" in Direction 44:1 (Spring 2015): 106-108.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The highly readable source I assign to the students is John Roth, Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2006).

[11] Kirsten Eve Beachy, ed. Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by The Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2010).

[12] Beachy's book provides the very helpful service of making these connections in her index, 307-309.

[13] Grace Kehler, "Representations of Melancholic Martyrdom in Canadian Mennonite Literature," Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011): 167-185.

[14] Rudy Wiebe, Peace Shall Destroy Many (Toronto: Random House, 2001).

[15] Rowan Williams, The Truce of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). The chapter we read is entitled "Illusions of Peace."

[16] Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004).

[17] Beverly Lewis, The Shunning (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997). For invaluable secondary work on this genre of fiction, see Valerie Weaver-Zercher, Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[18] Dora Dueck, This Hidden Thing (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010).

[19] David Bergen, A Year of Lesser (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1996). The title of the first chapter is "Saved;" the first line, "Johnny feels perfectly new." One way of reading the book is to observe that the main character finds a certain kind of redemption in a Christian church, but has to reject that version of redemption in order to continue the pursuit of real redemption.

[20] Stanley Hauerwas, "Sinsick," in Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, eds. Sin, Death, and the Devil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 7-21; Stanley Hauerwas, "Salvation even in Sin: Learning to Speak Truthfully About Ourselves" in Stanley Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 61-74.

[21] Jan Guenther Braun, Somewhere Else (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2008).

[22] Daniel Coleman, In Bed With the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics

(Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2009), front cover.

About the Author

Paul Doerksen

Paul Doerksen is Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at Canadian Mennonite University. He writes and publishes about political theology from an Anabaptist perspective. His collection of essays, Take and Read: Theological Reflections on Books, will be published in 2016.Doerksen grew up near New Bothwell, Manitoba but now lives in Winnipeg. He is a long time member of Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church.