Krista Ehst, a young Mennonite from Pennsylvania, recently spent some months in the UK as an intern. On her return to the USA we invited her to write down her reflections.
I am deeply tied to my Mennonite heritage. I love going to four-part hymn sings; I cherish memories of learning to bake shoo-fly pie1 with my grandmother; I love walking across the acres that have been farmed by my Mennonite ancestors for ten generations. I return from the UK, however, wondering if these Mennonite traditions are connected to the Anabaptist faith I also claim.
My short time in the UK was deeply energizing. Conversing with folks who are a part of the Anabaptist Network and Urban Expression revealed many who, in spite of no cultural or familial or denominational tie to the Anabaptist tradition, are seeking to live out the Anabaptist call to a Jesus- centred discipleship of peace-making, simple living, and alignment with the poor and marginalized.
I encountered Anabaptism as it was being explored for the first time, and it seemed not only fresh and exciting, but somehow more pure and authentic. I missed my hymn sings and potlucks, but I wondered if I was better off without traditions that perhaps only distracted from or diluted the radical Anabaptist values to which so many in the UK are being drawn.
I am now back in the Mennonite heartland of Pennsylvania, and I am still wrestling with this tension between my beloved Mennonite traditions and the less culturally specific values of Anabaptism.
Some North American Mennonites are asking us to let go of the particularities and distinctives of out tradition, to embrace amore inclusive, relevant, and accessible Jesus-centred faith. As a young woman who feels increasingly called to bring Jesus’ gospel to the marginalized of our communities, part of me resonates with this.
If four-part hymn singing is only meaningful for people who are born into a particular church tradition, then how do they communicate Jesus’ message of healing and love to those who most need to hear it?
But another part of me deeply resists ‘letting go’ of the traditions that have shaped my family, my faith community, and my sense of self.
I recently wandered across an old blog posting on the website ‘Young Anabaptist Radicals’. The blogger was ruminating over this push to release the ‘old’ ways, and found some writings of Jacques Derrida very helpful in this reflection process. He paraphrases Derrida in the following paragraph:
The old is never something that ends. The future ‘also continues something.’ Deconstruction is about being honest about our past. We don’t repress the oddness of our heritage. We shouldn’t be embarrassed of our particularity. No. That’s simply who we are. Instead, Derrida wants us to inhabit the tension of a past that doesn’t abandon the old while waiting for something ‘absolutely new.’ (Quotations from Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p6)
There are times when we do indeed need to question the traditions of old. When baking a certain kind of pie becomes a more important marker of faith than serving our neighbour or preaching Jesus’ message of peace, then we need to seriously reconsider that pie-baking ritual. But we should not give up certain recipes or songs or traditions simply because they are odd or don’t make sense to the rest of society. In a society that is increasingly disconnected from a sense of history, and in a culture of increasingly fragmented individuals, holding on to a communal story and faith tradition seems imperative. And as people who seek to follow a Jesus who never made much sense to those around him, there just might be ways that our quirky traditions can grab people’s attention and point them in the direction of a radically counter-cultural gospel.
Am I trying to claim that shoo-fly pie holds some sort of gospel truth? Absolutely not! I only fear that, in the hurried efforts to make faith more relevant and culturally appealing, we will wind up with a generic church that slips ever more readily into the mainstream messages of our culture and world. When our traditions become merely habitual or serve as exclusive barriers, we should not forsake them, but re-instil them with the subversive values of our faith in Christ.
So what would this look like for the Mennonite traditions I connect with? In a culture that is so individualized and personalized, it might mean intentionally singing four-part hymns in the hope of communicating our efforts to harmonize with a gathered community of many parts. But in order for this to be more than an empty ideal, that practice would need to be explicitly articulated to those within and outside of the community, and many song- teaching sessions would be required.
Similarly, the beloved Mennonite potluck meal provides a wonderful way with which to share needs, foster community, and gather many to the fellowship table. But it is only an authentic communication of Jesus- centred discipleship when we remember to invite the outsider, the stranger, and the one on the margins.
My time in the UK made me more aware of the ways in which our Mennonite traditions have become empty and have failed to helpfully communicate a Jesus-centred Anabaptist faith. I also became very conscious of the fact that our particular cultural traditions are just that – particular and cultural. The Pennsylvania Mennonite way of being Anabaptist is not the only way of being Anabaptist, and to assume so would be to tragically limit a movement that has the ability to move across and beyond culture and tradition.
The critique I return with, however, is balanced by my gratitude for being grounded in a faith community that is distinguished by particular practices and markers. And I wonder whether it might be helpful for British and Irish Anabaptists to develop some of their own distinctive rituals and traditions in order to speak and sing and act their faith into the surrounding culture.
The gathered community is such an essential part of the Anabaptist tradition, and I believe all gathered communities of faith need markers by which to know themselves and to be known and recognized. We can speak of peace- making, simplicity, and service, but in order authentically to live out and sustain those values, we need rituals and traditions that help us to practise them until they are an innate part of our lives.
The challenges facing our contexts, then, seem contrasted and complementary. North American Mennonites need to be wary of idolizing our cultural traditions and strive to infuse long-held practices with the radical message of Jesus’ gospel. British and Irish Anabaptists must be in conversation with past traditions and develop markers that help to distinguish Anabaptist-oriented communities of faith.
It seems that we make ideal conversation partners. I hope the newness of the one and oldness of the other can provide fertile ground for learning and growth.
The recipe for shoo-fly pie appears on page 280 of Doris Janzen Longacre’s More With Less Cookbook (available from www.metanoiabooks.org.uk).