By Layton Friesen
Something happened in Mennonite churches in the last one hundred years. As Mennonites embraced global missions, as they moved to cities and planted churches beyond traditional Mennonite communities, they began having identity issues. What is a Mennonite now?
One answer became the answer: a true Mennonite is a naked Anabaptist. An Anabaptist, it was argued, is a Mennonite minus Mennonite culture, and this pure Anabaptism is portable, you can take it to the city, to Africa, to Japan. All the faith with none of the culture.
We then began to extract Anabaptist distinctives, which were the portrait of the Mennonite soul without the body, stripped of all its cultural trappings. We began to focus on Anabaptist history, but only of the 16th century, when “the Brethren” apparently lived this pure, un-encultured Anabaptist life.
The cultural part of being a Low German Mennonite in the 20th century was relegated to a guilty pleasure, a side-show indulged in by visiting museums, Low German comedy evenings and eating decadent food like schmauntfat.
The manifesto for this bare Anabaptism was Harold Bender’s 1945 essay The Anabaptist Vision in which he sought to give urban Mennonites a “useable past.” He boiled Mennonite coffee down to an Anabaptist stain at the bottom of the pot: discipleship, church as community and pacifism. John Howard Yoder, Mennonites’ hero-theologian of the 20th century, could barely hide his disdain for actual Mennonite life lived in the centuries since 1525. The title of his essay, Anabaptist Vision, Mennonite Reality, said it all.
The irony of this has been that, as EMC Mennonites shed their Mennonite overalls and bonnets, they quickly dove into Anglo-Evangelical pants, as though that were somehow a faith relieved of all the problems of culture. Anglo-Evangelical Christianity seemed less cultural, we thought, but only because the people we wanted to imitate appeared in public that way. But this was no more a pure faith than the old Kleine Gemeinde. It’s interesting how “evangelical” is now becoming a culture people want to get rid of.
This whole project has not always been helpful. Our soul is always embodied, and no faith exists “out there,” floating free of culture. My faith is finally indistinguishable from all the ways I act, dress, talk and think. Culture is not a barrier to the gospel, but should rather be that particular way we have, among our folks, of caring for each other across generations and being hospitable.
We should seek for more culture, not less. Within the increasingly secular culture of North America, Christians need to get serious about creating culture. Our commitment to the gospel should result in peculiar art, food, music and ways of dressing, that give expression to how we know Jesus.
Especially we need to be serious about creating institutions. We need schools, websites, clubs, and associations for this or that venture—this is how we build and sustain Christian culture over time. Christian culture does not exist in isolation from mainstream culture, but by its very distinctness has an alternative to offer the world.
There is no culture-free Christianity. There is only Agueda bringing tamales to shut-ins. There is Spencer playing guitar in a worship band singing The Blessing. There is Sophia inviting her neighbours for pyrizhky and halupki over Ukrainian Christmas. There is Isaak who loves pluma moos, rebuilding his neighbor’s barn. All of these are Mennonites, properly dressed.
What culture are you making and sharing?