Anabaptist in a little black dress

You’d be hard pressed to find more contrasting views of the same subject than Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen and The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray.

Both are sympathetic studies in Anabaptism; they have equally provocative titles; but they see very different things.

Their titles indicate a common starting point – Mennonites are “a peculiar people.” Those with a memory of the King James Version might recognize this as a proud epitaph of kingdom people: “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9). That’s our ideal, but it isn’t the whole story. There are times when we’re just plain puzzling.

Murray and Janzen examine that puzzle each from the perspective of his and her own journey.

On one hand, Murray writes as the ultimate outsider; he is an Englishman. The scattering of the Anabaptists over the past 500 years sent them to every corner of the globe, except the British Isles. And so it was that in the early 1990s, when a small group of Anabaptists in London began meeting, they faced a daunting challenge. There “was no straightforward introduction to Anabaptism easily accessible in Britain and Ireland,” says Murray.

It isn’t that there were no Anabaptist books in English, nor that the English of North America is too obscure for the UK reader. No, the problem is far more subtle and difficult. The standard explanations were missing the mark. So Murray tells the story as an “extended testimony written by a British Anabaptist to explain his Anabaptist convictions.”

Core convictions

It’s a powerful book. “Naked” gets our attention, however the nakedness Murray examines is not anatomical but philosophical and theological. What is stripped down Anabaptism? Murray lays out seven core convictions that will surprise no one familiar with Anabaptism.

What surprised me, however, was the sound of an old story told with a new voice, a voice we haven’t heard in our 500 years. It’s the voice of someone actually separating from Christendom (but not Christianity) and becoming Anabaptist. That’s radical.

We know we’re a “separated people,” but hearing the story of our separatism told from inside this journey reveals it in a way that only our earliest ancestors would have understood it. Our peculiarity has a reason.

Murray, the outsider moving in, is convinced that what our ancestors saw needs to be seen again. I agree. Anabaptism began as a compelling argument – an argument that attracted believers by its sheer power.

The inside story

On the other hand, Rhoda Janzen is the ultimate insider. She also writes with a voice that we don’t hear often enough. She grew up in one of the Mennonite heartlands, Fresno, California. Not only did she live deep in the Mennonite world, her father was one of the leaders of the MB conference. She lived the inside story. She grew up a fully clothed Anabaptist. But she hated being peculiar.

She left that world and did so in grand fashion: she went to the city, married an atheist, became an academic, and moved as far from her roots as any Mennonite can. The little black dress is the exact antithesis of the Anabaptism she grew up with.

Her chosen world crashed down around her in equally grand fashion. At 43, she had a hysterectomy, her husband left her for another man, and she was debilitated in a car crash. Incapacitated in virtually every way, she followed the ancient journey of the prodigal and moved back home into the house of her mother and father.

Once she’s home again, Janzen searches for her identity. This is not a theological journey. Unlike The Naked Anabaptist, the Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is the journey into the visceral meaning of community. But it’s also a quest for essence.

If being Mennonite is not about the cultural trappings that have been draped over it for hundreds of years, what does it look like when a whole new set of cultural baggage is added? What is an Anabaptist in a little black dress? Is there even such a creature?

Janzen thinks there is. She moved home with her little black dress and all its accoutrements – fully expecting to be rejected – but to her surprise, she wasn’t and she intends to stay.

Janzen’s story is more dissonant than Murray’s. After all, “little black dress” people set off all kinds of Anabaptist alarm bells. You’ll probably hear some if you read her memoir.

If the peculiarity of Anabaptism troubles you, read both these books. They need each other.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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