Memoir explores theology of poetry
Fans of Jean Janzen, the celebrated Mennonite poet, will be intrigued by her new memoir, Entering the Wild. Janzen’s book chronicles her life in a diverse collection of personal essays. Delving into her past, she explores the divine appointments in her life – a collection of moments, people, places, words, and images that shaped her unique-yet-accessible voice as a writer. Though Janzen’s verse may veil in mystery the specific inspiration that shapes each poem, the prose of personal memoir makes it possible for the reader to inhabit the moments of creative illumination Janzen relives in telling her life story. Those familiar with Janzen’s other works will be delighted to find a consistency between the themes and theology of her poetry and her memoir.
Thematically, this collection is consistent with Janzen’s other literary works. Legacy, place, creativity, and surrender will be familiar motifs to those who have enjoyed Janzen’s award-winning poetry. While these themes are customary in Janzen’s texts, this memoir is in no way stale; rather, it brings a new, personal perspective into the forces that have shaped Janzen. While the book chronicles her life, she humbly draws the reader’s attention away from herself and into her experiences and relationships. The text as a whole is nothing short of a memorial, paying homage to a personal history of people and landscapes that have provided inspiration, insight, and support.
Janzen reveals a Wordsworthian sensibility in her writing, often experiencing transcendent inspiration through memory, rather than in the moment itself. In her essays, she treats her recollections of personal history much like they are experienced, as waves of images and thoughts: her memories, like ours, do not unfold as a singular, linear narrative. These waves often overlap, as she describes scenes from her early childhood in rural Saskatchewan, her adolescence in the American Midwest, her newlywed experience in Chicago, and her motherhood in California. Interrupting these stories of domestic life, Janzen describes pilgrimages to the birthplace of her ancestors and connections to the literary craft of fellow theologians and poets.
The essays have a feeling of separateness from one another, often repeating details encountered in the other works of the collection. This is, at times, tedious. The pacing of this text is plodding, quite unlike Janzen’s poetry, which is compelling (requiring the reader to participate and anticipate throughout the reading process). Entering the Wild is more passive and sentimental than her other works. The reader is left with the impression that, in her daily life, Janzen sees herself not as an actor, but as one who is acted upon. She is one who has surrendered to the circumstances and powers that have shaped her. Now, as she reflects upon her life journey, she does so with gratitude and humility.
Janzen’s accounts of significant moments in her life indirectly reveal her beliefs about God, community, Creation, and the vocation of the artist; the reader will not find a direct statement of theology, unlike the argument found in her text Elements of Faithful Writing. Janzen’s spirituality is not abstract, but grounded: connections to specific places and people are the means by which she encounters the divine.
For some readers, Janzen’s “embodied theology” (more on this in Elements of Faithful Writing) may pose a challenge. She rebels against the Christian Gnosticism that has been popular in many faith traditions, instead highlighting pleasant sensory experiences and practical engagement.
Janzen experiences God in both the mystic and the practical. She finds God’s presence in her everyday life: familiar hymns, landscapes of home, and relationships with her community. Her ideology and voice as Christian writer are shaped by the words of her literary predecessors, contemporaries, and instructors. This said, Janzen’s perspective is not devoid of a rational approach to understanding God – her memoir often alludes to the systematic study of theology as common practice in her home and church – but this means of gaining spiritual understanding is secondary to her experiences with the tangible.
In lectures at Bethel College (recorded in Elements of Faithful Writing), she offers her view that good art arises from necessity and represents a joining with God in the acts of creation and regeneration. This idea that the artist engages in God’s creative work and redemptive plan may challenge readers (like Mennonites!) who follow traditions that have practiced iconoclasm. Those looking for a scholarly justification for this view will not find it in this memoir; instead, Entering the Wild provides numerous examples of this theory in practice.
In her daily life, Janzen stays true to the theology and values more directly expressed in her other work. Her memoir reveals this authenticity. Moreover, even the most skeptical theologian will find it difficult to be offended by Janzen’s views when presented as memories in a humble tribute to God, Creation, and the other influencing forces in her life.
Entering the Wild provides a charming personal context for those who have established an appreciation for Janzen’s eloquent verse. Learning more about the people and experiences that inspired Janzen invites the reader to pull her other works off the shelf and peruse with new eyes the words that have already delighted.
To those who have not yet discovered Jean Janzen’s distinguished voice, I suggest reading one of her volumes of poetry before taking up this autobiographical piece. The essays in Entering the Wild speak to Janzen’s poetry, a conversation difficult to appreciate without experience with the preceding texts.
Writers looking for guidance in or development of their own theology of authorship should not expect to find elements of instruction in this memoir. They would experience a greater benefit from Janzen’s aforementioned Elements of Faithful Writing, which offers a more direct education in her approach to the creative process and the Vocation of the Artist.
Entering the Wild expresses gratitude for God, family, and friends, the community that shaped Janzen’s life and work. It reveals the authenticity of Janzen’s other texts, inspiring the reader to daily live in a manner more consistently grounded in the redemptive work of Christ.
—Robin Lawrence is an instructor and academic counsellor at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, B.C. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of the Fraser Valley and is working towards the completion of an MCS in Christianity and the arts at Regent College, Vancouver.