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A life examined

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A Usable Past? A Story of Living and Thinking Vocationally at the Margins
Paul Peachey

DreamSeeker Books, 2008
252 pages


At age 90, Paul Peachey looks back over his life in A Usable Past? and attempts to make sense of the twists and turns in his journey.

Growing up in a rural Amish-Mennonite family, Peachey entered young adulthood at the beginning of WWII. Registered as a conscientious objector, he was given the option of attending Bible college. Following the war, Peachey and his wife Ellen served with MCC in Europe, where he also completed a doctorate, analyzing the social factors surrounding the rise of the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland.

In 1953, they returned to the United States where he taught at Eastern Mennonite College for four years. Between 1957 and 1967, Peachey promoted ecumenical conversations about pacifism; first in Japan, then as the director of the Church Peace Mission in the U.S. From 1967 to 1987 Peachey taught sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Peachey, along with Ellen, spent 14 years following retirement as the resident study director for the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, outside of Washington, D.C.

In the first three sections of the book Peachey arranges the narrative along both chronological and thematic lines. Peachey provides the reader with a vast amount of tedious detail, and his mixed approach tends to be repetitive. By the end, I felt I would have liked more “content” about the issues he grappled with, rather than a meticulous recounting of the experiences he had.

Peachey attempts to interpret his life story in the last section of the book through several contrasting images: creation/salvation; ekklesia/diaspora; sacred/secular; and human/Christian. Peachey’s personal narrative identifies his experience at both ends of these dualisms, expressed most vividly in his study of theology and sociology, in his identification with Mennonites and Catholics, and in his involvement in the pacifist/just war debate.

The tension between these conflicting poles puts Peachey in the margins of both the Mennonite and Catholic communities. In the end, however, he suggests that neither Anabaptism nor Christendom is capable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century. While he points to the need for a symbiotic relationship between the conflicting images he uses, his conclusions are ambiguous.

Peachey is to be commended for reflecting back on his life and attempting to comprehend the movement of God within his experiences. Yet I came away disappointed and unsatisfied – perhaps because the tensions he raises are those we have encountered before, or perhaps because I was hoping the wisdom of age would remove some of the mystery that, at times, shrouds our path.

Then again, perhaps it is the ability to acknowledge that mystery, and the continuing need to walk by faith – even at 90 – which makes the past usable.

—Doug Heidebrecht

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