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Dusting off old books

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It’s now three months since I started my new post as director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, located at the Canadian conference office in Winnipeg. These weeks have been filled with meeting a new group of colleagues, learning a new office culture, and developing a new set of research practices. All of this has been a welcome challenge and, surprisingly, one not unlike what I encountered in my last post as a seminary professor.

Collaborating with others on research projects, writing essays on topics of interest to Christian readers, making presentations to encourage others, and tracking down obscure but significant details of church history, are all things that have occupied me during much of my professional life.

I continue to be amazed at the resources both in personnel and material (print, video, and photographic) that are located here at the Centre on Taylor Avenue. Archivist Conrad Stoesz and a group of committed volunteers keep busy cataloguing new acquisitions and responding to the genealogical and historical queries that come daily from interested patrons. The excellent facilities and large holdings make the Centre an excellent resource for Mennonite studies of all kinds.

A summer sample

Here are three examples of inter-actions from the summer:

Two artists came looking for photographs of Mennonite women. They were seeking inspiration for a set of paintings for their next exhibit. Using the Centre’s database of more than 18,000 photographs, each stored in an acid-free plastic sleeve and searchable by keyword, the artists quickly found photographs of interest to them, promising to mention the Centre in the credits at the exhibit.

A church leader asked me to find out what Mennonite Brethren have written regarding heaven and hell. The buzz from Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins was the instigation. I located relevant study conference papers on the subject, something anyone can do because digital versions of most papers presented at MB study conferences from 1956 to the present are available online. See the “theology” drop-down menu on the Centre’s website (www.mbconf.ca/cmbs).

Another leader asked me to research what MBs have written concerning the atonement. I’m working my way through the four confessions of faith Mennonite Brethren have used in their 150-year history (1853, 1902, 1975, and 1999), noting how the saving significance of the cross is articulated. The results of this research will be presented at a workshop in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., for the 2011 study conference “The Mystery of the Cross” (Oct. 27–29).

Adding value to the church in mission

As I think about the Centre, I see its primary role as helping people tell and shape the story of Mennonite Brethren involvement in the mission of Christ, a mission we are all called to share. Specifically, the Centre aims to add value to the church in mission in two ways.

1. Collecting and preserving MB church records (board minutes, conference proceedings, publications, personal papers, etc.). The acquisition of six boxes of personal files and papers from the late scholar and teacher David Ewert’s estate in July is a good example of the Centre doing its job.
2. Resourcing church leaders with research and writing on topics of pertinence to the church. The preparations for the upcoming study conference in Kitchener-Waterloo line up with this mandate.

Is there anything else? Well, I do have a dream. I wonder about adding “worship resources” as another way the Centre can equip the church. I would like to track and archive a sampling of Mennonite Brethren preaching and worship materials. Over time, these could become an important tool for documenting how the church’s theology evolves. The songs that are most popular, the texts most often preached, all give a snapshot of MB thinking at a particular time. The Centre’s website could become a go-to site, not only for historians and theologians, but also for worship leaders as they plan sermon series, choose worship music, and find prayers and readings for specific occasions.

These are my initial reflections; I expect they will be honed with time and experience. Please contact me if you have a comment, suggestion, or research query.

Jon Isaak is a member of River East MB Church, where his wife Mary Anne is pastor. This article first appeared in the Mennonite Historian newsletter.

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