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To remember the past and engage in it

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The Spiritual Practice of Remembering
Margaret Bendroth
William B. Eerdmans

Review by Stephanie Chase

What is the subject?

Margaret Bendroth exposes several modern presuppositions regarding history: the past becomes irrelevant as time moves forward, we are more self aware and cultured than our ancestors, we have presently “arrived” at the focal point of human achievement. As a result of these misconceptions, we live in a culture that does not remember well, but rather attempts to draw “tidy moral lessons,” entertainment and warnings from the past.

However, the Christian tradition is participative: a story stretching back to the Ancient Near East, one that was happening before us and one that will continue to happen after we have passed. Thus, Christians must engage in the practice of remembering, placing God at the centre of our collective history.

Who is the author?

Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library & Archives (Boston, Mass.) and a scholar of American history. As one who professionally remembers, she encourages her readers to draw from the past not as mere tourists, but as participants in an ongoing story.

Why this book?

We read that involvement across all denominations is waning, perhaps because we do not remember where we came from. There is a push to do away with the categories that can divide us – Mennonite, Calvinist, Presbyterian, Methodist – and identify as solely Christians. And certainly, we all are Christians, but we cannot divorce ourselves from the history that has come before. We cannot become stranded in 21st century.

Comment on the book’s theological perspective in light of the MB Confession of Faith.

Article 6 of the MB Confession of Faith states: “the church is one body of believers, male and female, from every nation, race and class. The head of this body is Christ.” We must conceive of this body of believers not just as those of us alive today, but also of the communion of saints from ages past. We do not “‘stand on the shoulders’ of our ancestors,” but rather join hands with them.

Key insight

To be a Christian is to remember the past and engage with it, through conversation with the words of those who have gone before us, who “are still speaking the same language of faith.” If we are to truly understand what God has been doing, continues to do and will do in the world, we need to remember. We need to ground ourselves humbly in the faith of our forefathers and foremothers. We need to resist the temptation to declare the past irrelevant.

Who should read it?

As Mennonite Brethren, we are part of the ongoing story of God’s people, from Abraham until today. We are also heirs to a rich Anabaptist heritage, filled with ups and downs, beckoning us to follow after Christ. Were our spiritual forefathers and foremothers perfect? We can safely say “no.” However, our worship and discipleship today is in continuation with them: their radical Reformation, their martyrdom, their refugee status, their commitment to a church of voluntary believers. This is a rich history, and we will be the poorer if we cut ourselves off from Conrad Grebel, Margaret Hottinger, Hans Denck, Menno Simons and many others.

Favourite quotes

“We are simply part of the same communion of saints, God’s people spread across time and space, who need each other to ‘perfect’ our faith. We are not isolated from the past or forever stranded in the present – we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.”

“The communion of saints is not a cloud of perfection or an undifferentiated mass of the living and the dead, but something far more incomprehensible: the infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.”

[Stephanie Chase is studying theology at Briercrest Seminary. She calls Regina and Parliament Community Church home.

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