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A Big Book for Big Minds: A Living Alternative

February 4, 2015

WRITER WEDNESDAY: A BOOK REVIEW A Living Alternative AnaB A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World is a big book. Edited by Joanna Harader and A.O. Green, it squeezes in much with narrow margins and almost 300 pages. So this is a book to pick up and savor when you want to read a chapter at a time from one of the 20 authors on spiritual pilgrimages, experiments and experiences in being church, heavier stuff on our post-Christendom world, and living out faith. It is not a book best crammed through hurriedly for a class, or to write a review in a short amount of time!

Which is what I felt I needed to do, since I accepted the offer of a free copy in exchange for a review! Especially when I had about four other books of this nature (mostly Mennonite-written) ahead of it in line. The book functions as a “reader” in contemporary Anabaptism by a variety of current writers, pastors and theologians who speak, blog and engage in conversation about such things. It is not comprehensive in terms of who contributed—I think an invitation went out broadly to and through the MennoNerds network of bloggers. I suspect many passed feeling that they didn’t have the time or had other projects looming.

In an anthology such as this, you tend to first read the chapters from those you know personally, or by whose lives have somehow intersected (online or real life) with your own. So I first turned to Donald Clymer, an author for whom I recently served as editor for a book on spirituality he co-wrote with one of his sisters, Sharon Clymer Landis, The Spacious Heart (Herald Press, Sept, 2014). In The Spacious Heart they both touch frequently on their spiritual pilgrimages but in this anthology, Don fills in the missing pieces while adding his particular take on post-Christendom Christianity. His chapter is called “Conversion from Ethnic Mennonite to a Convinced Anabaptist” and follows the path of many others who grew up culturally and ethnically Mennonite, but not really understanding what the Anabaptist faith was all about.

Brian Gumm, who also lived in Harrisonburg a number of years, now “telecommutes” from Iowa for his main bread and butter doing online educational programming for Eastern Mennonite University. I first took the plunge into blogging after hearing him speak convincingly about his own experiences blogging. His chapter titled “Seeking the Peace of the Farm Town: Anabaptist Mission and Ministry in the Midwest” speaks of his vision as a bi-vocational pastor for Church of the Brethren. The approach he describes is sometimes called “slow church” or more broadly “missional,” where you emphasize getting to know the community, neighbors, and becoming an everyday part of it. This approach bears in mind that God is already at work in a given community, so there is less of parachuting into a situation attempting to change or fix things that don’t work culturally.

I’ve never met this next author, Jamie Arpin‑Ricci, writing “What Anabaptists can learn from St. Francis of Assisi” but I was intrigued to learn more of his background and thinking. The first time I encountered Jamie was when he first contacted Third Way website, for which I also work, as he did social media contacts asking websites for links to The Naked Anabaptist book (Herald Press) by Stuart Murray after it first came out. Jamie leans towards a Franciscan spirituality—that is following the example of St. Francis of Assisi—even to the extend that when he and others first started Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he wished to call it “St. Francis Mennonite Church.” No one thought that would go over too well so they settled on Little Flowers—probably one of the more unusual names for a Mennonite church—as tribute to the flowers and animals that we associate with the nature-loving St. Francis. Jamie’s chapter is fascinating and one of the easier reads in the book, and he has numerous books of his own including a forthcoming title: “Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick.”

From my work curating content for Third Way website and hearing from many folks interested in Mennonite or Anabaptist churches over the years, I know that many people live in areas where they desperately wish there was a local Mennonite church. So it is insightful to hear from some of these writers who are pastors or lay persons in underserved communities. Justin Hiebert addresses this need directly, a Mennonite Brethren pastor who says he realizes he does not wish to pastor a church plant per se, but rather to be in a congregation being planted. In a chapter called “The ministry of availability and community transformation,” he notes that the Mennonite Brethren denomination set a goal (like many denominations) several years ago to plant six new and stable churches a year. Hiebert terms it a practical goal aiming “to create and reproduce more incarnational-missional churches in local communities to disciple more people under the lordship of Jesus” (p. 151). Justin includes great ideas for involving ourselves more intentionally in whatever neighborhood we live in, and notes the first step: get to know your neighbors. P1020582 I also resonated with the chapter from Chris Nickels exploring the concept of Table Fellowship – not the food or cooking but the practice of gathering around tables to just talk, hang out, and fellowship. As a pastor, he notes “the table’s effectiveness as a tool for ministry is that it helps theory become practice.… Sitting down at a table invites us to break from our regular activity and shift our focus. It is a place where we intentionally choose to slow down and really be present with other people” (p. 157). He tells how his congregation, Spring Mount Mennonite Church in suburban Philadelphia, tried a table church liturgy for an experiment. A member who works in construction came across some handsome but well used round tables being discarded from a work site, and asked Chris if the congregation wanted them. They did and the result was that they’ve used the tables in a variety of settings, including a once-a-month worship liturgy incorporating a meal—making use of the particular gifts in the congregation more towards cooking than professional music, for instance. Their “potluck theology” also helps members think about the home table as a place for fellowship and spiritual growth and discipleship. This chapter beautifully provides theological and philosophical framework for the book I called Whatever Happened to Dinner: Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime. His thoughts take this kind of approach a step further for worshipping communities.

Drew Hart is another Philadelphia pastor, young and hard at work on many fronts—which means he is a man to watch in the years ahead as he cuts through the make-nice racial conversations to face down ongoing prejudice and systemic racism even when people know better. Did he coin the word he uses to pinpoint his vision?: Anablacktivism. In his chapter he recounts how he stumbled upon Anabaptists, has researched black theology and Anabaptism, and is currently working on a Ph.D on that topic, along with a more popular-level book. His chapter is much too in depth to summarize here other than to use his own appeal at the end, “Those who desire to find inspiration from the Anabaptist legacy, ought to consider and pursue this by also engaging the Black church and Black theology, all while joining the struggle against white supremacy and the systemic racial violence that continues to disproportionately devastate Black life in America” (p. 215).

The book includes some of the brightest new voices emerging from and about the Anabaptist tradition. Hannah Heinzekehr and Deborah-Ruth Ferber and editor Joanna Harader are the lone female voices but I can hardly criticize the collection for that because other women (including yours truly) had the opportunity and invitation to contribute but either didn’t find the time or didn’t feel they had something worthwhile to add on the topic. Of these I found Deborah-Ruth’s on singleness most engaging—probably because I gravitate towards personal journeys and stories and recall experiencing while age 23 and still single, many of the same feelings myself.

The endorsers and foreword writer are all names known to me as an editor/writer working in this general field: whew: Greg Boyd, Stuart Murrary, Sarah Bessey, Shane Claiborne, Christena Clevland. Good job, editors Joanna Harader and A.O. Green in tagging this book with this depth of Anabaptist-related thinkers. Published by indie house Ettelloc – one might wish for a more winning cover, but that’s a weak criticism, knowing how difficult cover decisions can be. With the diligent study questions closing each chapter and ample bibliographies provided by the authors offering additional resources, any Sunday school class or small group or book discussion group could cherry pick this rich volume and create a study tailor-made for your group’s particular interests and issues.

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How do you live your own faith in our current society? What are you guiding principles?

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Have you read this book? Comments?

This book is available on Amazon and other locations and at the MennoNerds collective.

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From → Faith, Writing Life

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