Blips, Screw-Ups, and Bravos: Moments in Mennonite Media History
Steve Carpenter’s book, Mennonites and Media: Mentioned in It, Maligned by It, and Makers of It (published through Wipf and Stock, 2014) is based on Steve’s recent thesis towards a Master’s of Arts in Religion from Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
As a writer and editor, when a friend or colleague writes a book, do you review it? How can you be fair, objective, and also supportive?
When that book is about a field you have worked in all of your life, how can you be detached, unbiased and dispassionate?
I’ve known Steve through his work for probably about 15 years. He worked for Virginia Mennonite Conference in development and as conference coordinator, and currently works in a development capacity for MennoMedia. (Also my main employer.) He wrote media reviews for Third Way website for many years under our “Media Matters” column which I edited. Steve is a fine, dedicated writer whose love of and fascination with film helped him produce excellent film reviews for Third Way with a knowledgeable and critical eye. He also did film reviews for the Shaping Families radio program I helped produce for three years. A true film buff who loves nothing more than getting a lively conversation going around the latest flick, his thesis and book marries his dedication to the denomination he discovered as an adult, with his love for films, books and media, topped off with an ample serving of Anabaptist/Mennonite history.
Steve comes to Mennonite/Anabaptist history and media with a fresh perspective as a first generation Mennonite who graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where he served as an officer in the Coast Guard. How many Mennonites do you know with that kind of background? He is now a dedicated pacifist—the creator of a bumper sticker which saw some popularity proclaiming “Blessed are the peacemakers–Jesus” with a website url for Third Way.
Steve’s book begins with a helpful historical review of the Anabaptist movement, through the lens of the media of the time (such as Martyrs Mirror), and provides a Cliff Notes version of the topic. Throughout his book, Steve carefully sorts out the very casual and often misleading reference to Mennonites (where Mennonites are frequently confused with Amish or Old Order cousins), to references to Anabaptists in more substantial texts or treatments. It must have been fun brainstorming a laundry list of references to Mennonites in pop culture that sometimes come to mind when Mennonites discuss things like “Was Phyllis Diller a Mennonite?” “Are you related to former pro-footballer Jeff Hostetler?” “What do you think of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic?” “Did you know the creator of The Simpsons was Mennonite?” “What did you think about the Mennonite neighbors in the Amish-themed movie Witness?” “What about Merle Good’s Happy as the Grass Was Green?”
If you’re going huh, huh, huh and huh? you perhaps don’t walk much in the very small subset of people who get excited by this topic. Steve’s index and bibliography are worth the price of the book if you’re in need of a reference tool besides Google for this esoterica. In a nod to the scholarly nature of the work, Steve uses the Ngram, a web-based tool which traces the frequency of how often certain words turn up in print over the centuries, and relates spikes in frequency of words like “Mennonite” and “Anabaptist” to publication of key Mennonite/Anabaptist books.
Since master’s theses specialize in topics no one has quite tackled before, this book deserves study as a basic or supplemental text for communications and media studies in Mennonite-related colleges and universities – or any ministry student who combines a love of theology and Christian pacifist history, with media.
I’ll share several quick examples of media treatment of Mennonites from well known, secular writers/producers which Steve explores:
- Voltaire, author and playwright in the mid 1700s, features an upstanding Anabaptist character in Candide named Jacques. Candide is the main character in Voltaire’s satirical novella.
- An Anabaptist chaplain is a main character in Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22.
- In current times, radio’s Prairie Home Companion founder and main star Garrison Keillor often tells Mennonite jokes, especially if on similar themes of Minnesota Lutherans.
- Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell’s recent reconnecting with Mennonites.
Steve is mostly focused here, as you can tell, on media productions produced in the secular realm, but also spends some time noting briefly why he doesn’t examine well known in-church produced media. Therefore he does not scrutinize or catalog much in the way of church-produced media which is the realm of MennoMedia and the agencies that preceded it under various names. So I’ll forgive Steve for not mentioning one of the biggest shapers of in-church media over 40+ years, Ken Weaver, from the mid 50s to the late 90s. Perhaps that’s because Ken was a CEO, and not a producer with his name on a line of books, radio programs, or TV spots.
At times Steve’s examples seem to hopscotch between print, film/TV and aural/oral, with a heavy emphasis on print. Steve includes a brief nod to online media and even evangelical roadside signs.
The book is rich in examples yet I was always aware that the formation of the book was and is scholarly with the purpose of original research and documentation towards a master’s thesis. As such, I commend it heartily to communication and Anabaptist history students, professors, and even pastors or teachers who enjoy preaching and teaching using current or past examples from media. It might provide an interesting small group or Sunday school class study over a series of weeks, playing/watching samples and then discussing Steve’s analysis compared with their own.
In this book Steve illustrates the powerful influence of media on our culture over the past 500+ years. In college when Fiddler on the Roof movie came out in 1971, I wrote a film review for the college paper. In it I pointed to several touchstones comparing the Jewish storyline to that of Mennonites, and wished for more storytellers to bring to cinema such shining and well-told stories of faith. Steve’s book also illustrates that call and need.
If it were not a scholarly tome, I would have surely begun the book with the ending, where he delves into his personal life and reasons for writing the book. Don’t miss that.
What is your favorite example of secular book, movie or other media which does a great job on artistry as well as faith?