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Family Matters II: Some Reflections on Celebration 2010

So, Celebration 2010 (a recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren family held in the Vancouver area this past week) has come and gone and I find myself in reflection mode.  One of the topics that generated significant discussion and debate was the nature of our Mennonite Brethren identity.  Are we evangelical Anabaptists or Anabaptist Evangelicals?  What is it, exactly, that we gather around as people from such diverse contexts?  Is it theology?  A shared history/common story?  Is it relationships that have formed between people and communities over time?  All of the above?  And what happens if/when these individual commonalities and relationships begin to break down, as some see to be the case in the Canadian MB context?

Our denomination invests a lot of autonomy at the local church level.  There are good theological reasons for this—Anabaptists have always had a “flat” ecclesiology and have at least claimed to be a community where sharp distinctions between laity and clergy were inappropriate, and where the voice of God was discerned and interpreted through the whole community.  This all sounds very good and on one level it is.  I am glad that we at least try to allow a diversity of voices to be heard at our provincial, national, and global gatherings.  And I am glad that local congregations are allowed to decide for themselves how to deal with difficult, non-confessional issues in a way that is most appropriate for advancing the gospel in their specific context (i.e., the issue of women in ministry leadership coming out of our 1999 gathering).

And yet… All of this makes it extremely difficult to nail down what it is, exactly, that unites us.  When our individual churches can and do look very different, both in how they do church and in their theological convictions, in what sense does it make sense to refer to them as belonging to the same denomination?  I have had conversations with (non-Mennonite) people who have attended an MB church and been very surprised to discover how un-Mennonite it was.  I am quite confident that if they would have attended another MB church in another province or even in a different part of the same province, their experience would have been very different.  One of the questions that I came away from this weekend asking was, how much diversity can a denomination tolerate without the denominational identifier becoming unhelpful at best, and meaningless at worst?

The question is worth asking for the sake of those who might walk through our church’s doors each week.  People have a right, I think, to have some idea what to expect when they worship at a church that identifies itself as Mennonite Brethren.  But it is also worth asking for the sake of those who have been part of the church for a long time, and for the sake of those who find themselves in positions of leadership.  The question of identity matters for all of us.  We all need to feel like we have some understanding of the group(s) to which we belong and, further, that the stories that are told—the way that reality is narrated and framed each week—resonates with us, personally.

There were times, over the course of the past week, where I found myself nodding and mm-hmming to what I heard.  There were other times where I had some questions about what was being presented, but could easily see how this or that interpretation or viewpoint could be held within a consistent Anabaptist worldview.  There were other times, though, where this was not the case.  During my relatively brief time as a pastor in this conference, I have noticed that we have, at times, some distinctive ways of narrating our story as a people and our ongoing part in God’s story that make me uncomfortable.  So, like many, I am leaving Celebration 2010 with some questions:

  1. Is there a uniquely Mennonite Brethren identity that is consistent and can be helpfully articulated in and for today’s context?
  2. Does the way that MB identity is currently understood and framed in our context resonate with me, personally?

These are tough questions, but I think they will be important ones, both for our broader denominational family, as well as for me as one little individual that contributes to the whole.

This morning I worshiped at the small Mennonite church my parents attend in southern Alberta.  On the way to church, we drove past three relatively large churches with relatively full parking lots.  In each of these, either a strong sense of ethnic identity or theological persuasion (or both) are present.  Whatever I might think of the theology of these churches, it seems obvious that a lack of clarity about their identity is not among their problems.  They know who they are.  I am growing increasingly unsure that the same can be said about the Mennonite Brethren church.  Perhaps this is a good (or at least a tolerable) thing, perhaps not.  It will be interesting to see what the next 150 years holds.

Those who are interested can drop by the MB Herald’s Celebration 2010 blog to get a sense of what the past week looked and sounded like.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think this diversity is found in many denominations. It was there in the PCUSA too. Challenge or opportunity, I don’t know either, but it is common.

    July 19, 2010
  2. Do you feel free to say which “distinctive ways of narrating our story” make you uncomfortable? Are you referring to a tone or to the “plot” of the story or…? Just curious.

    July 19, 2010
    • I think both the tone and the plot make me uneasy at times. As far as tone goes, there often seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality, especially at higher profile events like Celebration 2010. We don’t seem to be able to talk about what we are doing without resorting to superlatives—whether it’s regarding missions work, church planting or whatever. God is nearly always described as doing “amazing” or “unbelievable” things through this or that ministry, but even a little bit of scratching beneath the surface of the rhetoric produces some questions.

      I remember hearing some of the rhetoric about “Mission Calgary” around a decade ago when I lived in Alberta. The language of superlatives was everywhere. Yet I heard this past week that over half of the churches produced by that initiative have closed their doors. I’m not saying that good things weren’t done through Mission Calgary or that good things won’t be done by similar initiatives in other locations. It just troubles me that we don’t seem to be able to describe what we’re doing without a steady stream of superlatives. Do we think that we won’t be able to “sell” missions if we say something like, “you know, the ‘results’ don’t seem to be coming like we hoped and prayed they might, but we will continue to patiently and obediently serve and love our neighbours in the places God has placed us?”

      As far as the plot goes, I sometimes wonder about the “people of the book” language as a way of describing who we are as a people. As someone with love of theology (and not trained in an MB institution), I have reservations about this as a denominational marker. At times, we can give the impression that we think that everyone else messes around with all their systems and theologies, while we just read our Bibles and follow Jesus. This seems very simplistic (not to mention a bit arrogant) to me. We all have theologies and we all employ them regularly. The view that we ought to just read our Bibles and follow Jesus is based on very specific theological assumptions about the nature of Scripture, the nature of God, not to mention anthropological assumptions. I was glad to hear one of the speakers last week make a comment something to the effect of, “it’s time for us to realize that theology is not a dirty word.” I think we have some distance to go, though.

      There’s more that I could say, but I’ve rambled enough for now. Thanks for pushing a bit, Dora :).

      July 19, 2010
      • Thanks Ryan, I appreciate your further insights into what you meant by your statement.
        I would resonate with much of what you say. For me, being an introvert, the pressure to be “enthusiastic” (as opposed to simply committed) has always been difficult to handle. Which goes along with your comment about superlatives. — As for the “people of the book” language, I was astonished at the way it was being tossed about at the recent conference. I don’t really recall us using this before, though my memory may not be serving me well here. I’ve always understood that label to be broadly referencing the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, Christianity). But for our denom, specifically? I believe it takes us in a non-helpful direction, as you put it so well above.

        July 20, 2010
      • James #

        I think that the label “The People of the Book” needs to be placed into a context. It is a marker of Anabaptism that historians as diverse as Denny Weaver and Harold Bender use. I don’t think it is a fringe concept. In a great plenary with Doug Heidebrecht and Tim Geddert with started to flesh out some of its components- but barely scratched the surface. It is linked closely to another problematic idea- that of Biblicism. This is not a simplistic piece. I found it interesting that it was an African MB speaker who challenged us on that point. Dora is right that we rarely use it any more- and probably that is why it sounds a little peculiar.
        I suspect that the day to day meaning of this label, as with the other Anabaptist labels, needs to be fleshed out again- and not always in context of a brand of American fundamentalism that we are determined to distance ourselves from. If I hear “bibliolatry” one more time I’m going to scream. Just kidding 🙂

        July 20, 2010
      • Ken #

        James (or Michael, or Dora or Ryan) in an article that Yoder wrote in an the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Yoder described Mennonites as biblicists (without explaining what he meant.) Does that mean that Mennonites take the Bible literally?

        Yoder also described Mennonites as evangelical (without explaining what he meant.) What does evangelical mean in the Mennonite context?

        July 20, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken. Evangelical and biblical are both problematic words for us and we spend a fair bit of time arguing about them. But I will try to fairly explain Yoder’s usage.
        Biblical is juxtaposed against theological. Biblical is linked to inductive logic while theological is linked to deductive logic. Anabaptists railed against what they considered theological machinations of the scholastics. They were determined not to be speculative but read the Scriptures by their plain reading and leave the mysteries as mysteries. The bottom line was not a theory but life practice. It is easy to see where the critique of narrowly defined Biblicism comes from. Yoder of course never understood it narrowly but I believe correctly challenged speculative theology.
        Evangelical is simply the “Good News” of the Kingdom of God into which Jesus invites His followers. That Kingdom is entered by the new birth. The classic statement is Menno Simon’s famous “True evangelical faith” declaration. This is posted on virtually every Anabaptist website. The modern usage of “evangelical” is mostly irrelevant, IMHO 🙂 It doesn’t keep us from arguing endlessly about how evangelical we are or aren’t.
        I suspect that most early Anabaptists would have said they take the Bible literally- but that was juxtaposed against metaphorical hermenutics and systematic theories. It does not mean a wooden or ahistorical reading of the text.
        Hope that helps.

        July 20, 2010
      • Ken #

        Thanks, James. It does help.

        re: “I suspect that most early Anabaptists would have said they take the Bible literally- but that was juxtaposed against metaphorical hermenutics and systematic theories.”

        In the PCUSA context in which I served, reading the Bible “literally” meant believing that Jesus rose from the dead, will come again, Mary was a virgin and so forth. Such beliefs were generally criticized. But no one, including the ones who believed those things read the Bible completely literally – everyone seemed to also read it through “metaphorical hermeneutics and systematic theories.”

        July 21, 2010
      • James #

        On the one hand- Biblicists try to expose and avoid the “metaphorical interpretations and systematic theories” that are hidden in the various schools of thought and press towards inductive evidence.
        On the other hand- deductive theologians challenge the biblical scholars that they are also bringing presuppositions to the table.
        This is an ancient argument that goes back to the Greek Academy. IMO it is a healthy argument if kept in balance. IMHO at the present time inductive thinking is generally at a very low ebb and “metaphorical interpretations and systematic theories” are generally running the show, aware and unchecked. We need a Socrates to dismantle the post modern nonsense we are immersed in. I can’t resist a bit of commentary 🙂

        July 21, 2010
      • Ken #

        James, I don’t think I am getting the distinction between inductive and deductive. I think what you are saying sounds very interesting. I would like to hear more.

        My impression of the Biblical scholars at the university where I studied is that they tried to be aware of their presuppositions and biases and tried to overcome them for the sake of their historical work. I think they thought that complete objectivity was not possible, but thought their effort to be objective was worth it.

        July 21, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        I found a site with the kind of explanation I grew up with.
        http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/dedind.php
        Imagine arguments being tracked as to which of these 2 grids they fit into. There are all kinds of philosophical arguments around this- but for Biblical studies in our tradition this was/is an important distinction.
        While it can sound like an arcane philosophical debate I think it hits on an important distinction in Biblical/theological studies. But maybe it’s because I’m old fashioned 🙂

        July 22, 2010
      • Ken #

        Thanks, James. Now I understand. And I agree with your observation.

        July 22, 2010
  3. You might find an essay by Paul Doerkson interesting – it’s called “Share the House: Yoder and Hauerwas Among the Nations,” in A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder. He’s MB, and there considers some of the same questions, including how Mennonite can hold on to their (traditionally) subversive emphasis on freedom of confession amid the wider, uncritical evangelical acceptance of modern individualism and freedom of choice – a freedom that may undermine Mennonite identity and pacifism. His footnotes are particularly fruitful, if I remember correctly.

    July 19, 2010
  4. Ken #

    At the blog you referenced, the author wrote: “One of the major themes of this 150th anniversary gathering has been the obvious fact that an evangelical heart, caring about the saving power of Jesus Christ, is in our DNA.”

    What does evangelical mean in the Mennonite context? Do you think it is expressed in that sentence?

    Your response to Dora, in reference to Mennonite theology, you wrote: “we just read our Bibles.” At the university I think that is what we did, without trying to follow Jesus, or work within a theology. The seminary I attended believed that is impossible. The university scholars were attempting to understand what the words meant, by applying linguistics, history, archeology and other academic disciplines. I think they were quite successful. The problem to a religious person is that this study reveals a great rift between the theology of the ancient world and the theology of our time. It made it even harder to preach, to say what connection exists between their theology and ours. Clearly, no theology today is Biblical in this historical sense.

    If you have access to it, the Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew represents such an approach to reading the Bible. The author is C. F. Albright, who was the older mentor to my mentor, David Noel Freedman, who was, at the time Albright wrote the commentary, the junior editor of Albright’s book. The two men were much alike.

    I think I read the Bible today to let it confront me, to place my beliefs in relief against those of the ancient world.

    July 20, 2010
    • I think that in a Mennonite context, the word “evangelical” can and does mean a variety of things. It can simply refer to the conviction that the Jesus and his kingdom are “good news” for the world. It can also refer to a kind of zeal for evangelism and proselytizing. One thing that was quite clear last week is that the MB denomination has always been characterized by a strong commitment to foreign missionary work. The fact that there were representatives present from India and the Congo (our two largest conferences worldwide) is evidence of early MB’s commitment to foreign mission. I think it can also refer to the affinity that many MB’s feel toward the broader American evangelical movement (i.e., an emphasis upon personal conversion, a very high view of Scripture, and fairly conservative theology and/or political views). I think that over the course of our 150 years, the word “evangelical” has meant any one of these things (or a combination of them).

      Re: the Bible, I think I agree with your seminary. I don’t think it is possible for anyone to just “read their Bibles.” Everyone brings something to the text that influences how they read it, whether it is a desire to follow Jesus or, as you say, to place your beliefs “in relief against those of the ancient world.” We all have personal biases, and we all come out of specific cultural contexts which have formed and shaped us. I think that sometimes we, as MB’s, have minimized these factors (and others) and assumed that anyone could just read the Bible and more or less arrive at the plain old truth. As I’ve said, this seems simplistic to me.

      July 21, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “Everyone brings something to the text that influences how they read it.”

        I agree here too. So did the university scholars. At the same time, they made a important, significant effort to overcome these influences for the sake of understanding the past, and I think their efforts have yielded much information about the past. But then, perhaps, their reading is Darwinian. It is not theological. I think they think of their approach as pragmatic, in Rorty’s sense.

        The seminary rejected the validity of this approach because it undermined their claims that their political theologies were the “true” ones – the plain old truth.

        re: “the plain old truth.” No one from a university today believes in it. The closest anyone comes to that belief is what some have called “critical realism.”

        July 21, 2010
      • re: “the plain old truth.” No one from a university today believes in it. The closest anyone comes to that belief is what some have called “critical realism.”

        Yes, that was certainly my experience of university as well. Critical realism seems to have the most to commend it in my view. It is certainly a more satisfactory option than the orthodoxies/plain old truths of the secular university.

        July 21, 2010
      • Ken #

        re: “orthodoxies/plain old truths of the secular university.”

        I don’t understand what you are saying here.

        Critical realism is found in universities, among other beliefs.

        Is secular bad?

        July 21, 2010
      • No, I don’t think secular is bad. I was simply referring to the oft-rehearsed “plain truth” that I heard at university that there is no such thing as objective truth, that the writings of a bunch of primitive Hebrews or Christians could not possibly be a vehicle for trans-historical truth, etc.

        July 21, 2010
      • Ken #

        Oh yes, what you heard at the university is unfortunately common. Where this prejudice does not prevail, the university is at its best. I was fortunate to have found such a place.

        I say that even though I sympathize with the philosophical view that truth is not what it once seemed.

        July 22, 2010

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