Mennonites and metaphors

Confession: Sometimes I think that being Mennonite is like being part of a big butte out west. That’s what my husband says.

West Mitten Butte
West Mitten Butte

When you look at a butte, you think—Whoa, where’d that growth come from? What subterranean forces heaved it out of the earth?

But it didn’t grow at all.

At one point the whole earth was at that level, and time changed the landscape around it, chiseled away the rest and left this formation exposed and slightly garish in the middle. It has a beauty all its own; and an oddity.

When I hear us criticize Mennonites from the inside, what I like to ask is “Are we actually talking about a Mennonite trait?” We have our share of fault lines, but I suspect that many of the issues we critique are not, in fact, Mennonite at all. Some are tendencies all Christian organizations must deal with in some way—

internalization, ingrowth

religious arrogance

naiveté about the rest of the world

cultural assumptions

protocol without passion

and still more qualities, the ones I want to talk about, are simply old-fashioned. We hung onto them while the rest of the world shifted.

There is no particular virtue in that, unless the issue is one of inherent worth; we are merely leery of change.

We Mennonites traditionally grow and preserve and cook our own food. We believe in plenty of starch and gravy. We can’t do without enormous Sunday dinners (most of us). We expect mothers to stay at home, and families to grow large. We spend our money with great caution. Our women cover their heads in public. We don’t like being in the limelight; our self-effacing decorum is our virtue and our curse. We are shy of change and suspicious of novelty. There are reasons for what we do, but we do it even when we don’t know why. We act, more than expound or cogitate or emote.

Up until 50-75 years ago, this was normal life for many Americans.

This image of the butte helps me to be at peace with who we are. I do not think there is cause for serious panic on either side—either that we’re so bizarre as to be totally inaccessible, or that we’re rapidly eroding ourselves and will soon crumble into ruin.

Constancy is a virtue, but not the only one. No formation remains forever unchanged, frozen in time and preserved from external influence. God’s goodness and presence alone will remain, not a formation but a foundation, firm and sure.

In the meantime, some things are worth hanging on to. There is no shame in being what we have been…


Another metaphor tomorrow, and I’ve said my piece. What do you have to say?

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11 years ago

That is a very good metaphor. Well done. I’m remembering that one…

11 years ago

I like how you said this. Totally put into words some of what I’ve been thinking and feeling.

11 years ago

I’ve really been struggling with this concept over the last year, so this metaphor clicks. I’ll be digesting it for a while. I’ve been trying to objectively sort through questions about whether or not our Mennonite-ness and all its subsequent quirks hinders the Gospel of Christ. Good to hear you reaffirm what another friend told us: MOST of these weaknesses aren’t strictly inherent to Anabaptism, but are present in any denomination or subculture.
No matter how I choose to live from this point, “Mennonite” is my culture and my heritage. The sooner I recognize and accept that, the sooner I can stop running from my past and start living the call of Jesus for today. In fullness and joy.

11 years ago

I’m from a different conservative group, but I’ve found your reflections to both accurate and refreshing. Thanks for articulating this!

11 years ago

That is a refreshing piece. Thanks!

11 years ago

I really like the metaphor. Living in a place where we are in a Christian community, but the only Mennonites has shown us, too, that many of our weaknesses are as common in non-Menno groups as Mennos. It has helped me accept/appreciate Mennonite-isms 🙂 when I can separate what is culture from what is beliefs. I would love to hash in person this Mennonite church stuff you’ve been writing about. Sometimes I need to talk through things to understand them better, and this is one of the subjects that has been on my mind recently.

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