Don’t Fence Me In: Broadening our Definition of Theology

It’s my sense that the number of those who are interested in Anabaptism is on the rise. Last week I was with Marty Troyer at some meetings. Marty is pastor at Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount and his blog, The Peace Pastor, hosted by the Houston Chronicle, has a following in the thousands.

Marty said that he used to get an average of 2 calls per month from people interested in Anabaptism. Now he’s up to about 15 calls per month. These are people who want to meet for coffee or lunch and have conversations about what it means to be Anabaptist or Mennonite. He used to be able to say yes to all those requests. That’s not the case anymore, simply because of volume.

If you follow bloggers interested in and engaging topics related to Anabaptism, you might notice what I have: these bloggers are primarily Caucasian, male, and between the ages of 25 and 40. (Of course they aren’t all in this demographic but there does seem to be a concentration within this group.) I know from conversations with others that they have noticed this trend as well.

A few weeks ago on the MennoNerds Facebook page there was some conversation around publishing and “bestselling” theologians. Who are the “bestselling” women publishing Anabaptist theology, they asked?

Four books published by Herald Press or MennoMedia (or its predecessors) immediately come to mind.

People who don’t even talk about theology all that often know these books—and the theology within. And yet when people talk about bestselling theology titles, I doubt these four immediately came to your mind. They aren’t cataloged by booksellers under “systematic theology” or “Christian ethics” or “peacemaking.” And yet each of these books—which I label under the umbrella of practical theology—involve all those fields.

Why is that? Don’t we think about the links between food and faith, or simple living and faith? Don’t we sing our faith?

As Mennonites we practice our theology on the go, in the midst of daily life. So cookbooks, hymnals, Sunday school curricula, and a bevy of other resources shape our theological understandings much more than reading systematic theologians. (Thanks to Marlene Kropf for framing it this way for me in an email last week.)

It’s not like the theology in these books is designed to go unnoticed. Quite the contrary! It’s designed to be practiced on the go, in the midst of life.

Last week Hannah Heinzekehr wrote in her blog, The Femonite:

    Theology is about telling stories that help us to make sense of God … the stories we tell need to take into account the breadth and depth and height and width of the diversity in our midst.

Each of these books helps us move beyond defining theology narrowly, and helps us make sense of God.

The More-with-Less Cookbook is a collection of recipes and suggestions on how to enjoy more while consuming less of the world’s resources (Herald Press, 1976); Living More with Less, is a collection of tips and testimonies of people searching for ways to simplify their lives. Living More-with-Less was published by Herald Press in 1980, shortly after Doris Janzen Longacre’s death, at age 39, on November 10, 1979. (For more on Doris Janzen Longacre, go here.)

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Together both books have sold close to 1 million copies. They are, by far, our bestselling books at Herald Press.

And lest you think these are just a “cookbook” and a “book of tips,” I have encountered many people across the church (including my boss and our publisher, Russ Eanes), who claim to have found the Mennonite Church because of one of these two prophetic books. The theology within should not be taken for granted.

In the book Singing: A Mennonite Voice, authors Marlene Kropf and Ken Nafziger asked people, “What would you do if someone decided that from here on out there would be no more singing in worship?” Some answers included:

  • “It would rob us of our church. … Singing is the glue that holds worship together.”
  • “I get so weary of words. The reason I go to church is to sing.”
  • “I’d dry up. It would feel like something is being squeezed out of me.”

Mennonites are known for singing their theology—whether in four parts to a hymn or with drums to an African rhythm. Much of the way we articulate our faith through music has been shaped by the contributions of two women: Mary Oyer and Rebecca Slough.

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Mary Oyer was executive secretary of the Joint Hymnal Committee that put together Mennonite Hymnal (1969). She was the only woman on the committee, and her influence on Mennonite theology should not be overlooked. Nurturing the Spirit Through Song is a book and DVD that tells about Mary’s life and influence.

When it came time to develop a Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992), Mary Oyer was again involved. This time she chaired the hymnal project for four years, and then served as project manager. Much of the way Mennonites practiced their theology through song in the last half of the 20th century and have continued to do so today goes back to Mary Oyer’s influence. Mary remains a changemaker and trailblazer for women doing theology through song.

Rebecca Slough was the managing editor of Hymnal: A Worship Book. Rebecca edited this book as she wrapped up her own PhD studies and as she navigated a variety of hymnal committees and three denominations (Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, and Church of the Brethren). It was no easy task, to be sure.

Hymnal: A Worship Book has sold some 200,000 copies, certainly qualifying it as a bestseller and as a book that has shaped Mennonite theology these past twenty-one years.

What do you think? Do you agree with me that these are perhaps some of the most important Anabaptist theological texts of the 20th century? And what women would you add to the list of bestselling authors doing Anabaptist theology?

Amy Gingerich

Amy Gingerich
Editorial Director

P.S. Be sure to check out the “All you need is love” conference honoring the diversity of women’s voices in theology this next February. Registration opened last week!

6 thoughts on “Don’t Fence Me In: Broadening our Definition of Theology

  1. She’s not in the league of Doris Janzen Longacre or Mary Oyer yet certainly, but I think Rebecca Seiling is an up-and-coming author of practical theology for the Mennonite Church. In case you’re not familiar with her, she’s a teacher/writer/blogger based in Waterloo, ON, and has written a children’s book called, Plant a Seed for Peace, as well as co-authoring (with Cindy Snyder) Don’t Be Afraid: Stories of Christians in Times of Trouble. She has also been instrumental (project developer and writer, I believe) in the development of the next children’s Sunday School curriculum set to be released after the end of the Gather ‘Round series in 2014. Finally, through her blog, “Hearth strings,” she reflects on issues around food, faith, and family.

  2. Thanks for that ringing endorsement of Rebecca Seiling, Julie! I too think Rebecca is one to take note of in regard to practical theology in the Mennonite Church. We’re happy to have her as one of our authors and curriculum developers.

  3. Absolutely the cookbooks/simple living articulated both a “how” to live simply and did not leave out the “why” — and as a result, you would probably find many in (especially urban) Mennonite churches who discovered the cookbook and subsequently showed up at the church. In Seattle in the 1990s they were called “More with Less Mennonites” and have enriched what it means to be Mennonite. I also affirm that theology is inherent in seeking and sharing new texts and musical styles in the hymnals. Even people who don’t read notes can find meaning in these books of spiritual poetry set to music. These books are in weekly, if not daily use in my life.

    • Thanks, Kristine! I love your line about “More with Less Mennonites.” So true for those we knew in our Northern California house church in the early 2000s as well.

  4. Michele Hershberger and Meghan Good have been very helpful in helping me “[make] sense of God,” to use Hannah Heinzekehr’s phrase above

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