Pushing the Edges

By Byron Rempel-Burkholder

This week I’ve been working on two books by people who are not Mennonite but who are passionately committed to social justice and attracted to radical Christian discipleship. If you’ve ever heard me talking about the books, chances are you’ve heard me say that they “push the edges” of what we at MennoMedia normally do. Both are to be released this fall.

The first is a comic book, Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith. It opens with excerpts from the gospels, showing the original Jesus movement from a social justice perspective, and then tells stories of people through history who have taken seriously Jesus’ costly call to peace and reconciliation. Historical examples include Swiss Anabaptist Conrad Grebel and slavery opponent Angelina Grimke. More recent stories feature Christian Peacemaker Teams workers and civil rights leaders.

Editor Paul Buhle is a veteran comic book writer, editor, and university professor of comic art. Paul says this is the first comic book of its kind, taking its place among various graphic retellings of the Bible, including the recent Manga Bible. And yet it also fits squarely within a long tradition of using visual art to illuminate the gospel story.

The format is relatively new territory for us, and therefore edgy. But so is the cast of participants in the book. The three illustrators are all recognized comic artists from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing a unique perspective on what’s so radical about Jesus. Sabrina Jones overlays the gospel stories with visual allusions to contemporary social justice issues; Nick Thorkelson introduces us to Catholic Worker communities; while Gary Dumm pays homage to Quakers, and their relationships with Native Americans. It’s refreshing to see how radical Christian discipleship has played out in so many ways in history, beyond our usual Anabaptist stories, and even beyond the language we use to tell them.

Coincidentally—or providentially?—another fall release is doing something similar, even though it is quite a different book. For God and Country (in that Order): Faith and Service for Ordinary Radicals by Iraq war veteran Logan Mehl-Laituri is what the author calls a kind of hagiography—a book of stories about saints. But the saints he profiles here are people who have served in the military and have struggled to come to terms with Jesus’ call to the way of peace and nonviolence.

Many of these people were, or became, conscientious objectors. Some, like Logan, left the military when they encountered the gospel. Others felt God’s call to serve in non-combatant roles, such as chaplaincy or in the medical corps. Some, including Logan, maintain a deep compassion for their fellow-soldiers—especially today, when soldiers come home psychologically wounded, often ignored or criticized by the church, and every bit in need of the gospel as smug pacifists in armchairs.

Like Radical Jesus, this book begins in the Bible and then combs history for stories of faithful people—in this case, those who worked that treacherous borderland between civic duty and nonviolence. These “saints” are not perfect—and one or two, such as the biblical Samson, are downright bad examples. Warriors such as Deborah in Judges and Cornelius in the book of Acts show courage and faithfulness. St. Francis and St. Joan of Arc challenge militarism in their own ways. North Americans serving in the increasingly brutal context of high-tech warfare find themselves all the more convinced of Jesus’ way of peace.

For Mennonites and other pacifists who reject all participation in things military, some of the stories in For God and Country will shatter comfort zones. But maybe that’s healthy. It will help us be a little less judgmental of those who have interpreted Jesus’ call slightly differently. It will help us appreciate the difficult path that people of faith in the military walk every day. It will arouse us to compassion for those who have been wounded by war. It will jostle us out of the smugness that so easily tempts us, especially if we are not on the front lines of violence ourselves.

In editing both these books, I have become even more convinced that the way we grow in our faithfulness is by walking the edges, not staying in the comfortable middle. Even for those of us who wish to claim a “radical” faith—we can become settled in our radical identity. These books shake us up a little—just as the gospel itself does.

IMG_6160Byron is managing book editor for Herald Press, MennoMedia’s tradebook division.He works out of his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

Let your light shine

Over the past 18 months we have been planning for, and dreaming about, the next generation of Sunday school curriculum. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve read a bit about Shine: Living in God’s Light in posts here and here and here.

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This past week the Shine writers and editors gathered together at Camp Alexander Mack in Milford, Indiana, to brainstorm ideas for the first curriculum year. (Fall 2014 is the start of Shine.) In addition to writers and editors, staff from MennoMedia and Brethren Press as the co-publishers were present as well.

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No, the writers’ conference isn’t where we write the curriculum. It’s where we train the writers and editors on how to write. They then go home inspired to create sessions for the curriculum. Below are few of our reflections.

What was a highlight of the week?

Mary Ann: The Shine writers’ and editors’ meeting involved many who care about children and their faith formation. It was a highlight to see the enthusiasm of the writers, and to hear the sincerity with which they discussed the biblical texts. How will children encounter a given story? How can writers help create understanding? How will Sunday school leaders respond to the written session and activities? And most importantly, how will these texts help children better understand God’s love? Wrapped up along with the writers’ enthusiasm and these questions is the desire to create places for children to encounter a loving God so that faith can be nurtured.

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Amy: On Wednesday morning we had three guest speakers talk about how to meet the needs of an increasingly multicultural church. David Araujo from Iglesia Menonita del Buen Pastor in Goshen, Indiana; Wendy McFadden from Brethren Press; and Cyneatha Millsaps from Community Mennonite in Markham, Illinois, talked about being a Mexican-born American, a Korean-born American, and an African American, respectively. Together the panelists encouraged the writers to:

  • Build cultural competencies and learn another perspective.
  • Not lump all Spanish-speaking groups from Latin and South America into the label “Latino.” Pay attention to cultural differences and honor them.
  • Think carefully about how Jesus and other Bible-times characters are depicted in terms of skin color in illustrations.
  • Watch out for activities that automatically presume inclusion or exclusion.
  • Be honest about the world we live in.

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    Panelists David Araujo, Wendy McFadden, and Cyneatha Millsaps spoke about building multicultural competencies.

Name one thing that excites you about Shine?

Mary Ann: An exciting piece of the session plan each week is the inclusion of spiritual practices. Whether individual or group practices, they will help children think about their response to a loving God.

Amy: It was rewarding this week to see the writers really grab onto the idea of “peace notes.” This is a new part of the session plan where we want to draw connections between each story and God’s larger vision of shalom. It’s so close to our heart as Anabaptists.

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A bookmark made by writer Sarah Kipfer.

We’ll close by sharing some of the theme verses for Shine:

    “You are the light of the world. A city built upon a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.–Matthew 5:14–16 (NRSV)

Amy Gingerich, editorial director, and Mary Ann Weber, managing editor