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Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 115–17 

Book Review

Anabaptists and Postmodernity

ed. Susan Biesecker-Mast and Gerald Biesecker-Mast. Telford, PA: Pandora, 2000. 440 pages.

Reviewed by John K. Sheriff

Anabaptists and Postmodernity is a collection of twenty essays presented at a conference with the same title held at Bluffton College in August 1998. It is the first volume of the C. Henry Smith Series being produced by Bluffton College with the cosponsorship of the Mennonite Historical Society. The book’s table of contents arranges the essays under seven broad headings, and Susan Biesecker-Mast’s introductory essay gives brief abstracts of the essays, which serve the reader who wishes to read selectively in the volume. The essayists represent a variety of disciplines, generations, personal and academic agenda. They come from a variety of disciplines (e.g., literature, theology, rhetoric, history, philosophy, and sociology) and bring disparate understandings of and attitudes toward the subjects named in the book’s title.

The contribution of the work is not to scholarship categorized as {116} postmodern, and only marginally to Anabaptist studies. The book’s greatest appeal is that it brings together these two areas of study for the many readers who find any work on Anabaptist or Mennonite identity of interest. A fitting epigraph for this collection, expressing the volume’s working hypothesis, is a statement by Samuel T. Coleridge from the eighteenth century, “Such as is the existing spirit of speculation, during any given period, such will be the spirit and tone of the religion and morals, nay even of the fine arts, the manners, and the fashion.” This collection is most interestingly read as a series of mini-dramas: Anabaptist ideologue meets the spirit of the age. Some of the essayists experience postmodernism as an awakening to reality, a liberating tool for interrogating Mennonite culture, and an instrument justifying particular directions in Mennonite art and theology. Others find postmodernism to be a reminder of what was always integral to Anabaptist thought—resistance to the oppression of universal affirmations and the “mind-forged manacles” of dominant powers, openness to alternate readings, respect for critique, trust in performance rather than dogma as a witness to the presence of Christ. Still others see postmodernism as evidence of the failure of Christian theology, an adolescent stage of understanding, and a significant threat to a Christ-centered Christianity. The final essay in the collection, by J. Lawrence Burkholder, concludes with these words, “[F]ollowing Christ in the postmodern world must be rooted in the rigor of modern conceptions but conducted freely in the context of postmodern differentiation.”

This book brings two other books to mind: Why I Am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity (edited by Harry Loewen and published by Herald Press, 1988), and Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking (edited by Willard M. Swartley and published by Pandora Press, 2000). Anabaptists and Postmodernity could be seen as a sequel to Loewen’s book. It is very much about Mennonite identity, written by, for, and about Mennonites, and might be seen to confirm Frederick Buechner’s assertion (as reconstructed by Michael King) that most history, theology, and art are essentially autobiography. While Anabaptists and Postmodernity appears to be similar to Violence Renounced (a collection of essays by Mennonite scholars trying to come to terms with a dominant cultural theory), the latter is more scholarly and breathes new life into familiar Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures and the peace tradition of Anabaptists. To be fair, it must be said that it is far easier to focus on one theorist (Girard) than on postmodernism (which is, in Burkholder’s words, “[A]n approach to reality as broad as culture itself.”) {117}

A weakness of the collection is the seeming unawareness and lack of critique of the relativity, if you will, of the concept of language that gives rise to all the postmodern perceptions grappled with in the essays. Derrida’s statement that one must begin with the Saussurean conception of the sign is simply not true. On the other hand, it does seem to be true that it is the nature of theories to mold our perceptions and reactions to themselves. They are the mediators, the medium of seeing, of the meaning of life for us. Therefore, the choice, the volitional act of granting poststructuralist linguistic theory the status of law in a physical universe, and foregrounding all interpretive activity on it, is a momentous one. Given the lack of this kind of critique, the implicit universal claim of this collection, the unintentional act of dominance by those who are eager to use postmodern theory to resist power, is that there is no alternative to the theory of language that is shaping their discourse.

John K. Sheriff
Academic Dean
Bethel College, N. Newton, Kansas

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