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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 262–263 

Book Review

Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror

ed. Kirsten Eve Beachy. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2010. 309 pages.

Reviewed by Chris Huebner

What is it about the Martyrs Mirror that continues to exert such a powerful grip on the Mennonite imagination? Why is it that so many Mennonite writers find themselves drawn to engage this almost four-hundred-year-old book as a way of reflecting on contemporary issues? Why is it that so many young North American Mennonites are compelled to provide an account of why they are inspired, disturbed, or haunted by the stories it contains. In short, why and how does the Martyrs Mirror still matter?

Tongue Screws and Testimonies invites readers to explore these kinds of questions, but it does so not by offering an explanation of the enduring significance of the Martyrs Mirror. Rather, it brings together a diverse collection of pieces—poems, essays, and stories—that have in some fashion been inspired by it. It does not seek to provide a theoretical interpretation but to present a concrete display of the tension-filled work of inheriting a particular tradition. Some of these pieces speak of the Martyrs Mirror as an example of faithfulness that should inspire commitment in a world where the relative absence of martyrs might be read as a sign of half-hearted theological conviction. Others find the very possibility of martyrdom to reflect a disturbing distortion of faith as a blood-soaked and essentially morbid drama that is best left behind. Still other pieces might be described as attempts to work between these two extremes in order to reflect on how the faith of the martyrs might continue to resonate in a world in which the dynamics of faith seem in some respects to be distant, if not altogether different, from that of the martyrs.

One of the strengths of the collection is that it manages to present Anabaptist martyrs as simultaneously familiar and strange. It rightly refuses the temptation to tidiness and sentimentality that is characteristic of some (apologetic?) engagements with the Martyrs Mirror. Instead, it elects simply to present a range of different responses, many of them in conflict with one another, which have been stirred up by collective practices among contemporary North American Mennonites in which the book and the stories it contains figure prominently. As editor Kirsten Eve Beachy suggests, these pieces should be read not so much as advancing arguments as representing a shared experience, and a complex one at that. Accordingly, the contributions are arranged not in terms of thematic coherence, but loosely grouped around images reflected in the Martyrs Mirror itself: Book, Fire, Water, Wounds, Tongue, Memory, Enemies, and Heirs. As a record of the ways in which the Martyrs Mirror continues to assert a palpable presence among contemporary Mennonites, this collection is an invaluable resource. {263}

Despite the desire to let the essays speak for themselves, it is worth asking whether there are any common themes which echo across the diversity of approaches they are said to represent. Let me identify just one theme I find reflected in these pieces taken as a whole. With a few notable exceptions, many of these meditations on martyrdom suggest a certain fascination with speech and a relative absence of the body. Indeed, this is suggested by the title of the book itself. The reference to tongue screws and testimonies implies a conception of faith as something that is primarily spoken. It presents martyrs as figures who are caught up in a politics of speech, a politics in which power works either by claiming or preventing the right to speak. This is interesting in light of certain tendency among contemporary historians and theologians to speak of Anabaptism as an embodied theology that understands faith to be something shown rather than merely said. It is also interesting in light of the work by Foucault and others who read early Christian martyrdom as an embodied performance in which truth is shown, and who suggest that the Christian preoccupation with spoken confession emerged later. These observations cut in different directions. But they both suggest a need for further conversation about how the story of Anabaptist martyrs during the Reformation might be read in light of larger questions about the dynamics of faith. Moreover, they raise some interesting questions about the very structure of the Martyrs Mirror, which sets out to present Anabaptist martyrs as being in continuity with early Christian martyrs. These sorts of questions are admittedly beyond the scope of the present volume, and it can’t be faulted for their absence. But they are nevertheless raised by it, if only in an implicit way. If Tongue Screws and Testimonies can inspire future constructive work in this direction, then its contribution will be doubly valuable.

Chris Huebner, Associate Professor
Theology and Philosophy
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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