a note on dogma

Well a note of introduction first since I’m new to this blog. I work for MCC, grew up in North Philadelphia, and live in Lancaster. I suppose I count as a Mennonite- chose to be one a few years ago, and constantly in a flux of being in love with the church and embarrassed by it. I guess thats true of what I think of myself too for that matter. Thanks for allowing me to write on the blog- its good to be here.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Anabaptist dogma and the death of imagination. Deep in the blood of Anabaptism is a concern for discipleship, or obedience. This discipleship has changed forms I think over the years, but culturally we are an obedient people- obedient to something. It’s a blessing I suppose in many ways. We as a church have fought hard to work for the kingdom on this earth as it is in heaven. Discipleship values the material and the contemporary. Its an affirmation that what is here, the world, is good but broken and in need of restoration. Its this very discipleship that enables us to be radical in the face of war, capitalism, oppression, and nationalism. It’s a good thing.

What’s troubling about discipleship is that it has turned the Anabaptist church into an economical people. I think we see this in a variety of ways. In my short time in the Mennonite Church I’ve come across many people who are all too convinced they are destroying the environment and causing wars every time we so much as breath. I resonate with this, and often feel this same tempation to think that I am the problem with this world. Its a constant angst we live with. A temptation to despair in the face of injustice. Its an economical lens in which we view the world. And its ironically this cost-benefit analysis thinking with which we are guiding our lives that is driving the very economic systems we are fighting against.

Now certainly I would never say we need to stop worrying about these things and embrace an ethic of eat, drink, and be merry- though Lord knows the Mennonite Church could use a happy hour. My fear is that Mennonite dogma has destroyed the ability to embrace creativity. Our minds have lost the capacity to see the beautiful. We have become an economic people when I believe we need to become an artistic and imaginative people. This economic thinking stands in the way of the imaginative thinking that enables Christians to see new possible and an alternative reality to the reality in which many are living in the world. We are overcome by evil and incapable of embracing the joy of shalom. We have become a people who are incapable of spotting the sacred. We have lost the capacity to enter into the mystical realities of Jesus. I believe the Mennonite church, and us justice-minded people in general, need to intentionally fill our lives with poets and novels. We need to be intentional about spotting what is beautiful. We need to embrace joy and intimacy- and acknowledge what is good. We need to embrace beauty of each others stories. After all as Mary Oliver once said “stories are more beautiful than answers.”

Comments (19)

  1. carl

    Amen! Welcome to YAR.

  2. DevanD


    Welcome to YAR!

    Could you talk a little bit more about how exactly economic thinking – within the context of stewardship (i think you’ve identified this as “discipleship”)- stifles imagination and creativity? I’m not sure the two theoretically opposed, but I’d like to hear from you (and others) about how it could play out that way in practice.

  3. DanL

    thanks for the welcome.

    I think the language I used is particularly loaded language- and maybe wasn’t the best to use. I don’t ultimately think discipleship and creativity are in conflict. In fact, I think the opposite- true discipleship requires creativity and imagination. Lets face it to remain committed to peace in a complex and plural world requires a bit of imagination. To go against what is normative requires us to be creative.

    I guess this more specifically what I am thinking. The type of discipleship that views all of life through the lens of “how can I best not impact the world negatively” is what I’m thinking of as economic thinking. I guess a better word to use might be utilitarian thinking. Weighing all of life in a cost-benifit ratio can become paralyzing. Art is not very utilitarian. It costs money, takes resources, requires building space to view it- and all of the resources used could probably be instead used for the poor. The same could be said of literature. To produce literature requires technology and paper. It’s not environmentally friendly in one aspect.

    However, I think when we begin to think this way, we fail to see the imaginative and liberating power of imagination. Art, music, poetry, stories- none of these things make much economic sense when the world is suffering. And yet I truly don’t believe the world could exist for a day without them.

    Does that make any more sense?

  4. Skylark

    Welcome, DanL. It’s good to have you here.

    I think I get what you’re saying. Trading off creativity for utilitarian purposes is most evident to me in the structure of our buildings. My church built its first-ever building about four years ago–Gosh, has it been that long?–and it was very important to some people that the sanctuary be multi-purpose. The kitchen is just off the sanctuary, the chairs can be reorganized around folding tables, and though it’s nice, it’s not extravagent.

    Compare that to the Gothic cathedrals I marveled at in Spain, France and Great Britain. You can’t use their sanctuaries as dining halls easily. It’s for one purpose only–worship. The ceilings tower far overhead. Tour guides told me the purpose was to draw parishoners’ eyes upward and make them feel small in comparison to God. (We could argue they also wanted to make parishoners feels small compared to the Church institution.) Windows weren’t for looking out of–they were for telling stories and/or displaying beauty in colored glass. Walk into a Gothic cathedral and tell me you feel exactly the same as when you walk into a Mennonite church building. Acoustically-designed architecture carried the sound of human voices much better than our drywall-and-wood structures do now. No wonder we use amplification.

    Were those cathedrals built on the backs of oppressed serfs and plebians? Sure. Do we keep our buildings smaller and more utilitarian now out of a desire to save money and reach out to the world’s poor or because we don’t want to be accused of being ostentatious?

    Art–which includes visual arts, dance, music, poetry, writing and storytelling–is part of what we do already. Only certain forms are “acceptable”–certain styles of music for worship, certain types of poems, certain types of paintings, certain kinds of storytelling over meals or around campfires.

    How can we incorporate visual arts into our corporate worship? Icons seem to be things of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps we got away from that somewhere along the way out of concern people would focus on the art itself and not on God. A Christian musician I know who often leads music at small Anabaptist events offers worshippers a loose-leaf binder full of reprints of abstract and fantasy art to take back to their seats and look at during the music. I’d never experienced anything like that, so this was unique.

    As far as the other art forms, what’s to keep someone like Becca from reading a poem or two aloud for her congregation to hear?

    I’ve gotten the sense that visual arts are only/most suitable for the church when they overtly depict specific themes from the Bible or Fox’s Book of Martyrs. What other visual stories should we be telling? And for dance, “interpretive dance” in the Christian world is fairly exclusive. (I also want to see more men doing it, but that’s a different topic.)

    These things remind us of why life is worth living. Life without art of any kind is dry and staid.

  5. stevekimes


    While I agree that many Mennonite churches have stifled creativity, I also know that there is much Mennonite creativity. Sure, discipleship and stewardship offer limitations. But so does a sonnet, and no one is saying that they are not beautiful. Look at the recent book Simply In Season, as well as the children’s version. They are both immensely creative, for those who have eyes to see. I think that the Mennonite church is just beginning to enter into some of the most creative years it has ever experienced. I look forward to see what our artists will produce, even in the midst of stewardship and discipleship.

    Steve K

  6. JUnrau

    You know, it’s weird being a creatively inclined Mennonite whose impulses don’t lend themselves well to church services. It seems that if your gifts run to creating nifty backdrops or sweet candle displays that’s awesome, but go beyond that and it’s sort of “Huh?”

    I find it so funny how Miriam Toews (who wrote A Complicated Kindness and others) is seen by outsiders in Canada as the exemplar of Mennonitism. I read her book and thought it wasn’t anything too special. Definitely nothing i hadn’t seen or heard of before.

    I’m in the middle of writing a graphic novel in which my main character is a Taoist monk in a scifi universe. This is making me deal so much more with being Mennonite than any church service I’ve been to in years.

    I’m just saying.

    I’ve also got future plans for a novel about all the cool shit I didn’t learn in my Grade 11 Menno history classes. People castrating themselves in Russia and then hanging out with rebel Muslims in the Caucasus. There is room for creativity if you don’t take too much too seriously.

  7. DanL

    It’s fascinating to see comments come from all over the place. I think the last two comments get at something really interesting. Mentioning Simply in Season as a source of creativity was particularly interesting. And so was the next comment that “there is room for creativity if you don’t take too much too seriously.”

    I absolutely agree that Simply in Season is creative and brings joy to many people- but the end joy of Simply in Season is to get people to eat local and fresh. It’s an ethical end if you will.

    I guess what I think is missing in the Mennontite church is room for doing art for the sake of art. Or maybe for the sake of beauty- rather than for the sake of, say, justice. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do justice, and I do think that making beauty in the midst of so much ugliness is an act of justice. But we have lost the capacity to enjoy life, to live in shalom, to feel peace. I sense in the Mennonite church, and in my life, a profound sense of guilt whenever we feel joy. We are an ascetic people. We are constantly “taking up our cross to follow Jesus” but we are never letting him carry the cross for us. (Pardon my uber evangelical language- I’m as uncomfortable with it as you are).

    At MCC we often talk about the church as the demonstration plot for the kingdom of God. I like this. I think we try to demonstrate the kingdom of God by being a just and righteous people. But if we truly want to embrace the kingdom, then we must allow ourselves to feel joy, to love art simply because its beautiful, and to love people simply because they are people.

    Maybe the struggle is that we can’t seperate joy from justice. We can’t allow ourselves to feel joy when so many suffer. Its priviledge (often white priviledge). But living this way is difficult. We carry the burdens of the world on our shoulders, and there must be some release, some place of solace. Maybe we need to occasionally allow ourselves to replace Noam Chomsky with Dr. Suess.

  8. j alan meyer

    DanL and others,

    Good thoughts — I agree for the most part that many Mennonites could use a lesson in recognizing the value of the arts. A friend said to me a few months ago while in conversation about another artist friend, “Well, being an artist would be nice. But there are better things she could do with her time. I mean isn’t art just sort of selfish? There are professions — like working for the UN or humanitarian aid or helping the poor — that are simply more valuable to society than other professions like art, music, etc.” Needless to say, I was pretty aghast. What a ridiculously devaluing statement that shows a certain sense of being out of touch with society and the necessary roles of the arts. Anyway, I think DanL is correct that many Mennos tend in this direction, and need to be reminded of the value of art, literature, music, theatre, etc.

    At the same time, I would temper this discussion by saying that there are certainly things in the Mennonite tradition that I value, and a value of being “economical” is often one of them. Like most things, this comes down to a balance. But Skylark, while I enjoy cathedrals immensely, I also value the Mennonite approach to worship space that doesn’t require a lot of visual beauty to be worshipful.

    Oh, and JUnrau: “a Taoist monk in a scifi universe,” and “People castrating themselves in Russia and then hanging out with rebel Muslims in the Caucasus.” I gotta read this stuff.

  9. Nevin


    Very nice post. This is something that I’ve thought about myself, being not only a Mennonite but also an actor and musician. I would echo previous responses that there is some “creativity” within the “economic” Mennonite framework–e.g. Simply in Season–and that that is a wonderful thing. But I would also agree that there is sometimes too utilitarian a bent to the Mennonite Church, and to social justice movements in general. I recall a Theatre major here at Messiah College telling me about a book that she was reading. I don’t remember what the book was or who it was written by, but the author was an actor and the book was essentially her autobiography, I think. In it she talks about the time she met Mother Theresa. She (the author) had become convinced that being an actor wasn’t a worthy vocation, that she needed to go and feed starving children in India or something like that. When Mother Theresa visited New York she ran up to her and told her that she wanted to go back to Calcutta with her. Theresa asked her what she did her–she said, I’m an actor. Mother Theresa then said something to the effect of: “In my country there is a great famine of the body. In yours there is a great famine of the spirit. We each need to do what we can to overcome those famines.” The moral of the story, of course, is that you don’t need to be out there building houses or feeding the poor to make a difference. Doing social justice work is a wonderful thing, but different people are called to different vocations, and the arts are absolutely necessary for a society to be whole. Moreover, often art itself is absolutely central to social justice and social change. Music was a huge part of both African-Americans’ fight for equality in this country and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Theatre is similarly central to (dare I say it) the struggle for LGBT rights today. And examples of literary works that were years ahead of their time in terms of their promotion of progressive causes abound. Or take Bono–his social activism would be incomplete without his music, and his music would be incomplete without his social activism.

    Of course, now I’m starting to sound utilitarian again. I think that art–and beauty, and wonder, and awe–have value in and of themselves, and that calculating the worth of such intangible things as these by their immediate effects on matters such as poverty or war doesn’t make sense. Still, it’s worth remembering that the arts and social justice are more connected than we tend to realize.

  10. michaeldanner


    Honestly, you lost me for a bit…

    Are we creative and artistic? Some of us are. Are we pragmatic and utilitarian? Others of us are. In my opinion, we need both (and many other types of people as well).

    It is diversity that we struggle with…recognizing and utilizing the gifts that are present in the community to the fullest. I wonder if our goal is not so much to become more creative, but to empower the creative people who are in our midst to use their gifts in community?

    That requires openness and trust — two things that seem like they are in short supply in the Mennonite church. I agree that a Mennonite happy hour might do the trick…or at the very least, we need to learn to relax a bit…



  11. ArchaicFuturist

    DanL — Good to have you here, and good thoughts. You said,

    “I guess what I think is missing in the Mennontite church is room for doing art for the sake of art. Or maybe for the sake of beauty- rather than for the sake of, say, justice. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do justice, and I do think that making beauty in the midst of so much ugliness is an act of justice.”

    In the past few years, I’ve become increasingly entranced by an ecological design system called permaculture. I won’t attempt to describe the system in a nutshell here — it would have to be a really big nut — except to say that much of permaculture is about observing, enhancing, and building connections. Stable ecological systems have lots of different elements connected to each other in complicated, and often redundant, ways … thus if one element fails (a particular plant doesn’t fruit well one year, for example), there’s often another element serving a similar ecological role that keeps the overall ecosystem from collapsing. In human-built systems, there isn’t always the luxury of creating highly complicated, redundant systems because of constraints like time, money, etc. Often, however, what is important isn’t the number of elements in a system, but the degree of their interconnectedness. As an example, instead of spending time mowing and tilling a plot for planting, and applying fertilizers; having to clean up a dispose of groundfall from fruit trees; and raising highly-bred laying hens for eggs; and raising highly-bred poultry for meat, etc, etc, one could keep a generalized breed of chicken that could effectively mow small areas, aerate the soil a bit through scratching, consume groundfall, fertilize areas through their droppings, produce a reasonable number of eggs, and be a decent bird for meat. A single element (in this case the chickens) can provide several different ecological functions; it is more interconnected. One of the major techniques in creating a permaculture design is trying to figure out how to stack functions — that is, using the right elements in the right place at the right time in order to get the most functions out of them and make them most useful for both the environment and for human use.

    Anyway, this is a long bit of explanation to get to this point: I forget which permaculturist said this and in what context, but to paraphrase (probably badly):

    “A designer should always strive to get at least three of four functions out of a single design element. If an element fulfills five or more functions, I have noticed that another function inevitably results: beauty.”

    So I agree with you that sometimes art should be done for art’s sake, and I certainly agree that utilitarianism often results in ugliness (just look at industrial facilities that serve only the function of converting low-cost raw products into high-cost, value-added goods for high profit … they’re almost always monstrosities). But I also find that it is often utilitarian things that are the most beautiful … quilts that friends have made for me, intricately-carved beams supporting the roofs of buildings in Southeast Asia, bags and baskets woven to carry produce to and from market, well-placed fishponds shimmering in the sun.

    Not everything beautiful has to have a purpose other than beauty, but I find that things seems, well, more whole, I suppose, if their beauty arises out of something other than a single-minded intention to be beautiful.

  12. benjamin.paul

    Nevin, I resonate with exemplum about Mother Theresa. After all, “stories are more beautiful than answers.”

    I see some of the threads of conversation coming together in something that DanL mentioned in his original post but hasn’t seemed to be discussed explicitly: “We have lost the capacity to enter into the mystical realities of Jesus.” I know I have lost it, if I ever had it before; and accessing these mystical realities has become a sort of oft-forgotten obsession of mine. As Mother Theresa pointed out in Nevin’s post, many of us have a sickness of the spirit; we are unable to experience the mystery in life, religion, or the interconnections surrounding and entangling us (ArchaicFuturist, now and again I have seen the inevitable result of connectedness). We have a utilitarian bent to instead look at hard facts and data instead of subjective experience.

    It’s possible that this is where art for art/beauty’s sake comes in. Sometimes, when I experience art (theatre, music, literature, visual arts, movement), I get into the groove and my perception is opened and it becomes a spiritual/religious experience. It doesn’t tell me anything new. It’s not like I’ve just had Karl Barth’s entire library downloaded into my brain. But something happens in these moments of active art consumption that, as any artist will tell you, can’t be learned in books (or the Good Book). The bottom line is, art alters perception of reality. I tend to think that it makes it easier to see a fundamental link between us and all things–self and other.

    This openness can and should be savored in its own right. My strongest memories of the last few years have been fleeting moments in theatres, galleries, and concert halls). But in the end, I think this has made me a “better” person. Art, then, has a utilitarian consequence if not a utilitarian design. Art makes me want to participate in life.

    Can we have art for life’s sake?

  13. eric

    Thank you Benjamin, DanL and the rest.

    The other day I was told that going out to get sushi would need to be coupled with something else very special (like visiting old friends) in order to become worthwhile. I think that certainly would be worthwhile, but as an introvert foodie in the middle of a Mennonite convention at the time, I wasn’t convinced on several levels.

    To follow up on something Benjamin said, and to twist a bit what Archaic and DanL said, what about the idea that beauty is surprisingly often utilitarian (rather than the other way around, or no connection at all)?

    Dan, I connect so much to this, because I have found theatre more powerful in my life than church for exactly these reasons. The material is the same – life and how/why it is lived – but the context and the possibilities are very different at this point. In theatre we can start with questions, throw out everything, and reconsider. Theatre tradition is about embracing change and the unknown, about loving the questions more than the answers. It’s about people, without “religious language” that is filled with more baggage than meaning.

    And the sacred texts never stop coming. New ones are written every year that you can’t use in church for this reason or that (censorship or tradition or what-have-you), but in the theatre they are the core of what we do. (I should say alternative theatre. You can do fluff in any medium or location.)

    I’ve never found that freedom for creative exploration in a church and I find it essential to my faith and everything that comes out of it. Everything utilitarian. Without the room for creative thought, play, risk-taking, fun-having and beauty-making we can’t accomplish anything new or profound or important. Not to cheapen it, but isn’t beauty, then, utilitarian in it’s own way?

    (also, see dahlia’s relevant comment from another thread.)

  14. Holly S

    I resonate on a personal level with Dan’s observation. That too-weighty attitude of frugality too often cripples me. I have found my decisions (and even dreams) are often very practical, even wholly dependent upon economic factors, and therefore, very limited.

    Seeing everything through an economic lens enslaves me to money, no matter whether I’m running from it (which I often find myself doing) or chasing it.

    I have this self-restricting tendency that throws out extravagant ideas before they even start to grow in my head. I’m coming to understand that no matter how admirably I manage to NOT use resources, I’m not doing anyone (including myself) any good unless I start DOING something, which sometimes means taking a step (leap) into the impractical. I find that unless I’m willing to risk – to splurge a little in resources and vision – I keep on just sort of half-living.

    If this is starting to feel like a personal pep-talk, I guess it sort of is. I’m tired of defining myself by what I don’t do (easy self-righteousness) rather than by what I do. I’m not sure how much of this stuff I can blame on my Anabaptist background, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a relationship.

    What I’m feeling, of course, is thoroughly reaction to a good value held onto just a little too exclusively. I appreciate the frugality I’ve been taught and could write pages and pages about how we can all do with less. There’s truth in what the MCC cookbooks are trying to get at – there is beauty to be found in simplicity and creativity in making do with what you’ve got. It’s a refreshing idea when you’re coming from our culture of too much. But there’s another side of the story, one that lets go and lives. Parker Palmer talks in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring about choosing to live with a spirit of scarcity or a spirit of abundance. It makes a big difference.

  15. Matt Stone

    Personally I like to combine an Anabaptist concern for justice and nonviolence with an Orthodox concern for art and beauty.

  16. SteveK

    Just wanted to note that in my congregation of the homeless and the mentally ill, we have begun to open up a weekly art table for all interested during a bible study and hymn sing we have. This gives opportunity for people to paint, or draw or use other media to express worship in that way, as well as in listening to the word and singing. The walls of our sanctuary are becoming filled with beauty expressed in the midst of more conventional worship!

  17. JohnH

    You state in your last paragraph:

    I believe the Mennonite church, and us justice-minded people in general, need to intentionally fill our lives with poets and novels. We need to be intentional about spotting what is beautiful. We need to embrace joy and intimacy- and acknowledge what is good. We need to embrace beauty of each others stories. After all as Mary Oliver once said “stories are more beautiful than answers.”

    I am not a Mennonite, at least not yet, but have been drawn to Mennonite faith and anabaptists through meaningful associations and friendships with Mennonites, all of which embody the what you say is creative and good. Their lives are full of beauty, joy and intimacy. This is exactly what has drawn me to them and captured my heart and sole.

    These friends vary in levels of conservatism, put another way…. with old order being to the right and progressive being to the left, some are left of center and some are right of center. They all embrace and live according to core anabaptist values. Particularly, they belong to small congregations, are community minded, embrace Christ in their daily lives, and are nonresistant. They are truelly the most gracious people I know. They are creative contributors to their culture and society at-large….creative in every sense of the word. Perhpas it this their particular church or community that makes the difference.

    I am curious if you think that the type/size congregations or communities might explane the differences in our experiences.

  18. TimN


    It’s wonderful to hear about your positive experience with a Mennonite community. Thanks for sharing.

    In my experience with Mennonite communities, smaller communities can have stronger internal connections then larger communities. Larger churches (150-200) who value strong community often create small group structures that allow for the intensity of relationship that small groups allow.

    I have also noticed differences between more urban and rural congregations, although I don’t want to over-generalize. Is the congregation you connect with in a rural setting, small town, near a university or in a big city?

  19. JohnH


    Thanks for your reply.

    I live in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a small city (30 to 40K) in the center of the Shenandoah Valley. This is primarily an agrarian community with a mix of industies and universities (quite a neat, multicultural place) We have a major state university, James Madison University (JMU), we are the home of Eastern Mennoite University (EMU), and are seven miles away, in the small town of Bridgewater, is Bridgewater College which affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. The congregations that I alluded to in my previous posting are of 150 or less.

    In my experience, the smaller the community the more folks rely on one another for creative and spritual experiences. The mennotie community here seems to be less burdened by things in the world than other communites. This is undoubtedly because they work hard at staying connected with and practicing the core values that are the anababtists. I beleive it is these values that foster creativity. Beautiful spirits beget beauty in all things….music, architecture, art. Best regards.

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