Some notes on Mennonite/s Writing VI

It was a privilege to attend, and be a reader at, the Mennonite/s Writing VI conference held in Harrisonburg, Virginia this past weekend.  What a rich and stimulating event! The schedule was full and there were many concurrent sessions. Here follow some informal notes and observations on the sessions I attended. Continue reading

“Dusting myself off”

Last evening, the “Take and Read” book discussion group wound up its four-book season with Acedia & me by Kathleen Norris. (See previous post.) Since this book fits the form of spiritual autobiography, our host/leader Paul Doerksen followed suit by being somewhat confessional in his introduction. His extended family has just faced some close calls with death and disease and it’s like “a face-off with my own mortality,” he said. He’s been reading the late David Foster Wallace, and Soren Kierkegaard, one of the writers Norris also references. And, there’s been some sense of personal spiritual malaise. “I read almost hungrily,” he admitted.

It’s significant that Norris differentiates acedia from depression and that she calls it a vice, Doerksen went on, because the cures she proposes depend on it. Acedia is related to bad thoughts, to sin, to “demon” activity, all of them spiritual categories. Since it’s a spiritual condition, it must be resisted on spiritual terms. That, at least, is the thrust of Norris’ book. We must become more aware of what’s going on with us soulishly, get beneath the surface of things, perhaps re-visit early Christian theology, and embrace repetition and routine — whether they be daily tasks or disciplines like prayer.

Although I’m not sure that acedia is more of a problem now than in other eras, I was struck by a couple of relevant examples that came up. One is the search for novelty that has church folks going from one conference or seminar to the next, seeking the latest, newest speaker or trend. Another is the inability to give the right weight to things, exacerbated, as Doerksen put it, because these “perfect vehicles have emerged” in the media to flatten everything, yet overwhelm us with their bids for our attention.

Some of us, me included, had particularly enjoyed the personal narratives of the book. Paul Doerksen felt some ambivalence about the “level of self-referential material,” however, wondering to what extent Norris was “poaching her own life” and how much he was “being played as a reader.” Ambivalence, in fact, may be the best word to sum up the group’s general reaction to the book. A doctor in the group felt that, in spite of Norris’s statements otherwise, her opening descriptors sounded very much like someone dealing with lifelong depression.

As for what we would take away from the book, perhaps the best summary was one participant’s words that it’s about “getting up and dusting myself off.” In other words, falling but getting up again and again and going on.

It being the last of the series, Doerksen wrapped up by noting some of the common threads or themes we’d encountered. The books we read were The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart, Original Sin by Alan Jacobs, and the Norris book.

And the threads? 1. The Bible is a powerful text. 2. Humanity (remember that moving passage by Hart on Peter’s tears?). 3. Sin, original or otherwise. 4. Take monasticism more seriously. 

It sounds as if “Take and Read” will run again next year, for any in the Winnipeg area who may be interested. I know I’ll be watching to see what’s on tap. It’s been good to be stretched, and to read together with others.

P.S. Congratulations to Paul Doerksen, whose book Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan (Wipf & Stock) was launched tonight, at McNally’s.

Further to “Original Sin”

I promised, in my previous post, to say something about our “Take and Read” evening around the book Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs. I can report that the weather was cold, the roads icy, attendance about 17, and the desserts delicious. (No apples, but a hint of fruitiness in the lemon chiffon cake. The chocolate torte and Toblerone cheesecake, however, were temptation enough on their own.) 

More to the point, though. In summarizing Jacobs’ work, Paul Doerksen stated his discomfort with Augustine as he hardened his views about “sin, sex, and unbaptized babies.” With these disclaimers, Doerksen also urged us to consider “a more robust view” of original sin. As Jacobs points out, the doctrine does have its positives: it’s liberating (versus anxiety — if I can get it right, am I getting it right?), it’s democritizing (proceeding from an egalitarian spirit), and it has explanatory power (the only way we can understand ourselves). 

If we did take on a more robust view, what would that mean? One of the discussion questions posed to us was, How would an embrace of the doctrine of original sin shape the vocation in which we find ourselves? Doerksen reflected on his job as a teacher, for example. Was he more Wesley or Rousseau in his approach to his students? Thinking more of the image of God in them or of their shared sinfulness? The former has its difficulties and the latter offers some surprising potential, implications like Yes, they need guidance, but I do too, so mine shouldn’t be punitive but gracious, etc. 

The discussion ranged across many facets of the book, as such discussions do, but many participants felt that Jacobs had not done as well as he might have in placing original sin within its larger theological context of grace. Sin has to be seen by the light of the cross.

I took home with me a number of matters to reflect on further.

The matter of Mennonites, for example. They have not embraced Augustine much, being accused rather of semi-Pelagianism, said Doerksen, and thus prone to legalism, to a kind of uptightness, wanting the church to be pure, trying to getting it right. How many divisions there have been because of that!

There’s much about the origins of my own group, the Mennonite Brethren, that I love — that stirring up, under the preaching of Eduard Wuest, a Lutheran, of the sinner to see “the bottomless pit that opens itself at his feet” but then grasping “Christ’s own blood and righteousness / My beauty are, my glorious dress,” and the willingness to open mouths long closed by traditional practices of silent prayer, to pray aloud, to speak of these things, to find new and passionate language for what was experienced within, and that receptivity to the ideas and spiritual practices of others, like a new lens in a telescope revealing more stars.

But I also hear the hard words of the Document of Secession erecting new boundaries  — “Therefore, we herewith completely dissociate ourselves from these decadent churches, though we pray for our brethren, that they shall be saved…” If they’d been more Augustinian, could they have stayed and continued renewal within? Some of that separatist, uptight spirit lingers with us still.

Then there’s the matter of my vocation — as writer and editor. What would a greater awareness of my sinfulness look like there?