Poet Jeff Gundy offered a workshop on Mennonite writing during Mennonite World Conference’s assembly. Tucked away in a hard-to-find, overcrowded room overlooking youth playing basketball in a gym, a mini-community formed to talk about feeling like outsiders. Many of us seemed to feel right at home there.
Gundy, an English professor at Bluffton (Ohio) University, made a case for how, in general, Mennonite writing and art in North America often include themes of unbelonging. The church has at times made fairly clear the unwelcome of frivolous things like art, music and literature, and, by extension, their creators.
Gundy cited Harold S. Bender describing art in The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Bender wrote that some believe “the autonomy of art is a danger to a truly profound religious experience and that one or the other must be sacrificed.”
That attitude may not be as prevalent today, but it left a mark on the Mennonite ethos. If the writing of prominent Mennonite authors is any indication, artistically creative people still carry guilt for making a career of their craft. And they feel or are made to feel out of place in the church as a result. What does it mean that our literature seems to come from feeling marginalized? attendees wondered.
“What happens if Mennonites drive the smartest, most creative, most independent people out of their communities?” Gundy asked.
An emerging category in Mennonite writing is LGBT literature, he said. A Safe Girl to Love is a book of short stories by a Canadian Mennonite, Casey Platt, featuring young transgender women. Suggesting the gay community gave in too easily by separating themselves geographically and socially, she writes: “They say we don’t belong, then the most radical thing we can do is start belonging.”
Sometimes the church excludes by its structure or traditions. But sometimes we exclude ourselves, because it’s easier. It’s too bad. The church is better with radicals in it.
As Gundy put it in Songs from an Empty Cage: “Our most cherished traditions — religious, poetic, and other — all have their origins in transgression, opposition to received wisdom, rebellion. . . . ” More traditions will form from these, he says. We need people in our midst who will question them.