new Mennonite Life logo    September 2001     vol. 56 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Book Reviews

Susan and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, eds., Anabaptists and Postmodernity. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U. S., 2000. Pp. 440. ISBN 0-9665021-2-4. Reviewed by Alain Epp Weaver.

Susan and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, eds., Anabaptists and Postmodernity. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U. S., 2000. Pp. 440. ISBN 0-9665021-2-4.

Anabaptists. Postmodernity. Two terms with highly fluid and contested meanings. Hold a conference under a title joining the two words and you’re bound to attract an interesting set of papers. This present volume, a product of a conference by the same name held at Bluffton College (Ohio) in the summer of 1998, does not disappoint readers expecting challenging papers which probe the relationship between an Anabaptist understanding of the Christian faith and that amorphous beast called postmodernity.

Michel Foucault. Jacques Derrida. John Howard Yoder. Harold Bender. Michael Sattler. Contributors to this collection bring these (at first glance) seemingly disparate voices into fruitful, lively conversation. While no uniform definition of postmodernity is proffered, certain themes keep cropping up as defining characteristics of postmodernity: an abandonment of the search of supposedly universal structures of reason or feeling; an attendant privileging of marginal voices which contest dominant hegemonies, both political and intellectual; a discomfort with “grand narratives” and a preference for fragments or petit recits (Lyotard); a disruption and blending of boundaries.

Some contributors value postmodernity for opening up a space of confident Christian witness. No longer must theology attempt to validate itself at the bar of an allegedly universal philosophy. Furthermore, the demise of universal narratives allows for an unapologetic retrieval of Anabaptist particularity, one which challenges certain facets of “orthodox” theology (see J. Denny Weaver’s essay). This position is contested on two main fronts. One attack suggests that the boundaries of Anabaptist-Mennonite identity are and should be more fluid than a retrieval of Anabaptist “particularity” seems to allow. Scott Holland’s essay in particular exemplifies this critique, extending Holland’s persistent thesis that Anabaptist theology must be open to the voice of the Other beyond church walls and beyond churchly ethics. Gerald Biesecker-Mast’s article, however, on “Recovering the Anabaptist Body (To Separate it for the World),” eloquently suggests that a recovery of Anabaptist particularity need not mean a deafness to the Other. Douglas Jacobsen provides a different critique of the insistence on Anabaptist-Mennonite particularity, arguing for a blurring of the boundaries between “Mennonite” and “evangelical” theology.

The second main attack on a confident mining of postmodernity for a retrieval of Mennonite particularity suggests that the blessings of postmodernity disguise real dangers. Stanley Hauerwas, for one, while no fan on Enlightenment rationalism, doubts that postmodernity has really left modernity behind. With Nicholas Boyle, Hauerwas poignantly suggests that postmodernism’s valorization of the play of multiple voices can easily become the “pessimism of an obsolescent class” which unwittingly buys into a late capitalist glorification of unlimited consumer choice. Hauerwas’ critique of postmodernity puts him at odds with someone like Holland: whereas Hauerwas views a proper construal of the Christian faith as requiring some form of “grand narrative” (a narrative he believes the late John Yoder articulated well), Holland insists that Anabaptist Christianity is a petit recit. Gerald Schlabach, meanwhile, provides a complementary critique of postmodernity to Hauerwas’, calling on Anabaptists to learn how to live in a hyperactive, rootless, restless world from the Benedictine “vow of stability.”

Other contributors push the postmodern critique into Anabaptist churches, examining the ways in which specific voices have been marginalized in Mennonite communities. Not surprisingly, the essays by Jeff Gundy, Paul Tiessen, and Hildi Froese Tiessen examining Mennonite literature are most attentive to the ways in which Anabaptist-Mennonite polities have worked to marginalize and exclude different voices.

A volume of twenty collected essays usually cannot be plotted onto an easy conceptual grid, and this book is no exception. Apart from the essays just mentioned, the articles by John Richard Burkholder (on the significance of Rene Girard for Christian worship as a “living sacrifice of praise and obedience”), Chris Huebner (which fruitfully brings John Yoder into conversation with John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre), and Thomas Heilke (on Anabaptism and postmodernity as two “visions of hope”) are particularly noteworthy.

Readers of this collection expecting a definitive word on the meanings of Anabaptism and postmodernity and their relationship will be disappointed. Given the nature of postmodern discourse, this is as it should be. Readers will be rewarded, however, with a set of essays which, when taken together, model a dynamic and exciting theological conversation.

Alain Epp Weaver
country representative for Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories