new Mennonite Life logo    December 2002     vol. 57 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

Heresy and the Individual Talent

by Jeff Gundy

"How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it, all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. . . . This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant."
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

"The Christ Child was not obedient to his parents."
-Robert Bly, "Turning Away from Lies"

"Tradition . . . . cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. . the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past . . . What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable."
-T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

These curiously Anabaptist words from the Anglican poet-critic T. S. Eliot seem both strangely relevant and subtly wrong today. Eliot was surely right that the poet must learn the tradition, or some tradition, or some set of traditions, but in avuncular pronouncements like this one it seems to me that he understates the complexities and the necessary quirkiness of that task, and misstates the role of the personal in it as well. It is more accurate to say that poets must discover, if not invent, a web of traditions that will shape and sustain their own work. Much of Eliot's own brilliance as a poet stems from the odd and unexpected sources from which he learns, borrows, and sometimes steals.

Mennonites have long believed themselves deeply traditional while paying more lip service than close attention to our actual, tangible heritage. When John Ruth sought to write the history of Lancaster Conference, he found that for generations the deep suspicion of education and intellectualism of those Mennonites had prevented them from maintaining close contact with many of the particulars of their own history. He returns to this irony over and over again

The Mennonites themselves had not taken the trouble to keep even a modest written account of their spiritual heritage. They interpreted their lack of interest in what might be called the life of the mind as a godly humility. But in the urgent claims of an upwardly mobile descendant such as Edwin K. Martin, we also sense an unwelcome result of this attitude: the frustration of an intelligence that might have made better sense of the heritage if its story had been accessible. (Ruth 633)

Ruth's writing of The Earth Is the Lord's is clearly at once an act of recovery and homage and a transgression of his own tradition: with his Harvard Ph. D. and his lifelong dedication to recovering and telling the history of Pennsylvania Mennonites, he is both a blessed preserver of the tradition and in violation of some of its most powerful taboos, including those which have militated against the full preservation of the tradition.

I mean here to celebrate such violations of the received order in pursuit of the truth, to testify for a personal tradition strangely filled with contrarians, loyal rebels, and iconoclasts, one that I will argue is only appropriate for writers in the Anabaptist tradition. Like the Anabaptist martyrs who sang as their flesh burned, the most earnest and rigorous seekers after truth have often been branded as heretics by the mediocre and the corrupt who continue to rule our world and our institutions. The true voices may be hard to hear among the many false prophets, but if we wish to sing the blessed presence of God in the world we must seek out those who continue in that great tradition of energetic, rigorous, communally engaged pursuit of an ever more intricate and accurate naming of the world and our place in it. For ourselves and our world, the risks of that pursuit are less than the dangers of abandoning it.

Heresy for the writer thus becomes not a matter of falling into or out of step with some unitary orthodoxy but the challenge of cobbling together something liveable out of the heterodoxy within which we move and breathe. (1) We live in a time when official pronouncements are ostentatiously heretical, blasphemous, or both (consider the hastily renamed "Operation Infinite Justice," and the announced and ongoing quest of the American government to somehow exterminate evil in the world, in the best Ahabesque fashion). Seeking out the less militaristic and arrogant heresies of our forefathers and mothers and offering up our own, in the hope that they might prove less pernicious than what passes for truth, today seems not just a right but a duty. I can do very little of that actual work here, but let me make a few more remarks about contemporary conditions and then offer a very brief and exploratory effort of my own.

Surely fear and trembling are in order as we proceed. Just because most of our heroes are heretics does not mean, of course, that all heresies are either lawful or edifying. We're surrounded by what seem to me the most rank and dangerous heresies propounded by those who most loudly proclaim themselves faithful, while the meek and the holy are ridiculed, derided, and accused of all manner of perniciousness for failing to kneel at the duly swathed altar of Justice from whence Ashcroft issues his pronouncements.

A brief list of currently popular ideas that seem like heresies to me might include these:

Then there are the anabaptist variations already flourishing, some of which must by the elementary rules of logic and fair play be heretical in small or large ways, although I mean to imply no judgment in listing them here:

Fundamentalist Anabaptism, I'm OK and You're Not Bad Anabaptism, Evangelical Anabaptism, Television Anabaptism, Patriotic Anabaptism, God Hates Americans Anabaptism, Love the Sin Hate the Sinner Anabaptism, God Hates Me and I Deserve It Anabaptism, Episcopalian and Neo-Orthodox and Benedictine Anabaptism, GLBTI and Promise Keeper and Married Monastic Anabaptism, Charismatic and Universalist Anabaptism, Capitalist and Anti-Racist Anabaptism, Postmodern/Premodern/Antiquarian Anabaptism, Ford Crown Victoria and Beemer and SUV and Minivan Anabaptism, White Wine and Prozac and Granola and How-Long-Were-You-Overseas Anabaptism, etc.

Now perhaps I am wrong about some of these. No, certainly I am wrong about some of these, and probably about most other things as well. No doubt I have fallen unwitting prey to other heresies, even more dangerous than the ones I proclaim openly. I may speak lightly, but I know that I deal in grave matters. If I invite your laughter I pray that it be the true and holy laughter of recognition and delight and terror, not the bitter cackle of cynicism and defeat. We have little choice but to press on. Do we? The spirit persists. We've only got, as Kate Wolf sings, these times we're living in.

I meant here to multiply examples, pile illustrations and analysis high and deep. But time is short, and how can I approach the topic of heresy and not offer what might be one of my own? I do not much trust manifestos, but I have often taken a curious pleasure in reading them. Writing one, I thought, might be a salutary exercise in imagining the better world to come, or at least provide a cautionary example for those who follow. So in lieu of all else I offer this,

The Manifesto of Anabaptist Surrealism, or Surrealist Anabaptism


In 1525 Blaurock, Manz, Grebel and the rest gathered in that upstairs room in Zurich, talked and prayed, poured water on each other's heads, took the big chance. Four hundred years later another group gathered in the same city, in another time of war and crisis, and also determined to rebel, to transform themselves and their relations to society if they could not transform the state itself. So the practitioners of Dada gathered in the Cabaret Voltaire, issued their manifestoes, made their grand gestures of resistance and imagination, in ways that, once again, struck the honest citizens about them as a shock and an abomination.

Pride is the star that yawns and penetrates through the eyes and the mouth, she insists, strikes deep, on her breast is inscribed: you will die. This is her only remedy. Who still believes in doctors? I prefer the poet who is a fart in a steam-engine--he's gentle but he doesn't cry--polite and semi-homosexual, he floats." (Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love, PFTM 300).

Now this could be the manifesto of Dada Anabaptism but is not, because I am in charge, and all this about farts and semi-homosexuals is catchy but seems unlikely to take us where we need to go. At any rate, Dada (as we all should know) quickly gave way to surrealism, and it is this movement, with its iconoclasm, its nearly superstitious faith in chance and autonomous processes, its effort to transform or transcend prior categories and structures, that I propose now to fuse with the preternatually clear, closely reasoned, wretchedly pragmatic spiritual efficiencies of Anabaptism as I know it. The result can only be something tentative, temporary, contingent, unwieldy, impractical, inefficient and dangerously unstable, but perhaps useful for something: at the least, a brief spectacle, a cautionary diversion, a source of amusement if not edification hereby submitted to the community for further discernment.

Doctrinal Sources

As Borges noted that Kafka, and every writer, creates his own precursors (Borges 202), Anabaptist Surrealism accepts arbitrarily chosen fragments not only of the Schleitheim and Dordrecht Confessions but also of the "First Manifesto of Surrealism" by Andre Breton, to wit: "Surrealism . . . asserts our complete nonconformism clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense" (PFTM 470).

Surrealist Anabaptism recognizes and insists upon its own ignorance, inadequacy, and incompetence above all, and is committed to progressive revelation, seeing through a glass darkly, Demut, Gelassenheit, fear and trembling, communal interpretation, etc., even while it ignores all these in order to say anything at all. It would prefer to remain entirely silent and simply point this way and that. Still, certain proposals and postulates must be made.


1. The Union of Surrealist Anabaptists proclaims the fusion of dream and reality into a surreality that contains both dream and reality, chaos and order, faith and doubt, past and future, culminating in the instantiation, reification, obfuscation, and final transcendence of all binary dualisms everywhere, hallelujah, amen.

2. All human beings, and all interested animals, plants and other creatures, are immediately declared both members in good standing of the Union of Anabaptist Surrealists and perpetually and simultaneously under its ban, as both eternally innocent and originally sinful. It is hoped that this dual and non-negotiable status for all will make schisms and internal turmoil more difficult if not impossible.

3. These harbingers, forerunners, and seminal texts among many others are noted with gratitude:

4. And these: John Keats, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, the Blessed Mother Mary, Mary Oliver, Mary Oyer, John Oyer, John Howard Yoder, John Ruth, Jan Gleysteen, Jan Yoder my sister, the Sisters of Mercy, Leonard Cohen, Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Gross, everybody's Gross-daddies and mommies but especially mine, Mother Jones, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, the Hardy Boys, Boy George, George Harrison, Jorge Luis Borges, Harrison Ford, not Henry Ford, Franz Kafka, Franz Fanon, Rudy Wiebe, Dallas Wiebe, Armin Wiebe, Katie Funk Wiebe and her beautiful lost daughter Christine. Et al.

Some Final Supplementary Notes

A. Surrealist Anabaptism intends to incorporate and embody all Anabaptist traditions and practices whether ordered, disordered, remembered, membered, forgotten, imagined or slanderous, including sexual anarchy, married monasticism, plain dress, cross dress, radical nonresistance, Peace Through Strength, the eschewing of all ornament, and tasteful piercings of and about the ears, nostrils, eyebrows and other sensitive tissues.

B. Surrealist Anabaptism trusts that the greatness of God's love and grace is so large that none shall be condemned to eternal torment, possibly excepting former members of the conference formerly known as General.

C. Anabaptist Surrealism knows which are the real Mennonite colleges and therefore sends its children to Taylor, Messiah, Brandeis and Harvard.

D. Surrealist Anabaptism recognizes, believes and acts upon every verse of every hymn in the Ausbund and every line of the Ordnung, written and unwritten, especially when it encounters irresolvable contradictions.

E. Anabaptist Surrealism accepts the words of its prophet, "Connoisseur of Chaos," and heretic Wallace Stevens that "A. A violent order is disorder; and / B. A great disorder is order. These / Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)" (Stevens 166). It has its own illustrations.

F. Anabaptist Surrealism is 1) dedicated entirely and absolutely to anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-gay-bashing, anti-ageism, anti-baldism, etc., 2) too busy pursuing the True Cadence for any of that stuff, 3) helpless before all manifestations of beauty.

G. Surrealist Anabaptism has noted with mingled bemusement and despair that despite all its good intentions it becomes ever more spotted and wrinkled.

H. Surrealist Anabaptism simultaneously celebrates and forbids Anabaptist provincialism of all sorts, Anabaptist smugness of the left, right, and center, all ethnocentric, Eurocentric, PC-centric, Yoder-centric, Hauerwas-centric and pseudocentric complexes, all versions and perversions of excessive and insufficient pride and humility, arrogance and Gelassenheit, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Hochmut and Demut.

I. Surrealist Anabaptism expects to be martyred for any of a thousand transgressions and hopes only to be surprised by the day and hour.

J. Anabaptist Surrealism anticipates being praised and disparaged as radical, reactionary, patriarchal, feminist, ethnic, universalist, missional, socialist, postmodern, charismatic, atheist, etc., and will plead no contest in every case.

K. Anabaptist Surrealism seeks to perform itself by creating through poetic, artistic, mystical, transcendental, concrete practices a new growth of images of impossibly pragmatic grace, hope, faith, tenderness and generosity that will spring up like mushrooms from horse droppings across the stage, the town, the country, the planet and indeed the cosmos, so that those who taste and see will themselves be taken up with the spirit of justice, beauty, peace, love, poetry, music, wild hope and holy play that we learn from our teacher, guide, friend, and savior the carpenter of Nazareth. Hallelujah and amen.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert. "Turning Away from Lies." The Light Around the Body. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methuen, 1920.

Rothenberg, Jerome. Joris, Pierre. Eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Volume One: From Fin-de-Siécle to Negritude. Vol. 1. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Ruth, John Landis. The Earth Is the Lord's: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History No. 39. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001.

Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Illustrated Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1973.


1I use the term "heresy" in at least two senses here. Innovative ideas and expressions once labeled as heresies by their opponents sometimes come over time to be accepted as possible if not necessary elements of Christian belief. In other cases, popular ideas propounded by powerful figures pass largely unchallenged despite their heretical nature. This essay is obviously written to advocate the first and resist the second.