I’ve just finished reading Making Believe, by Magdalene Redekop, a book about Mennonites and their relationship to art. It was nominated during the recent Manitoba Book Awards and received the Mary Scorer Best Book Award by a Manitoba Publisher Award. (University of Manitoba Press).
I picked up this book because I’ve always been aware of, and curious about, the Mennonites in Manitoba. This book, along with a few friendships along the way, has given me some insight into this sizeable population of our province.
I was not raised as a Mennonite, but I lived in a parallel universe being raised as a German Baptist. There are differences and similarities between the two faiths. While I no longer consider myself a German Baptist, I get the sense that someone born a Mennonite is always a Mennonite. Mennonites often marry other Mennonites, go to Mennonite schools, live in Mennonite-centric communities and keep in close contact with their extended family and fellow churchgoers.
Redekop’s memories reminded me of the many similarities between her Mennonite upbringing and my own German Baptist one. Dancing, make-up, movies, rock music etc. was taboo. Baptism was not to be done at birth, but as a conscious decision when one grew older. I appreciated her musings on the evangelization of the young. Those big meetings were carefully choreographed scripts and German Baptists are much like the Mennonites when it comes to manipulating the young through music and guilt.
Redekop’s book also showed the complicated (to me) differences within the Mennonite culture. Types of Mennonites depend on the times of immigration. For example, there are the Kanadier and the Russländer Mennonites. Then there are the Mennonite Brethren (more like the German Baptists) and the other Mennonites, like the Swiss. All new to me and a bit confusing.
What I found most interesting is how the Mennonites have continued to be an insular group, easily identified by their names. My own maiden name, Schroeder, could be seen as Mennonite, although my father was Lutheran and from the Hamburg area. As a young woman, I was eager to remove any connection to Germans or Mennonites and ended up with a married surname that has sometimes been mistaken as the Jewish Goldstein. Goldstone might have South African or British connections. A student once called me Mrs. Goldrock and I liked the non-ethnic sound of that.
A huge difference that I noted between the Mennonites of small-town Manitoba and my German Baptist upbringing in the big city, is that our congregation was quite diverse. My church was a ragtag of displaced war survivors from different parts of eastern Europe. Men were at a premium and my mom married a Lutheran. That guaranteed that I’d never be a genuine German Baptist and I grew as an outsider.
Redekop writes about the noticeable ‘renaissance’ of Mennonite writers, specifically from Manitoba. There’s Toews, Bergen, Klassen, Friesen, Wiebe, Brandt and many more. Now there’s a newly minted children's novelist from my writing group with the last name of Driedger. Why are so many Mennonites writing? I’d like to think it’s for the same reason I like to write. Every church service I attended when young was focused on studying the word of God or singing. Since my singing or piano playing was not encouraged, I found power in the written word.
I recommend Magdalene Redekop’s book, Making Believe, to anyone curious about the Manitoba history of Mennonites and art. You need a bit of tolerance for her academic approach and there were some parts I struggled to digest. Mostly, I appreciated the snippets where the author revealed herself. She didn’t hold back and I connected with that authenticity. For the most part, a non-Mennonite like me found it to be a compelling read.
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