Don’t just assume

Mennonite mainline visitor observes gathering of conservative Anabaptists

May 13, 2019 by and

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Two cow carcasses lie piled onto each other, just off the parking lot. The Shipshewana (Ind.) Auction Barn has some actual barns attached to it, and two of its residents must have died recently. A few hours later they are gone, hauled off with a Caterpillar.

The Anabaptist Identity Conference challenges the humble impulse of “this is just the way we do it.” — Philipp Gollner

The Anabaptist Identity Conference challenges the humble impulse of “this is just the way we do it.” — Philipp Gollner

The little signs that point visitors to the 14th Anabaptist Identity Conference nearby are less noticeable. The conference, AIC for short, has taken place mostly in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio so far, always organized by the inimitable brothers Nathan and Mathias Overholt. They serve as emcees, song leaders, meal explainers and cultural translators between a wide array of Plain and conservative Anabaptist groups — from Old Orders to the Apostolic Christian Church, from agrarians to cellphone users — with a few interlopers from the Mennonite mainline.

I went to the March 28-30 event because, I told myself, I have a quasi-scholarly fascination with these groups. The program promises some resolution: “Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?” asks the title page.

I also went because I wanted to prove to myself that I’m not one of these liberal Mennonites guilty of condescension when it comes to Plain Anabaptism: If only they were better educated. If only they weren’t so attached to outward details. And so on.

A group of Old Order Amish from Centerville, Mich., was supposed to host this year. But Centerville, it turns out, does not have a barn big enough to hold the crowd that AICs now draw. So Shipshewana it was.

Hold your hymnals up

On the first day of the conference, more than 500 people pack the folding chairs and bleachers. They hail from as far away as Chihuahua, Mexico; Montana and Alaska, judging by the license plates on all the 15-seaters outside. Hundreds more are listening in through a conference phone line.

They are here to browse the many book tables by Plain publishers, to sing (“hold your hymnals up, open your mouth twice as wide,” the Overholts instruct), and to eat food that is “either organic or free of genetic modification” from an almost exclusively female kitchen staff. A third of the audience, however, is also female. Some women ask questions after lectures. But none are speakers.

And as for speakers: mainly, these 500 have come to hear 18 presentations from an improvised stage decorated not by a logo but a large painting of early Christians about to be shredded by lions in a Roman theater.

Some speakers, I gather, are almost celebrities. They speak every year, on particularly weighty subjects. And if you are a historian, I am told, you must talk to so and so.

Other speakers, first-timers, name their nervousness before they begin. But the casual rhythm of the conference soon makes space for them all. The intellectual and emotional hospitality feels genuine, never patronizing: “If you do not have a CD player, by all means, we will make transcripts.” “Perhaps you are not taking photos, more power to you; it just seems appropriate for me to show family pictures on the PowerPoint.”

Personal anecdotes flicker up throughout presentations: “We still didn’t have any children.” “We met on an Air Force Base.” “I’m still learning German.”

Trendy church language seems far away. No one here is “living into” anything. No one is “missional.”

Just the way we do it?

Many speakers hurl theological resources against the perceived anti-intellectualism of their own traditions. A lecture on “Amish Apologetics: Critical New Testament Thinking” explains why the speaker is, in fact, still Amish, “and it’s not because I was born Amish!”

Another circulates a handout on Gnosticism: “Warn­ing! Anabaptists must discern dualism whenever and wherever it surfaces and clearly resist it.”

This, I begin to understand, is not a celebration of an assumed religious heritage. These are cries precisely to wake those who just assume. The AIC wants to foster deliberation and intentionality among conservative Anabaptists. Its topics, and sometimes its tone, challenge the humble impulse of “this is just the way we do it.” It urges reflectiveness.

Yet that very reflectiveness also makes them look decidedly less relaxed than the Anabaptism-from-the-gut that most definitions of Gelassenheit suggest: yielding to the will of God and to others, contentment, a calm spirit. The serenity prayer in flesh. Here, instead, a text-heavy banner to the side of the stage subsumes the word Gelassenheit under the category “Dedication: devoted to the service of God.”

Ours is not a time to just assume Anabaptism, most speakers suggest. I hear that youth may be even less spiritually safe at Mennonite colleges than at state schools. No, we are not like these Anabaptists.

I decide not to take offense.

But I also hear that assault-style hunting rifles are not symbols worthy of Anabaptists. And that simply not voting is insufficient protection from the god-and-country ethos much of rural America breathes. We are not like these Christians either.

Thou shalt not define thyself by what you’re not, the inclusive side of my brain tells me. But, I wonder, don’t we all? We, too, don’t want to be like these evangelicals. And we don’t drive horses and buggies anymore, thank you very much. And we don’t exclude like that (no, we exclude like this . . .)

Chester the rooster

My daughters, the only girls without bonnets, rummage through the children’s book tables. There’s a book about a blind Old Order Mennonite woman. My observation that her bonnet looks  different from the dozens of others around us sounds irrelevant: Why is she blind? How did she get that dog? How does she cook?

There’s Chester the rooster: He was so proud of his wits and looks that a grumpy rabbit pounced on him one day. “Golden yellow feathers floated to the ground as the dust settled.”

In the end, my analytic detachment, too, has given way to identification. Yes, those questions are mine, too: How is my individuality related to a larger whole, to negotiations over who gets to be “we”? Where are we going? Who are our “others,” and why? Do they, as well as our past selves, contribute to naming our identity? Can ethnicity and theology tango?

You can find conference recordings and some information at anabaptistslive.org.

Philipp Gollner is assistant professor of U.S. history at Goshen (Ind.) College and book review editor for Mennonite Quarterly Review.


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