Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship edited by Joanna Shenk. Herald Press, 2011.
Having grown up in a non-denominational evangelical church, making the shift to becoming Mennonite was both exciting and odd. The shift was particularly odd for me as I had at this time also begun exploring anarchist thought and had become suspicious of institutions as potential powers and principalities opposed to God. My first introduction to denominational life was also jarring, as I was exposed to “accountability” and “discipline” at the conference level that reeked of abstraction and authoritarianism to me. This may seem like an odd way to begin a book review, but I feel like my experience as a Mennonite convert distinctly colors my interests and critiques of Widening the Circle.
Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship is a compilation of interviews and articles edited by Joanna Shenk. The interviews and articles focus on the experience of North Americans who have in some way or another embraced Anabaptist values and formed or become involved in communities that seek to live out a “radical faith.” It’s broken up into three parts chronologically, what Joanna titles the first, second and third waves from the 50s to the present.
The book’s goal is in some ways also its weakness. It really does widen the circle covering everything from a diverse Mennonite church’s formation to the experience of a Catholic woman who left a community and now works in environmental justice. The styles of the chapters also vary. Some chapters are interviews, others are autobiographical, and a few are reflections on a theme. Each style and contribution has its own value, but the variation left me wondering what the focus of the book was. Some chapters would certainly be interesting to people who want to hear more from or about particular people or learn more about different communities, but other chapters like Mark Van Steenwyk’s offer very little in the way of understanding his community or their work. His was unique in offering a reflection on what the Anabaptist practice of glassenheit has to offer Mennonites today. I personally found this chapter to be a highlight, but it seemed to belong to a different kind of book and caused me to wonder what kind of direction the authors got in terms of Widening the Circle’s goal and content.
Part one of the book, the “First Wave,” was understandably the most historical. It includes an interview with Vincent Harding of Mennonite House and an excerpt from his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding’s unpublished memoir. It also includes the history of Lee Heights Community Church (an integrated church), Reba Place Fellowship, and an interview with Hedy Sawadsky. These chapters relied heavily on story-telling, relating the subjects’ experiences in community and describing the work they did. There were some notable highlights in this section, particularly when Vincent Harding discusses his exploration of his own blackness and concern over how that would affect his Christian faith. He also identifies the way he became a token in the Mennonite Church when he remarks on how his engagement with other groups left Mennonites feeling betrayed by “their negro.”
While I appreciate the effort to gather all these experiences I feel like these chapters, as well as all the other autobiographical pieces offered little more than a gloss over these individuals’ lives. Contributor-wise the editor did well too seek out a diverse group of voices. She should also be commended for including candid observations and critiques of Christian organizations such Vincent’s remarks and Andrea Ferich’s experience (whose chapter I will discuss later). That said, I wish these pieces moved deeper into analysis. Nuggets such as these were the most compelling bits and could of been engaged more deeply if the subject of the book had been more focused.
Otherwise, the storytelling was a little dry at times. For example, Sally Youngquist’s section on Reba House provides a timeline on its development, documenting all the changes that took place through-out its history. This may be of interest to folks in intentional community and curious about Reba House’s development, but it was not very engaging. I couldn’t help but think about Dorothy Day’s stories about community life as I read some of these chapters on intentional community. The most powerful thing about Dorothy Day’s book is the sense of camaraderie one gets in reading about her struggles and the stories she tells about guests. These stories also offer inspiration and an intimate glimpse into Kin(g)dom work. Certainly it would be unfair to expect this book to measure up to classics like Day’s Loaves and Fishes or her recently published diaries, but I use her writing as an example because I think a few specific stories from these folk’s lives, a story we could enter intimately and deeply that is then used to connect to a larger theme or as a springboard for analysis on particular struggles, challenges, or gifts radical folks have offer would be more compelling than an historical overview.
Sections two and three continue with memoir-like overviews of people’s work pursuing the radical vision of Jesus. These folks’ lives and ministry (in the least institutional sense of the word) document the variety of ways we can follow Jesus when we move away from the homogeneity of mainstream US Christian middle-class life. I would offer the same critique as above though. Most of the chapters offer overviews, touching on highlights and struggles in their work (barring Mark Van Steenwyk’s, of course, as I mentioned above), giving us only a brief taste of the writers’ journeys.
It is my opinion that the book is at its best when it moves away from autobiography and history-telling to reflections on and critiques towards the Mennonite church. This is where I would say that my particular experiences and interests as a recent convert are clearly coloring my reception of the book. The more historical selections and interviews are an invaluable resource for those interested in these individual’s lives or the organizations they represent, but I couldn’t help but be more drawn to the challenges different authors posed to Mennonites. Have we become too “comfortable in the land of the ‘brave and the free’” (pg. 87)? In what ways are we distinct? Do we like many of the earliest Anabaptists offer dissent as a gift or shy away from it (pg. 94)? A few of the contributors who seemed to speak more directly to Mennonites were Andre Stoner, Mark Van Steenwyk, Mary and Peter Sprunger-Froese, and Andrea Ferich.
I’d like to engage Andrea Ferich’s chapter more in depth, because it deviates in the sense that she doesn’t offer a very positive view of her former community and she left the Mennonite Church at a young age. Again, I would applaud Joanna for seeking out voices that offer criticism and diverse experiences. Ferich discusses her family’s experience joining the Mennonite church: how they never felt fully included and sensed that the church would always think of what they gave the family rather than what vital gifts the Ferichs had to offer them. This experience seemed to offer some valuable insight as she approached her life in Camden focusing not on what she had to offer the residents, but on the way “in becoming equal partners with the poor, we find that our liberation is tied with theirs,” (pg. 165).
Ferich also raises the question of inclusion in Christian life. She writes that the church seems to fear inclusivity of the “Community of all creation,” (pg. 165) as she discusses the things she learned living in the rainforests of Brazil. This kind of analytical engagement of her experiences offered a clear challenge to all of us in the Mennonite church in how we think about our relationship with creation and our mission of “service.”
Following the theme of inclusion Ferich analyzes the effects of belong to the New Monasticism movement. She poses questions around what it means to create a list “Marks” or standards used to define who is in and out of a movement. Is there really a need for these marks? I could relate to this concern. Often associated with “New Monasticism,” members of my community raised similar questions about whether or not we really belong… and if we want to. Ferich ultimately chose to leave Camden Intentional Community, noting the way she was marginalized due to the hetero-conformity of the New Monastic Marks. Her experience and the in-depth treatment around her thoughts on inclusion offer valuable insights and raise important questions for those of us in community.
That said, my only wish would be that more of the contributors would have spent more time analyzing their experiences and spoken more directly to the institutional church. Certainly there are tensions that arise between those of us seeking to live in personalist centered small communities and denomination structures as the back of the book states, but this wasn’t elaborated on enough. The diversity of voices and experiences also offered a unique opportunity to analyze the challenges that face communities in trying to dismantle all the -isms in ourselves and communities. I would’ve liked to see these tensions spelled out more clearly and a deeper analysis of the insights and questions raised in these peoples’ lives and work. The book brought together an amazing group of experienced radical voices, and we need these kinds of voices to speak as prophetically as they can.