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European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity over Five Centuries: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters.

European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity over Five Centuries: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters. Edited by Mark Jantzen, Mary S. Sprunger and John D. Thiesen. North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College. 2016.

This book emerged from a 2010 conference at Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas) titled "Marginal or Mainstream? Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in European Society." Its thesis--if one is to be found in a book with nineteen contributions--is indicated by Thomas A. Brady Jr. in the book's first chapter. The Anabaptists, Brady argues, were not the last spasm of medieval religious logic before the Enlightenment ushered in modernity. Nor were the Mennonites a shining beacon of modern religious plurality in Europe's gathering medieval dusk. Rather, European Mennonites' diffusion, diversity, and ambivalence toward modernity made their encounter with the phenomenon lack a clear trajectory. In other words, the book shows that European Mennonites were often as skeptical about their ability to create a Mennonite metanarrative as they were fickle about the metanarratives of modernity advanced by state and religious actors.

Fittingly, the book is organized in three sections: "Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters." The scheme strikes a balance between focus and elasticity and helps thematically foreshadow the authors' contributions. Of course, "modernity" is a slippery fish and the title begs the question of how the authors collectively define modernity and what it means to contribute, detract, or adapt to it. In the succinct yet detailed introduction, the editors wisely acknowledge that there is no tidy answer to this question. Rather, the aim of the book is to "keep conversations [about modernity] open and dynamic" (xviii).

The "Contributors" section presents a series of chronologically-arranged chapters dealing with specific facets of modernity. Michael Driedger demonstrates how the sixteenth-century Munster Rebellion became a "meme" of modern religious violence. Mary S. Sprunger examines Mennonite economic modernity through a Weberian lens in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. Yme Kuiper tackles Mennonites' political modernity and Dutch patriotism in late-nineteenth-century Friesland. Ernst Hamm looks at Mennonite education and scientific modernity in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic. Frank Konersmann investigates class formation among Mennonites in the Rhineland Palatinate during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. Nataliya Venger examines the nineteenth-century Russian government's anticipated economic and commercial modernization of the countryside via Mennonite colonization. The final chapters in this section focus on Mennonites in what is now Uzbekistan, which pushes the definition of "Europe" to its geographical limits. One may reasonably ask whether German-speaking Mennonite communities in British North America might also be considered "European," since the distance between the Atlantic coasts is the same as the distance between Berlin and Tashkent. Nevertheless, Dilaram M. Inoyatova outlines Mennonite social and agricultural influences on Central Asia in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, while Walter Ratliff examines late-nineteenth-century Mennonite/Muslim social and economic relations in Khiva, which is a particularly timely topic given twenty-first-century Europe's growing engagement with its eastern neighbors.

Owing to the fact that most of Europe's "detractors" left the continent for the Americas, this section is necessarily less developed than the first. In his well-argued chapter, Brian C. Brewer finds elements of Anabaptist sacramentalism that bridge tradition and modernity by being "non-superstitious but substantive, intellectual but sacramental" (197). Ranier Kobe's contribution describes the thematic similarities between the work of seventeenth-century Danzig/Gdansk painter Isaac von der Blocke and sixteenth-century Anabaptist artists and writers, but it is not certain whether von der Blocke was actually acquainted with their work. In a tightly-argued chapter that adheres most closely to the "detractors" theme, Mark Jantzen uses Prussia's nineteenth-century Mennonites to illuminate the paradoxical situation of a monarchy acting in ways that were more tolerant toward religious minorities than a liberal state bent of forging a nation in arms. Finally, Johannes Dyck's chapter casts nineteenth-century Russian Mennonite Brethren as "catalytic agents" in the formation of the Russian Baptists. In his brief "Concluding Remarks," Dyck provocatively connects nineteenth-century Mennonites and Russian Baptists to the twentieth-century Reformed Baptist movement, which offered the first organized religious resistance to the Soviet state in the postwar period.

The "Adapters" section is thematically and geographically less well-rounded than the first but contains several fine chapters that closely adhere to the section theme. Troy Osborne's clearly-argued contribution shows how Amsterdam's seventeenth-century Mennonites aided the Dutch Republic's modernizing government by instilling religious discipline that also functioned as civic discipline. Karl Koop's chapter on the myriad confessions of faith formulated by conservative Dutch Mennonites in the eighteenth century poses the question: "might it be possible that, in issuing these confessions of faith, these orthodox Mennonites were unwittingly promoting a modern mindset?" (286). He answers "yes" by arguing that the rationalistic form of the confessions were modern, even if their function was anti-modern. More descriptive than argumentative, Marion Kobelt-Groch introduces readers to Antje Brons, a nineteenth-century German Mennonite woman who wrote extensively on modern pedagogy. John D. Thiesen's historiographical contribution outlines the development of work on German Mennonites and Nazism, including the Mennonites' own Historikerstreit between Hans-Jurgen Goertz and Diether Gotz Lichdi in the late 1970s, and offers suggestions for future research. Jeremy Koop takes up part of Thiesen's challenge in his comparative chapter on the Protestant German theologians Emanuel Hirsch, Karl Barth, and Benjamin H. Unruh. During the Nazi era, Koop argues that "Barth's political opposition, Hirsch's fervent nationalism... and Unruh's complicated and often ironic relationship to his Mennonite theological traditions need to be understood from a theological perspective" (329). His broader conclusion is that German Mennonites' theological acceptance of Nazism was the result of decades of assimilating Lutheran theology and German nationalism into their belief system. The section concludes with a chapter by James Regier that describes the development and dissolution of the relatively unknown Galician Mennonites during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Two topics that are surprisingly absent from the book concern European Mennonites' transnational networks and the role of gender vis-a-vis modern governments. In light of the fact that most of the world's Mennonites have lived outside of Europe for over a century, it would be useful to see a contribution that specifically addresses Mennonite missionary work and migrant networks, which introduced thousands of non-Europeans to European-style modernity. This addition could also help round out the "Detractors" section by informing us of what happened to the most dedicated elements of Mennonite resistance to European modernity. Likewise, Mennonites made some of their most essential decisions as detractors based on masculine concerns about civic and military participation. Such preoccupations had little to say to women, who represented 50 percent of the Mennonite population and who were not granted a full menu of modern rights and responsibilities until the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the editors must work within the constraints of the conference proceedings and authors must work within the constraints of a single chapter, so these and other omissions are defensible.

The book largely fulfills the editors' promise. It indicates that Mennonite individuals and communities reacted to European modernity in myriad ways and offers a broad introduction to the diverse history of Mennonites on the continent. It will find a place on the shelves of scholars and students interested in the legacy of the Anabaptist movement and the intersection of modernity and religion in the European context.


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Author:Eicher, John
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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