Mennonites and Media: Mentioned in It, Maligned by It, and Makers of It. How Mennonites Have Been Portrayed in Media and How They Have Shaped Media for Identity and Outreach.
In his monograph on Mennonites and the media, Steven Carpenter poses two questions: How have Mennonites been portrayed in the media since 1525, and how have media produced by Mennonites reached the broader public? He defines "media" broadly to include oratory, print, visual art and books, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television and film, but he does not account for the body of work produced by Mennonite publishing organizations such as Gospel Herald, Mennonite World (Weekly) Review, or the Cascadia and Pandora presses (xviii). His focus is mostly on U.S. media, and his methodology rests primarily on the use of Ngram analysis, a searchable database of 5.2 million books written over the last four centuries that represents about 4 percent of books written. Just as DNA has been used to map the human genome, the developers of this database have touted the tool as a way to create "culturomes" that reveal patterns in human culture. By using the search terms "Anabaptist" and "Mennonite," Carpenter maps peaks in the occurrence of these two terms from 1800 to 2000, and compares their frequency with the occurrence of "Mormon," "Jew," "Methodist," "Plymouth Brethren," and "Catholic." He links the peaks in frequency of mentions with the publications of major Mennonite works: Harold Bender's "The Anabaptist Vision" (1944), John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (1972), and Doris Janzen Longacre's More-With-Less Cookbook (1976). He concludes that "in the latter half of the twentieth century, Mennonites have a media footprint in excess of their size, at least in regard to print media" (155).
The book begins with an introduction to key concepts: media; Anabaptist; Mennonite origins and migrations; and interpretations of religious identity using a sectarian perspective. Carpenter introduces Phillip Kennison's classification of aspects of sectarian identity (sociological, ecclesiological, and theological) as a framework for the analysis of media portrayals as positive, negative, or neutral (xxxi).
The first part of the book includes four chapters on how Mennonites have been portrayed through various media: aural, print, visual, and the Ngram. Chapter one describes Reformation-era Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican proclamations about perceived heresies of Anabaptists, as well as sections on U.S. government responses to conscientious objectors, Weird Al Yankovic's music, a Prairie Home Companion, and coverage of the controversy over Goshen College's playing of the national anthem at sporting events in 2009. Chapter two on print media describes the appearances of Mennonites in novels and scholarly works, as well as in newspaper and magazines stories. Carpenter examines the media's presentation of Mennonites in connection with people and events such as bicyclist Floyd Landis, the tragic bas crash that killed members of the Bluffton University baseball team, the murder of Mennonite Central Committee volunteer Glen Lapp in Afghanistan, a New York Times article on the misdeeds of John Howard Yoder, and coverage of the Supreme Court decision on Conestoga Wood Specialties' appeal of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Chapter three on visual media begins with descriptions of Anabaptists in plays by Voltaire and Wilde, and an array of films and television programs that refer to Mennonites. This first part of the book ends with an Ngram analysis of the mentions of Mennonites compared with other religious groups. Carpenter applies Kennison's sectarian categories (sociological, theological, and ecclesiological) to classify these depictions as positive, negative, or neutral. He concludes that neutral depictions are the smallest category. If an author agreed with Mennonite theology, then Mennonites were generally portrayed positively; if not, then the depictions were negative. With regard to ecclesiology/practice, negative depictions tended to be "poking fun" at Mennonites (73). Sociological depictions tended to focus on pacifism and social justice.
Part two shifts the focus to how Mennonites have used media for identity and outreach as a basis for articulating a Mennonite theology of media. Chapter five notes the tension between separatist impulses in the Mennonite tradition and more recent efforts to embrace media for mission and outreach. Chapters six through eleven each treat different forms of media outreach. Topics here include the Martyrs Mirror, book rack evangelism, outreach efforts through radio programs, and the work of Mennonite contemporary musicians (Over the Rhine; Steel Wheels). He also profiles visual and performing artists and cultural interpreters, including Warren Rohrer, Esther Augsburger, Ted Swartz, and Donald Kraybill, and he describes the works of Mennonite filmmakers, including Joel Kauffmann, Merle Good, and Burton Buller. Carpenter's look at books that reached the broader reading public begins with the novels of Joseph Yoder and extends to Good Books' best-selling Fix-It and Forget-It cookbook series and works by Rudy Wiebe, Ronald Sider, Miriam Toews, Rhoda Janzen, and Paul Stutzman. In chapter twelve, Carpenter return to his focus on print media using Ngram data to trace mentions of the terms "Anabaptist" and "Mennonite" in comparison with mentions of other religious groups.
In his conclusion, Carpenter argues that "Mennonites have a media presence, particularly in print, in excess of their size, when compared with many other religious groups" (158), and then explores what that fact might mean. First, he argues that "there is a growing hunger for an Anabaptist understanding of the Christian faith" and it is therefore important for Anabaptist perspectives to be present in "the marketplace of ideas" (158-159). Second, he claims that his analysis describes how the public perceives Mennonites and acknowledges the often blurred public associations between Amish and Mennonites. Finally, Carpenter notes that this research contributes to scholarship on the Anabaptist presence--and witness--in cultural discourse.
Carpenter's project is indeed fascinating. The project provides a smorgasbord of intriguing examples of portrayals of and contributions to media discourse on Mennonite faith and practice. His reliance on Ngram data tilts the hard evidence toward print media. While the Ngram database is vast, it represents only 4 percent of published works and the methodology leaves the selection criteria for the nonprint media examples unclear and arbitrary. What is left out, for example, is a significant body of poetry published by Mennonite poets. Also left out are the contributions to cultural discourse from an Anabaptist perspective by Mennonite periodicals and publishing enterprises, as well as substantial bodies of scholarship produced by Mennonite historians, sociologists, and medical professionals, for example. Granted, including this work would have required a much larger project. Nevertheless, Carpenter's work does prompt questions worth considering. Do Mennonites have a theology of media engagement for the twenty-first century? What does the history and practice of Mennonite media engagement, particularly since the mid 1970's, reveal about that theology? What data can we develop to paint a portrait of perceptions of Mennonites among members of the broader public? Do media portrayals translate into the concrete perceptions among readers and viewers that Carpenter suggests?
The monograph would benefit from additional editing. For example, Keith Weaver (not Harder) is the leader of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (29), and Jim Bowman (not Brown) was part of the Sisters and Brothers Productions team (118).
Carpenter provides a tantalizing introduction to an array of media representations that begs for further analysis, and his book provides an inviting jumping off point for future research. Deeper textual analysis is needed to provide a more nuanced interpretation of media portrayals in their particular cultural and historical contexts. And more research is needed to understand the impact of those portrayals on Mennonite themselves as well as on the broader culture.
DIANE ZIMMERMAN UMBLE Millersville University
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|Author:||Umble, Diane Zimmerman|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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