Memoir

Former Mennonite finds faith anew

 

After re-embracing Mennonite roots in her last memoir, Rhoda Janzen writes about a new path to faith.

hsampson@MiamiHerald.com

The transformation of Rhoda Janzen — the Mennonite-turned-worldly-academic whose book about returning home made the bestseller list — continues. Which is a delight for fans of her warm, wisecracking style.

In Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Janzen wrote of a series of devastating forces that sent her to heal in the peace-loving, hardworking community of her youth: complications from surgery, divorce due to husband meeting a man online, car accident with injuries.

Her latest, the honest and remarkably funny Does this Church Make Me Look Fat?, focuses on Janzen’s relationship with Mitch, the no-nonsense Christian whom she met in the previous book. Also key to the story: her evolving relationship with his Pentecostal church. (The title question comes up when she dresses in a skirt suit for the first visit.)

“I never really doubted the existence of God,” she writes. “But I placed it like a pea under my stack of ruined mattresses. Thus I covered credulity with erudition and gentlemanly skepticism.”

That last sentence hints at the occasional tendency of Janzen, a college professor, to slip into academic-speak, though her writing is mostly conversational and almost always a joy to read.

Even when she busts out a sentence that requires a dictionary (“I cling so hard to ratiocinative thought that I have trouble releasing myself into the mysteries of God”) she follows it up with a perfectly identifiable thought. See: “Also, sometimes a nice mimosa brunch sounds better than church.”

Early in the book, Janzen attends a healing service and finds out soon afterward that she has breast cancer. Such a diagnosis might present a crisis for budding faith, but not for this spiritual explorer. Instead of asking how God could allow this illness to strike her — a woman who runs six miles daily and makes her own yogurt — she finds comfort and even strength in the prayers that rise up in support.

She does have questions and amusing observations about some of her new congregation’s practices: speaking in tongues, dancing during worship, announcing maladies during the service so the afflicted can receive prayer.

“Mennonites believe in the inherent dignity of the gospel, and they downplay all those parts of the New Testament where Jesus acts a little kooky,” she points out.

Janzen’s candor is refreshing (she wonders how to break the news to her Ph.D. friends that she’s “attending church on purpose”), and her eventual warm embrace of the church requires her to swallow some pride, avoid a few important issues and abandon control in parts of her life. For the author, that works so well that readers might feel they have found their way into a Christian advice book on occasion.

But that’s not to say the book can only be enjoyed by those with a similar belief system. Janzen writes of her newfound faith like a travel writer discovering an exotic new pocket of the world, and her enthusiasm and spirit and knack for finding humor in the God details make this book a crowd-pleaser.

Hannah Sampson is a Miami Herald staff writer.

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