The most important of these is Martyrs Mirror, that familiar chronicle of flayings, burnings, dismemberments, drownings and other tortures that afflicted faithful forebears. It has always communicated the particular way in which Anabaptist theology and history is attuned to the martyr tradition initiated by Jesus. My friend and I exchanged stories of how this book gets used in Mennonite liturgical practice. In some communities it has been a favorite wedding gift. When does a fetish, or an icon, for that matter, begin to lose its imaginative power and charm?
We wondered. Still, as our conversation traveled in familiar channels, I reflected on how the Mennonite imagination returns to this motif again and again, most recently with the tales of relatives cut down in their Ukrainian fields in the early part of the twentieth century. The other fetish object has to be the quilt.
If on the one hand Martyrs Mirror, that pointedly Anabaptist cipher for the cross, documents horrors done to the bodies of believers, then the quilt speaks to the opposite: creaturely comforts, and the familiarity of the ethnic. This pairing of extreme pain and sensuous pleasure, I would suggest, defines the poles of the Mennonite imagination. Indeed it bears out the insight of the structuralists and their deconstructive progeny that metaphysics, when you get right down to it, rests on some dualism.
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If my pairing of the cross and the quilt seems forced or artificial, let me describe what I described for my friend from Pennsylvania. This anecdote points the way to larger stirrings of the Mennonite imagination in which the quilt attains iconic weight. In the process it has begun to coexist with an older icon, the cross, or, as in this particular instance, actually physically displace it. Recently, I sat in a Mennonite sanctuary in Illinois. At the front of the sanctuary, in the center of the wall, hung a large quilt.
It invited the eye. Several other folded quilts rested on the table dominating the center of the stage. These homely objects had literally edged their way into the terrain of the sacred. They had made the journey from the quilting table to the communion table. During the service these quilts were unfolded and held up for the congregation to see.
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Members commented on the design and quality of the stitches, in the manner that students of midrash use when discussing a hard saying in the Torah. Call it an exegesis of the quilt. Similarly, the quilt also evoked history. It might be pointed out that this anecdote is too slight to sustain the weight of the argument I am making for the increased iconic significance of the quilt. I have not carried out a scientific survey of whether such a phenomenon has gained widespread adoption. But in fact it registers as an indicator of stirrings within the wider Mennonite community vis—vis quilts as a self-consciously spiritual practice.
Several months before this service, a news caption appeared in The Mennonite Weekly Review beneath a picture of a young man working with needle and cloth. That kind of space can make prayer possible. Here it is useful to point out that alternative liturgical practices are part and parcel of what has come about in the interests of both the theological and the feminist imaginations, and this activity is hardly restricted to Anabaptists.
It is a phenomenon rippling across Christendom as feminist voices register with greater force.
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Before returning to further discussion of the theological implications of the quilt as icon, I want to consider its status in an intermediate phase that precedes the iconic and follows from an earlier, primarily utilitarian use. This is the part of the history in which artists and writers became the primary mediators and interpreters of the quilt.
Alluding to quilts is an automatic reflex in much late twentieth-century Mennonite poetry. These poems also illustrate most precisely the shift in sensibility from the quilt as necessity to a self-consciously and often ironically displayed work of art. Many of us still have direct connections to the first, mostly utilitarian phase. Her quilts were made for beds, not art gallery walls. She did possess religious iconic art coming out of the pietist tradition, but the quilt was not considered part of that repertoire. This began when quilts became objects of serious art collection as well as capitalist commodities at Mennonite Central Committee relief auctions.
Coffee-table books on the quilt were published-by Mennonites themselves. The quilt was now a piece of highbrow primitive chic. Quilts started to appear on the wall, preferably under tastefully chosen track lighting. The first phase of the quilt, a homely object of utilitarian need, gave way to the second, the quilt in the Age of Warhol, when aesthetic sophistication and monetary prosperity created a Mennonite marketplace of unprecedented means.
High bidders for the quilts could expect ample publicity for both their good taste and faithfulness. Thus Yost puts the quilting into conversation with various other materials and cultural formations: Native American values and spirituality, ecological sensitivity, actual found objects including bleached animal skulls and sand. It does suggest the quilt can be reappropriated in a milieu of cultural pluralism.
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Still, it is interesting that the quilted portion of a typical Yost piece is usually clearly demarcated from the rest of the artwork, bumping up against the oil painting or found object, but seldom mingling with it. Kraybill created familiar quilt patterns by affixing colored chemical and nuclear warning labels on a flat surface. Pirates, perhaps. Or global warming. Newfoundlanders have always missed a lot of things.
Often these are things they never had. Much revered. As a coat. The Newfoundland coat of arms has an elk on it. Now, Newfoundland has never had elk. And so they miss that elk. A mascot, to qualify, must be alive, or dead, and must signify something about the community. Then everyone misses them. So, that signifies something, I guess. Some mascots have human connections, being canucks or oilers or senators though this last named may not qualify — as a hockey team, I mean.
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But residents are really apprehensive about this tourist season because so many mosquitoes are missing. This has happened before. Still, there are many confirmed cod sightings each year. They will all be sorely missed. Do we live in an interesting country, or what? I wish I were kidding. So do the spin doctors for the early Brian Mulroney 3. The other day I encountered one in the streets of Goshen. We grin and bob because we share a secret. But here is no exaggeration. Nobody was teaching me these things; I just did them; they were things all boys did then.
And if we wanted to improve our skills and refine our techniques and increase our knowledge, we had the books back then. The book was published just this year, so the chance that I read it as a boy is less than slim. But it is exactly the sort of book I would have read as a boy, and I did. So I was well aware that some aquatic avian biota were sapient creatures with inexplicably bizarre behaviour, and that a real man could sustain the impact and perforations of a hail of bullets, and that when I grew older, I would be enlisted to fight Zulus and capture slave traders and expose blackguards, often white ones.
I have carried these lessons into manhood, with minor adjustments, for I know still that animals have dignity and feelings, and that a man must endure many a hardship in the pursuit of duty, and that the enemy has many faces, and when we meet him, he is too often us. You will note that the literature which influenced my boyhood was not Canadian literature; it was British and American literature. And you will note that the literature and the entertainment culture which most influence the boy boys of Canada today are still British and American, as evidenced by the popularity of The Lord of the Rings , and Harry Potter , and Shrek.
The Dangerous Book for Boys is a British book. So they wrote it. Some of the stuff in this book is so British that you have read it with an accent. The game of conkers, for instance. There are explicit instructions for making a conker, using a shoelace and a horse chestnut. In the game itself, with other boys, one tries to strike and demolish the nut — just one — of the opponent. There are elaborate rules. There are tricks to employ, and secret recipes for producing a masterful conker. Cunning is important, but sportsmanship is paramount.
So often we hear this said about the things we take for granted.
Things such as relationships. Such as gas at 89 cents a litre. Newfoundland, now, is missing its icebergs. But the bergs have just melted away. This time, the usual suspect, the Gulf Stream, is not to blame.