The sibling: Ilva's brother, Ken Yoder.
The book: The Day After Jimmy Got Saved: Reflections on Growing Up Mennonite In Knoxville
A long time ago, I thought about writing about growing up in central Minnesota. Then Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days was published, and I thought, Ok, I don't need to write about it, because someone else has done it for me.
I might not need to write any more about growing up Anabaptist, because Ken Yoder has done this for me as well.
Now, granted, he and his were a lot more Mennonite than we were. And they were of the old Mennonite gentry in Virginia, no less, where I'm told the families and traditions go back forever. But the theological winds that blew through our little Beachy-Amish church in Minnesota also wafted through his little church in Knoxville, where these Virginia transplants attempted to establish a Mennonite church in a deep-South culture, with very mixed results.
"Growing up in the south is interesting enough in its own right," Ken writes in the introduction, "but adding the ethnic, religious and cultural overtones of being raised as a traditional Mennonite created rather special circumstances for my years in Tennessee."
Each chapter of the book looks at a different aspect of growing up Mennonite in Knoxville. Ken writes with equal dexterity of crazy stunts with his friends, eccentric neighbors, family life, and trying to reconcile the prevailing theology with the realities of his life as a young boy.
Reading the book, I sometimes laughed until I was in tears and other times I sighed because it took me back a little too vividly. Most of the time, he mixed fun and sadness all together, and also religion and real life, and Christianity and tradition and riding a bike across town--but then, life is like that, not all parceled into neat boxes.
"I don't know why some animals act the way they do," writes Ken. "You might think that cats are peaceful, but that is not entirely correct. Just let a strange cat come around and even a Mennonite cat will act as if it never once got saved."
I mean, who thinks to apply Mennonite Arminianism to cats?
"Once in a while we were invited over to the Stoltzfus' for a meal which was a real experience. My mother was a great cook and her food tasted real good. She didn't pull any surprises on us. ...With Ruby, you could never tell. She . . . tried out new stuff once in a while that left you wondering if this was suitable for people growing up Mennonite in Knoxville. She must have gotten recipes from magazines rather than from the Mennonite Community Cookbook like she should have."
If you grew up Mennonite, that is just funny.
Like Ken, I was a sensitive child with a great imagination, and some of the dire warnings about the end times and judgment and persecution could make me stew in obsessive fear, night after night. Now I think: Seriously, who gets this graphic with small children in the audience?!
He grew up with lots of dark warnings about judgment and what seems like a very works-based salvation, but he mentions two women who gave him a more loving view of the Gospel. One was his aunt, "Miz Naomi," who as nearly as I can calculate is my friend Sharon's late mother, a wonderful woman who used to come to Oregon every year to visit.
Ken describes Naomi as, "...a real person who knows and loves Jesus, and can't help but pass along goodness to everybody she meets. She won a huge place in my heart during one of our phone calls. 'Well,' she said, 'you are one of mine.'" Ken imagines Jesus saying the same thing to him when he passes on.
The other was Ruth, a kind and comforting woman who held children's meetings in the church basement and had the children sing about being precious jewels in God's crown. He contrasts this with what he learned upstairs in the sanctuary. "Downstairs we experienced being precious jewels; upstairs it sounded like we were not so precious after all. Downstairs we were safe. Upstairs we needed to get saved. That got me all mixed up, and I got suspicious about jewels in general, and worried about being precious in his sight."
His communion experiences had definite parallels to mine:
"Even though I was in the middle of baiting Mr. Potter on a very consistent basis, there were times I wished for better self-control because of the principle of being a witness, and letting my light shine. What an awful situation, because if I didn't behave in a godly fashion, there would be trouble twice a year at Communion time, to say nothing about when the Great Rapture came. I would get left behind, and it would be forever too late... Mennonites don't have eternal security. That is why we needed to behave ourselves."
His writing made me think a lot, as a Mennonite minister's wife, about how we present the Christian life to children, and what is truth worth striving for and applicable to all generations and cultures, and what isn't.
There is the case, for instance, of Mrs. Petrie's covering. "Now because she got born again in the Mennonite way, she ... needed to wear a prayer veiling...We called it a covering, and that had its own challenges for someone who didn't grow up knowing about these things. Mother knew about coverings and could put hers on just right, and it sat there like it belonged. It didn't work so smoothly for poor Sister Petrie. Her covering would twist from port to starboard, tilt fore and aft in a most unsatisfactory way. And dents, oh my goodness gracious. Her covering was dented and bashed in, sort of like the cars we saw around the place. 'Is it on right?' she would plead as we got ready to take her to church...Mother would fix her up until things looked right. Getting it right took about three generations of sustained teaching. Sister Petrie did not have that advantage."
I think we all had a Mrs. Petrie in our congregation, growing up.
Ken is gracious, but he comes across more cynical and irreverent than I normally do in my writing. This review is not intended to condone his present theology, such as it can be determined, which I didn't try very hard to do, since I was more about just reading it as a good story.
My brother Phil's response to the book included this: "He has an ironic and irreverent approach or, as you put it, an 'edge.' Pretty much a constant thing, all the way through. That irreverence regarding the Mennonite foibles you can obviously relate to. But some of it I'm wondering what you think."
Well, this is what I think. This book is worth a buy and a read if you:
--want to learn some interesting Mennonite history and culture from the 1950s.
--want to read a unique, well-written, honest, and side-splitting growing-up story.
--want to do some serious thinking about how to share the Gospel across cultures
--want to feel understood if you grew up Mennonite, no matter where it was.
You can buy the book on Amazon here.