The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer

Ted Grimsrud

[What follows is a review of one of the latest of a series of biographies of important 20th century Mennonite leaders (some of the others include books about Edmund Kaufman, Harold Bender, Guy Hershberger, and Orie Miller). This book does a nice job of making the story of the largely forgotten pioneering historian, C. Henry Smith. It will be published in Brethren in Christ History & Thought.]

Perry Bush. Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015. 457 pages. $29.99.

 Henry Smith (1875-1948) was a fascinating and important American Mennonite figure whose story has been well told by Perry Bush in Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith.

Born Henry Smith to an Amish farming family near Metamora, Illinois, just as the Mennonite world in North America was beginning a new phase of intense assimilation, this pioneering scholar and successful small-town businessman in many ways marks important transformations in the Mennonite world. He may not have won that many of the Mennonite conflicts he found himself in during the first half of the 20th century, but as Bush helps us see, Smith prefigured much about what this Mennonite world has become.

The attractions of education

Early in his life, Smith (the third of eight children) discovered the attractions of education to the degree that he stepped away from his expected farming future as a young adult and devoted his own energies to a teaching career. He started off working in rural schools but his circle kept expanding. He received all of his formal education in the state of Illinois—a very new Illinois Normal School (eventually Illinois State), the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago.

By the time Smith received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, he had been hired to teach at the just established Goshen College. Smith, who as a young adult added the “C.” to his name to make himself more distinctive, was one of the first Mennonites to earn a Ph.D. and allegedly was the first to gain that degree and remain a Mennonite. Continue reading “The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer”

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A new book!

Ted Grimsrud—September 6, 2016

I am happy to announce the publication of a new collection of my writings, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church. The essays, blog posts, and lectures in this collection were produced over the past fifteen years in the context of the conversations in Mennonite communities concerning inclusion of sexual minorities.

Some of the chapters focus on biblical interpretation, some on the history of Mennonite responses to these issues, and some on responding to many of the writings Christians have produced during these years.

The book both provides a historical perspective on these challenging years for Mennonites and a coherent biblical and theological argument in favor of inclusion.

Here is a link to the book’s website that includes information on purchasing the book. It is now available as a paperback online from Amazon ($20) and Barnes and Noble ($15.58) and as an e-book on Amazon Kindle ($8). It may also be purchased directly from the author ($10 in person and $15 postpaid through the mail).

It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2016

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same ol’ same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
Cause I’ve got boats to build

Guy Clark, “Boats to Build”

Last Friday, I turned in my grades for the last time. I gave my last exam last Wednesday. It was about a year ago that I decided that this would be my final year teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and that  I would take an early retirement. Or, as Kathleen and I see it, I will transition from being a full-time college professor who writes on the side to being a full-time writer.

Last Sunday morning in church, I shared about my plans. I mentioned that EMU does not put a lot of pressure on faculty to publish; it’s not really a “publish or perish” place. But now, the pressure will increase. As Kathleen will be taking on a more central role in providing our income, she’s telling me that it will be “publish or perish.” I think she’s kidding (a little, at least), but we both certainly are excited about this transition and have high expectations.

The past year since I “gave my notice” moved quickly, and I am excited for it to be over. It’s been a good year in many ways, but not for a second have I doubted that it is time for this change—even if I am not entirely sure what to expect in these years to come. As Guy Clark sings, “Let the chips fall where they will, ’cause I’ve got boats to build.”

A time of transition like this may be a good time to look back and to look ahead. How did I get here? What clues about what’s to come may be discerned in the trajectory what what has gone before? How have I been prepared for this new stage?

It is a bit unsettling to notice a pattern in my life. Things fit pretty much into 20 year segments. I have my younger years of formal education and a kind of meandering in terms of getting a sense of my life’s vocation and passion. That period ended, it seems to me now, in the Spring of 1976, my last term in college when I took my first philosophy classes (I never did take a religion class in high school or college). I was primed for the classes (“Philosophy of Religion” and “Existentialism”). The previous couple of decades had prepared me, in a way, so those classes turned out to be a gateway to a life of a theologian. Continue reading “It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition”

Should “love” define a Christian university?

Ted Grimsrud

[The following was shared as an opening meditation at a Eastern Mennonite University faculty assembly, November 16, 2015.]

Critiquing North American higher eduction

I listened to Henry Giroux, a political philosopher at Canada’s McMaster University, on the radio a couple of weeks ago. He detailed crises in higher education in North America—and focused, among other things, on how higher education’s work of fostering genuine democracy is increasingly subordinated to the ever more all-encompassing corporate agenda. We have seen these issues dramatically illustrated in the recent student uprising at the University of Missouri.

I am quite sympathetic with Giroux’s critique and think it is relevant for how we think of our work here at EMU. Whatever it all is that “Christian” higher education might be about, it seems like it must include many of the things Giroux talks about—confronting our “cold commodity culture” for the sake of social wholeness, justice, care for the vulnerable, a stronger and more vital democratic public sphere.

But I also felt something was missing in his presentation. That I have a hard time naming what I missed might reflect my own failure of theological imagination. The best I can do is say that there is not much talk about love in his vision. There’s not a lot of talk about compassion, servanthood, turning the other cheek, a Martin Luther King-style sense of “self-suffering” for the sake of social justice.

As I think about what it might mean to be a genuinely Christian college, shaped most of all by the core convictions that the Bible articulates for us, I think of a call to combine social critique with love; to combine saying no to empire, no to corporatism, with saying yes to compassion, to care, to kindness, to valuing each person. Continue reading “Should “love” define a Christian university?”

Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2015

I hope to have quite a bit more to say about the Book of Revelation and about Mennonite Church USA in the days to come, but since I don’t know when those opportunities will arise, I wanted to share a brief reflection from this morning’s work on Revelation.

“Wrath” in Revelation

A major theme in Revelation is “wrath.” The term is used throughout the book (far more than anywhere else in the New Testament). Often, our English translations perhaps misleadingly add the word “God” as in “God’s wrath” rather than simply “wrath.”

This addition is not unwarranted; generally it is clear from the context that there is a close association between God and “wrath.” But I think it is important to recognize that the absence of the direct connection also likely indicates something significant—perhaps that we should recognize that “wrath” is not the same thing as a direct act by an angry God (I also have in mind to write a blog post soon that reflects in much more detail on the notion of God as an “angry God).

In many of it uses in Revelation, “wrath” seems to indicate more a sense of the outworking in history of negative consequences of human actions and beliefs—kind of an indirect expression of God’s negative response to human injustice. “The wrath” reflects not so much God’s direct intervention as a sense that God’s creation carries within it the dynamics of cause and effect where at some point injustice does lead to brokenness; you live by the sword, you likely will die by the sword.

An added dimension

What I was struck with today, as I was looking closely at the third series of terrible plagues in Revelation, described in chapters 15 and 16, is the thought that maybe a significant element of the experience of “wrath” depends upon the perspective on the agents on the human side of the God/human relationship. That is, an element of the meaning of “wrath” is that we perceive something as “wrathful” or not depending on our way of seeing the world.

Maybe—and at this point this is just a question, I haven’t really looked more closely at the text in light of this thought—what some people experience as God’s love in Revelation is experienced by others as God’s wrath. What is attractive about this thought to me is that then we don’t have to struggle with the deeply problematic idea that God acts sometimes in loving ways and sometimes in punitive ways, that God is divided within Godself between love and punitive justice, that God’s intention for humanity is partly salvific and partly punitive. Continue reading “Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA”

Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict”

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2015

Once, when I was in high school, I was on a school bus returning from a basketball game on a rainy winter night. Roads were narrow and windy in the Coast Range of southwest Oregon. On this part of the road there was one spot where it was possible to pass. As we got to that spot, a car flashed by horn blaring. We recognized the people in the car as recent graduates from our school and we were all celebrating because of having won our game. Then we watched in horror as the car speeding by started to spin out of control. The scene remains vivid in my memory, these 40+ years later. It was like that car froze in space for the longest time before hurtling off the road.

As it turned out, the speeding car only ended up in the ditch. No one was hurt and the car wasn’t seriously damaged. I can only hope that the outcome of what seems like a similar scenario for Mennonite Church USA will be as benign. One watches with a sense of horror as the car seems to be spinning out of control, with a landing no one can predict.

I keep writing about this denomination of which I’m part (see my list of links to posts at the end of this one). Maybe partly it is in hope of helping to affect the upcoming “landing”—though I realize that I am about as powerless to effect where MC USA goes as I was way back when to effect what happened with my friends’ car. But there was something I wrote a few weeks ago that triggered a response that has caused me to think. How do we navigate our tensions, speaking honestly but also respectfully?

Being too negative in discussing one’s opponents?

In my May 12, 2015, post, “The ‘end’ of Mennonite Church USA,” I tried to use language as descriptively as possible in laying out what seems to me to be the situation we are facing. One comment on Facebook gave me pause, though (as this comment was not by someone I know and as it is now lost in the cyber mists and as I am not actually wanting to engage them personally, I will not name the person). As I understood the commenter, I was too pejorative in my representation of what’s going on. This evaluation has made me reflect—is it possible to talk accurately about the actual situation, even in a descriptive way, and still remain utterly non-offensive? Should that even be a goal? Continue reading “Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict””

The “end” of Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2015

The word “end” is kind of cool, because it has two common and very different meanings. It can mean something like “conclusion” (“the game ended in a tie”) and it can mean something like “purpose” (“to gain one’e ends”). So, “end” can lend itself to use in headlines with double meanings—such as my headline for this post.

I suspect that if Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is in its final days, at least as the institution we have known these past 15 years (and I sincerely hope it’s not), it might be in large part because of lack of clarity about its purpose. And this lack of clarity about purpose has made it much more difficult for leadership in the denomination to find ways to negotiate recent controversies and pressures.

An ambiguous vantage point

Probably everyone who is following the drama and has some stake in its outcome has personal memories and emotions linked with the fate of this manifestation of the Mennonite tradition in North America. I certainly do. When the Executive Board (EB) of MC USA released the text (with introduction) of a resolution it will present to the delegate body at the MC USA delegate assembly in Kansas City this summer, some of my memories and emotions bubbled up to the point of demanding some written reflections.

I offer these thoughts from a somewhat ambiguous vantage point. I am an ordained Mennonite pastor who served for about ten years in congregational ministry and now about twenty years as a theology professor at a college owned by MC USA. I am a member of a congregation that belongs to the Central District Conference of MC USA. I have been a member of a number of MC USA congregations in Oregon, Arizona, South Dakota, and Virginia for well over thirty years. So, I am definitely a stake holder.

On the other hand, it has been twenty years since I last attended one of the delegate assemblies. I won’t be going this year. I have found myself moving ever gradually toward the status of “interested observer” (as opposed to active participant) in denominational politics. I would love it if my thoughts were noticed by people in power in the denomination, but I don’t anticipate they will be. So I’m not writing as a means to affect what happens in a couple of months. I’m not quite sure why I am writing. I guess mostly I write because the thoughts are in my head and seem to be wanting out.

The memories and emotions evoked by the EB’s resolution, “On the Status of the Membership Guidelines,” are painful. I think of two in particular that go back about a quarter of a century. Continue reading “The “end” of Mennonite Church USA”

Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 21, 2015

It’s a fairly relaxed finals week around Eastern Mennonite University, which allows for a few longer and more wide-ranging random conversations. I had two visits today that each ended up focused on the present and future of Mennonites. My thinking was stimulated, and I decided to try to write a few things down.

I guess I remain deeply interested in the slings and arrows of Mennonite Church USA, even though it has been a long time since I participated actively in any denominational or conference activities. I shared my reflections some months ago, “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive?”, “How Mennonite Church USA Might Survive,” and “Is the Survival of Mennonite Church USA Now Less Likely?”

In the eight months since that last post, events have not inspired any more confidence in the possibility of a happy outcome to the crises that seem to be besetting our denomination—though I would also grant that many good things are happening among Mennonite churches and that it’s possible that not as many Mennonites as I think are concerned about denominational politics and struggles.

However, my conversations today reminded me that I do feel concern, and made me think that, as if often the case, writing a bit might be therapeutic.

Whither MC USA?

In one of today’s conversations, my friend talked about discussions he’s had about the future of MC USA, especially in relation to the upcoming general assembly in Kansas City this summer. He has heard from some that the only way through the current struggles in the denomination is to move in a more congregational direction, with less conference-wide and denominational central authority and expectations of uniformity. The delegate said we need to move in a more “GC-like” direction—referring to the polity of the old General Conference Mennonite Church before the 2001 merger that created MC USA. Continue reading “Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations”

Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?

Ted Grimsrud—July 1, 2014

It’s difficult for me not to be discouraged by the report from Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board released today concerning MC USA’s Mountain States Conference and the licensing for ministry of my friend Theda Good, a married lesbian pastor. As is typical for such reports (produced by several hands in times of stress and intense disagreement), this one is full of ambiguities and even internal contradictions, not to mention convoluted and passive-aggressive sentences that may taken to support various interpretations.

Still, the main thrust of the report seems to be to rebuke Mountain States for its action. One point that is clear is the insistence that conferences are being told that they should not take actions that are at variance with denominational positions. A big question is whether this insistence has any teeth. It seems to be a historical fact that over and over again Mennonite conferences have indeed taken actions that are at variance with denominational positions—just in relation to ordination of pastors we might think of the ordination of non-pacifist pastors, the ordination of divorced and remarried pastors, and, maybe most relevant to our current situation, the ordination of women.

The language in this current statement, when scrutinized, seems more to be language of “this is what we (the Executive Board) want” than of “you must do this or you will pay.” Perhaps such language reflects a desire by the report writers to be as gentle as possible—or, maybe more likely, the implicit recognition that the Executive Board doesn’t really have a lot of leverage against a dissenting conference. The historical examples indicate that usually conferences have gotten away with whatever variances they have chosen. At the same time, we must recognize that our current environment seems utterly unique. Already many other unprecedented actions have been taken to censer, exclude, and punish those at variance with the stated positions of the denomination concerning homosexuality. Continue reading “Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?”

Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)

Ted Grimsrud

[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]

The goodness of marriage

Before we consider what the main bases for discrimination may be, we need to spend a bit of time on marriage—in part of strengthen our sense that a rationale to deny marriage to a gay couple or to force a gay person to choose between marriage and employment at a place such as EMU needs to be strong and clear.

Christians consider marriage to be a good thing. While the Bible does not give a detailed blueprint for what constitutes a Christian marriage (in fact, it may be a bit surprising when one looks for such a blueprint to realize how little direct help the Bible gives—and a bit surprising also to realize what happens should we scrutinize the Bible looking for a model husband given that virtually all the major male characters in the Bible are either married to more than one woman or to none at all!), contemporary Christians see in the Bible general themes that contribute to our sense of Christian marriage.

Contemporary Christians would tend to see many of the following as part of their understanding of marriage: (1) it is based on the couple’s shared Christian values and commitments; (2) it is centered on promises of fidelity, commitment, monogamy; (3) it is accountable to a faith community for support and encouragement; (4) it is considered to be permanent, “until death do us part;” (5) it is characterized by companionship and intimacy (a key part of my recent thinking about marriage is the significance of the original image in Genesis 2 where Adam is joined by Eve, in part, because he was “lonely”); and (6) it is the context for the birthing and nurturing of children.

Let’s imagine a couple, two Christian women named “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (my description here is based on actual people that I know). They are legally married, life-long Christians who followed the typical path of joining their lives together: courtship, pre-marital counseling, discernment before committing themselves to one another, marriage, a shared life of fidelity and mutual respect, children, ministry.

We see in their lives the fruits of a healthy, life-giving marriage. What would be bases for EMU denying one of them employment, assuming she has the training and abilities to be seen as a strong candidate, one who would likely succeed and offer much to the EMU community and mission? Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)”