Andrew Unger is the founder of The Unger Review, a satirical Mennonite news site, and author of the novel Once Removed.
I recall the Sunday some time in the mid-1980s when I was asked to put my crayons down for a moment, stop colouring pictures of David and/or Goliath, and draw my undivided attention to the teary-eyed teenaged couple on the stage. They had sinned and were confessing this unnamed misdeed in front of the entire Mennonite congregation, antsy children included. This public admission was a prerequisite for their continued membership in the church, and my younger brother Colin and I were to sit still and watch carefully because there was going to be a test on all this in Sunday school or something. I couldn’t figure out what they had done wrong. Their confession was vague, and I didn’t yet know where babies came from anyway. All I knew was I’d seen this very same couple holding a hymnal together a few weeks earlier. They were standing in the pew in front of us and I saw the young man reach for the hymnal moments before the young woman grabbed the edge of the book. Or maybe she was holding it, and he had initiated the contact. I don’t remember now. All I know is that I figured this unmarried hymnal-holding must have something to do with their presence on the stage that morning. For years after that, I insisted on holding my own hymn book.
By the time I was a teenager, I was better informed about human sexuality and the practices of the church, but that doesn’t mean that when my wife and I got married in the early 2000s, there weren’t still some lingering misconceptions. For example, our church taught that Jesus Christ might return at any moment, taking his followers with him in mid-air. I looked forward to the Rapture, but was concerned it might come at an inopportune moment. I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to hymnal-hold with my wife, after all.
In 2016 I started an Onion-esque satirical news website about Mennonites called The Daily Bonnet, and these childhood experiences, among many others, have found their way into my headlines. For instance: “Unmarried Couple Caught Holding Hymnal Together” or “Rapture Occurs Just Before Newlyweds Have a Chance to Consummate Their Marriage.” I wrote one, too, inspired by my wife’s real-life experience on the morning of our wedding: “Mother-of-the-Bride Insists on Having ‘The Talk’ Moments Before Daughter Walks Down the Aisle.”
The articles range in subject matter from sexuality, to food, church, politics and our Mennonite penchant for not tipping. They’re exaggerated for humorous effect, but every article has some basis in reality. I guess you could say they’re fake news, but also … they’re true. So I was surprised when, in the very early days of my online presence as a Mennonite satirist, I received numerous e-mails inquiring about my Anabaptist credentials or unironically questioning the truthfulness of my articles. I was informed that my fake news articles were not accurate, I was telling “lies,” and I was making Mennonites “look bad.” Some wanted to make sure I was a real Mennonite. “Not one of those Mennonites who left the church, are you?” they wondered. Within weeks of thrusting my work out into the world (the Mennonite world), I discovered there was a whole set of unwritten rules and a heck of a lot of gatekeeping. It was a good thing I was more or less anonymous. In fact, only recently, nearly seven years after starting the website, did I get the courage to insert my own surname more prominently into the title. Inspired by Rick Mercer and Stephen Colbert, who created satirical personas under their own names, I changed the name of The Daily Bonnet to The Unger Review. Now I’m no longer hidden under the bonnet.
For a group known for plain dress and simple living, Mennonites are a surprisingly image-conscious bunch. Unlike our Amish cousins, who shun modern technology and presumably remain blissfully unaware of their frequent depiction in popular culture, many Mennonites read books, watch television and browse the internet, and thus we’re acutely aware of what’s being said about us. Like hyper aware. Too aware. We’re obsessive about it. If a film or book or Globe and Mail article mentions us, believe me, we notice. Any mention, even in passing, is scrutinized in coffee shops, church lobbies, and academic conferences that we set up specifically to discuss such matters. The very fact, for example, that I used the phrase “plain dress” is more than enough to spur on a fussy churchmate of mine to point out that “not all Mennonites” dress like that. #NotAllMennos.
Even the literary successes of folks such as Miriam Toews, David Bergen and Casey Plett are too often dismissed as just more proof the world is out to get us. Rather than celebrate these authors, we often become uncomfortable with the spotlight they provide. We get paranoid. We think people are watching us and we are quick to set the record straight. Mennonites might read a Miriam Toews book or Unger Review article and say, “We’re not actually like that, you know.” What we mean, though, is “I am not like that,” or “Don’t lump me in with the rest of them.” We quickly remind people that Mennonites are quite diverse. “We have no pope. We have no central leadership,” one might say. “We exist along a wide theological spectrum, from Mennonites who are very distinct and conservative, to those who you could not distinguish from the rest of society, and even those who might be called cultural, but not religious, Mennonites.”
This is all true, of course, but it’s missing the point. The value of engaging with a story, whether it’s a film or novel or satirical article, should be in recognizing oneself within it or, alternately, experiencing the lives of others even when they don’t match our own. Rather than reading simply to catalogue all the ways that “Miriam got it wrong yet again,” we might do better to read her work more reflectively, acknowledging the similarities to our own experiences, and respecting the differences. When we get defensive, accuse an author of “lying,” or focus our reading on how we might be seen by others, we miss the opportunity to be transformed by art and literature.
Recently, Sarah Polley’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Miriam Toews’s novel Women Talking played here in Steinbach, Man., Ms. Toews’s hometown. While the story is inspired by the horrific real-life sexual assaults that took place on a conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia in the early 2000s, the film, like the book, is a fictional reaction to those events. As the film says, it is an “act of female imagination.”
And so Mennonites are, once again, in the spotlight. To be honest, I was shocked when I saw that Women Talking was coming to the Keystone Cinema in Steinbach. This winter, there were significant doubts they would even show the film. And I was concerned, too, that yet again the naysayers would come out of the woodwork to denounce the film or try to pick it apart. Some did, at least online, and I even wrote a satirical article on the topic: “Mennonite Critics Excited to Watch ‘Women Talking’ and Find All the ‘Errors.’” I assumed this would be the general reaction here in Steinbach. Defensive. On guard. Distancing.
But I was wrong.
Instead, the film played to large crowds. There were lineups. There were tears. There was applause when Ms. Toews’s name appeared in the credits … and if you know anything about Mennonites, you’ll know how hard it is to get us to clap.
So, have we changed? Are Mennonites now ready to accept or even celebrate our own portrayals? Can we accept fiction as fiction without accusing the author of some sort of deceit? I’m not so sure, but if the reaction in Steinbach is any indication, I do think this film may be seen in future generations as a turning point in that direction, the moment we finally “got” what art, and film, and storytelling are all about.
Sometimes I still think about that hymnal-sharing couple at church 40 years ago. They were storytellers, of a sort, too. They went up there and read their teary-eyed speeches, while the congregation nodded along, and my brother and I fidgeted in our seats. Were they telling the truth, though? Were they telling “lies”? I assume they were simply saying what the church asked them to say. Maybe someone even wrote their speeches, like canned wedding vows. I wonder about their story, their true story (if such a thing exists), because that Sunday morning they were clearly telling someone else’s.
My memory of that morning has faded and morphed over the decades, but I maintain that my version of the story remains “true.” There are incorrect details, no doubt, but my recollection of it and the impact it had on me are a form of truth. Yes, I really did wonder about the appropriateness of hymnal sharing after that and, yes, I really did fear that the Rapture would mess up my wedding night. This was my experience. It may not have been shared by others in the church that day, but it’s the truth – or maybe just satire. But then, I might argue, it would be no less true.