Thursday, November 22, 2012

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? by Rhoda Janzen

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?  Amazing book, guys! I loved it. Rhoda Janzen gets the spiritual experience and is a perfect bystander ( with reams of intelligence) to walk us through her rather jolting jump from her Mennonite background to a Pentecostal church she attends with her boyfriend/fianc√©/husband.

Janzen, a prolific poet and scholar, brings to the church experience years of figuratively and literally engaging with the tenets ( mythologized and metaphoralized and categorized) of theology.  She weaves her new experiences and her new zeal for engaging in the spirituality of her childhood with anecdotes of her brilliant new relationship (her partner Mitch, the reformed alcoholic-turned-Pentecostal is a GEM with a brilliantly coloured faith and lovely conversion story and respect for the church and the patrons therein), her days as a professor, her attendance at Pentecostal services and her tragic diagnosis of breast cancer: fought hard with and eventually won in a near miraculous way.

You can take the girl outta the Pentecostal, it would seem, but you can’t take the Pentecostal outta the girl.  I was raised in a Pentecostal church. My father was a Pentecostal minister. I knew about speaking in tongues and Acts II before I knew my ABCs.  While I don’t identify with this denomination any more or attend a Pentecostal church ,it is as much a part of my being as my school grades, Christmas memories, and ability to ride a bike.  I KNOW Pentecostal.  While Janzen’s views and observations might offend those who are touchy on the subject and too quick to judge interested and intelligent observance as mockery; I quite enjoyed what the Pentecostal world looked like for an outsider. Especially for an outsider with a strict Mennonite background. This, my friends, was my favourite part of this surprisingly uplifting and very, very sardonic and quick-witted piece.  Think Anne Lamott. Are we good here? We love Anne Lamott. How about Anne Lamott with a dash of Lisa Samson? Are we good?

A few quotes to entice readership:

“Most of the hymns were familiar to me, but the services also featured some long, tuneless pieces of chanted music that sounded suspiciously as if somebody had made them up in the car on the way to church”  (Dear Rhoda Janzen, I have said this about every Chris Tomlin song ever written)

“Mennonites are known for their gorgeous acapella hymns. For instance, they might take a Protestant staple, such as Thomas Ken’s beautiful 1674 “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” and jack it up like a doxology on steroids.  My Mennonite church sang a highly embellished, tightly harmonized version to the tune of Samuel Stanley’s “Dedication Anthem”” so rousing it made you want to throw confetti (Hey! Somebody should tell the Pentecostals about confetti!”

As someone passionate about the emergence of Jesus is My Boyfriend songs in the evangelical worship culture as a replacement for the beautiful melodies, settings and poetries of a history of hymns, I revelled and delighted in the fact that an academic outsider, seeping with intelligence and well-crafted thought for the beauty of music and words, could reduce some of the choruses and worship songs to near hilarity with her comparison of them to better written and more timely pieces.

Obviously, the Pentecostals eventually begin speaking in tongues and Janzen’s literary recreation of the experience is poetical and rapt with energized imagery: “Syllables rolled around me like pearls from a broken spring, scattering beyond sense. I had never heard anyone speak in tongues. I had always assumed that glossolalia was an expression of unfiltered inner gibberish. But in that moment I wondered if it couldn’t be both gibberish and praise language- an edifying wall of sound that lifted the worshipper to a place beyond understanding. Even if those gorgeous waves of foreign syllables had come rolling out of my own mouth, I still would have tried to understand the experience as a foreign language.”

She is continually impressed by Mitch, who practices what he preaches: “She observed, moreover, that the kindness and the faith did not exist in his character as independent qualities. Rather, the first was clearly activated by the second.”  Gosh darnit, isn’t that what everyone strives for?

She is a tad confused when it comes to filling out a Cosmopolitan-type quiz on assessing and ascertaining her spiritual gifts: “My Pentecostals were an old-fashioned group. They called the women ladies, they believed that the men needed to step up to the plate in the spiritual leadership of the home. If they were to assign a man the gift of flower arranging, there would have to be a literal biblical precedent.”

Coupling her obvious recollection of the Biblical stories and Faith background of her Youth, Janzen is able to apply her rudimentary understanding with her current circumstance.  The following quote left me all a-shudder in its exquisite truth (here, she recalls the parable of Jesus healing a boy possessed by demons at a father’s entreaty that even though he wasn’t sure he believed, he wanted to be taught how to believe): “For me the takeaway is that we don’t need to be strong and faithful and firm in order to approach God.  We can be an unholy mess, like the son, or a frustrated skeptic, like the dad. What a relief that we don’t have to be good at religious in order to seek God! We don’t even have to have a strong sense of belief. All we need is the desire to believe”

I could saturate this with quotes forever, so exceptionally crafted and memorable is this work; rather ( as my Pentecostal father would say when winding down a sermon) IN CLOSING…
Janzen doesn’t make peace with her questions. Nor does she decide that her spiritual life is grounded and founded upon the principles expelled in her evangelical wanderings. She does, however, uphold a fascinating sense of faith, hope and integrity. She searches and seeks and ultimately finds that while we could spend the rest of our lives literally fighting over every small thing in scripture: from the existence of Lilith and dinosaurs to whether or not Hell and Heaven are concrete or metaphorical places ( Rob Bell! Rob Bell, let’s talk about Rob Bell); she takes baby steps. She learns what it means to be open and to accept and to listen for the will of God.  That, readers, is what makes this book heart-warming and inspiring: not how far she comes in the pinnacle of spiritual sojourning; but the fact that she sojourned at all.

My thanks to Grand Central Publishing for the Netgalley review copy.
Special thanks to my sister Fruity (find her on twitter @leah_mcmillan )for pointing me in the direction of this book.

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