Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

In Praise of the Lurkers (Who Come out to Speak)

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

In Praise of the Lurkers (Who Come out to Speak)

Article excerpt

Abstract: Mennonite writers may be compared to Internet "lurkers," who are in their worldly and religious communities but not entirely of them. Philosophers from Plato to Kierkegaard, and writers such as Wallace Stevens and William Stafford, have worried over the relation of writers to their community. Mennonite writers such as Keith Ratzlaff, Dallas Wiebe, Julia Kasdorf and Jean Janzen indeed serve the Mennonite community by bringing back the discoveries of their inner and outer travels, by complicating and expanding the communal sense of what is true and real, and by providing the leaven of laughter as a counterbalance to whatever views are accepted too readily.


From Joseph Joder to Julia Kasdorf, to be a writer among Mennonites has been a strange calling. We have little practice at how to treat them, and Mennonite writers have struggled to know what to do with Mennonites as well. I suppose little of this should surprise us. After all, Many--perhaps most--writers and artists have always had some kind of borderline position in their communities. Borrowing a term from the new Internet lexicon, we might call them "lurkers." Like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, those prototypical lurkers, Mennonite writers are in their world--and often their religious community--but not quite of it. Controversial or beloved, tolerated or ignored, they are bound to be at least partly "other." We might, then, take that marginality as a given and explore some of what it means, for writers and for the community.

I want to look briefly at the social functions of lurkers, at their role as inner and outer travelers and the news they bring, at their relation to what I will call, loosely, "truth" and "imagination," and finally at the strangely linked topics of angels and laughter. I will briefly discuss some Mennonite writers and texts, but I will also examine some ways that writers from a much wider sphere have explored these issues. They are our concerns, but not only ours.


Reading Plato's The Republic this summer, I had the eerie feeling that I was overhearing two good, upstanding, traditional Mennonite men of a slightly earlier era--a preacher and a college president, say--discussing how to keep their institutions in order. Consider this part of the discussion between Glaucon and Socrates, who speaks first:

"But if you receive the honeyed Muse [of poetry] in lyric or epic, be sure that pleasure and pain will be kings in your city, instead of law and whatever reasoned argument the community shall approve in each case to be best."

"Very true," he said.

"So much then," said I, "for our defence ... we were justified before in banishing [poetry] from our city. For it was reason which led us on. And lest she condemn us as rather harsh and rough, let us tell her that there is an ancient feud between philosophy and poetry." (1)

Plato refuses the poets entry because he knows they can't be trusted to be reasonable, rational and helpful. He accuses them, quite rightly, of saying things that are neither orthodox, nor strictly true, nor calculated to maintain the social order. The traditional Mennonite view of imaginative literature repeats Plato's caution: the most powerful poets must be kept out of the city, lest they lead the people astray with their wild, seductive images and stories. Only "the more austere and less pleasing poet and storyteller," who will limit his work to pious, edifying tales of the sort useful for the instruction of children, can be safely admitted. (2)

A long time later, Kierkegaard took up similar questions and came to similar conclusions about the utility and danger of poetry. In The Concept of Irony he argues--following Socrates--that poetry provides only an illusory sort of truth:

   Poetry opens up a higher actuality, expands and transfigures the
   imperfect into the perfect, and thereby softens and mitigates that
   deep pain which would darken and obscure all things. … 
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