Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"To Help Us Think of God": Iconic versus Anti-Iconic Mennonite Celebrations of Christmas and Easter in Kansas

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"To Help Us Think of God": Iconic versus Anti-Iconic Mennonite Celebrations of Christmas and Easter in Kansas

Article excerpt

Abstract: Mainstream Protestant churches, including Mennonite congregations, are becoming increasingly "Catholic" in their use of liturgical colors, imagery and dramatic performances. (2) This study examines the contrasting visual aesthetics expressed in the ritual celebrations of Christmas and Easter in two neighboring congregations in Central Kansas, one Holdeman (Church of God in Christ Mennonite) and the other Mennonite Church USA (formerly General Conference). (3) It argues that the Mennonite Church USA should be more cautious about its growing use of standardized forms of art in worship and should reconsider the aesthetic value of the plain.

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Zion Mennonite Church (MC USA) in Elbing, Kansas, and the Eden Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman) congregation close to the town of Burns are separated by a mere fifteen miles, but their respective visual aesthetics represent two vastly different understandings of meaningful worship. The practices of these two congregations are fairly representative of the current spectrum of Anabaptist-Mennonite visual religious culture in the United States, which ranges from the "plain" aesthetic of the Amish and Holdeman groups, to the "fancy" aesthetic of those who, like the Mennonite Church USA, participate fully in mainstream American culture. Although they share common Anabaptist roots, Zion and Eden congregations hold widely divergent attitudes toward the use of visual symbols in a religious framework. Church leaders of each side claim that their practices help the worshipers in their group "to think of God," to bring worshipers into the presence of God or "to touch the hem of mystery."

The Zion Mennonite Church may be characterized as "iconic" in the broad sense of the term, in that they readily use material, tangible imagery to represent or symbolize a sacred figure, event or biblical metaphor in the context of worship. The congregation actively embraces the use of visual arts in worship, a position officially encouraged by Mennonite Church USA. "We will trust the arts in worship," writes Marlene Kropf, director of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board Office of Congregational Life, "to help us touch the hem of mystery." (4)

In contrast, the Eden Holdeman Church may be described as "anti-iconic" in that no concrete representational or symbolic imagery is present in worship spaces. John Holdeman, who founded the conservative Mennonite group in 1859, intended to recreate a community of believers modeled after the early Christian communities of the New Testament and the Anabaptist emphasis on simplicity and separation from "the world." From the Holdeman point of view, the practice of rejecting any kind of visual art or decoration is meant to achieve a level of plainness that, in the words of one Holdeman elder, "help[s] us think of God." (5) It is a positive emptying out of the mundane clutter of the world in order to create a purified space for a worshipful encounter with God and the sacred. The commitment to abstinence from imagery in the worship setting extends also into the home where television and photographs of people are prohibited. The absolute ban on images, symbols and decoration continues to be a consistent exhortation by ministers and deacons; a breach of this anti-iconic practice may result in excommunication from the church community.

The divergent aesthetics of these two Mennonite denominations are poignantly illustrated in their respective church papers. The Messenger of Truth, published by the Holdeman church, is printed in black on white, without any images. Its layout is simple. No color, photographs, drawings, cartoons, advertisements or logos distract from the printed word, so that the reader must simply focus on the texts. The Mennonite of the Mennonite Church USA, by contrast, uses a plethora of images. Special color and layout effects vie for attention and its editors and designers compete for recognition and media prizes, all of which Holdeman would consider sins of pride. …

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