Interrogating an Anabaptist: Gerald J. Mast

gerjmastThe third installment of the series Interrogating an Anabaptist I will be focusing on someone exceptional, that person is Gerald J. Mast (Also known as Gerald Biesecker-Mast). I met Gerald in the official MennoNerds Face Book group I was once a member of during a very interesting thread related to Anabaptism, Original Sin and Total Depravity. I enjoyed his comments and as time went on as future threads popped up in the group I would see him more and felt he was very insightful.

During this time I was digging deeper into Anabaptistica (more so than in the past) and I was engaged in one of my book hunts on Amazon.com. I was looking for books on the Swiss Brethren, the Hutterites and Anabaptism in general and I ran across a name that was familiar. Then when I went to the author’s bio and list of books written on Amazon I was taken aback. I could not believe that I had been dialoguing with an Anabaptist scholar the whole time and did not even know it. Also I could not recall one instance where he worked into any of the conversations that he has written on the subject of Anabaptism or that he was some sort of an expert. I found that really refreshing in light of the contemporary “celebrity pastor” that seems to popup every month.

I also recollect when I realized it was Gerald that I was looking at on Amazon I did something I do not really like to do. I posted “Are you that Gerald J. Mast?” on his Face Book page. His reply was something to the effect of “It depends on what “that” Gerald J. Mast did.” After I explained that I was asking in reference to the Anabaptist author Gerald J. Mast we arranged to have a phone conversation. That phone exchange was eye-opening, he assisted me in putting Anabaptism in context and finding direction in my studies. Subsequent conversations assisted me in outlining the book I am currently writing and identify other texts on Anabaptism for study.  Last but not least Gerald is great company (even if it is over the phone) and I look at him as a mentor in the area of Anabaptism. The following is a Q&A I had with Gerald so that you can become familiar with a good friend of mine.

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Gerald J. Mast is Professor of Communication at Bluffton University and author of a number of books and articles. His speaking and writing has addressed a variety of topics related to Anabaptist persuasion, including peace rhetoric, the Amish in American culture, martyrdom, and Christian vocation.

What was it like growing up as a Mennonite?

I grew up among plain Mennonites, so the main experience I associate with my Mennonite childhood is being part of a “peculiar people” who look and act differently than the rest of the world. Sometimes I would be embarrassed when our family travelled and people stared at us because of our distinctive clothing. But being part of a nonconformist community also encouraged habits of resistance to popular or mainstream culture—habits that I still value. The other thing I remember is that our church was full of conflict about these practices of nonconformity (such as whether our church’s ban on radios included CB radios or not).  But I always understood that the conflicts happened because people loved each other and were concerned about one another’s spiritual well being.  So conflict included both suffering and love.

How did you first get into studying Anabaptism?

In the Mennonite grade school I attended, we had a church history course when I was in seventh grade that included the study of Anabaptism, including sources like the Schleitheim Brotherly Union. We also had a Martyrs Mirror and a Mennonite Encyclopedia in our classroom that I would often read when I was done with my class work. I took a Mennonite history class when I attended Maranatha Bible School in Minnesota before I went to college.  And then during my undergraduate years at Malone College, I took a course in War, Peace, and Nonresistance, for which I wrote a paper exploring historic Anabaptist arguments for pacifism. Before I went to graduate school full time at the University of Pittsburgh, I took a graduate seminar in the communication department at the University of Akron on persuasion in social movements.  For that class I wrote a paper describing the rhetorical practices of early Swiss Anabaptism as a social movement. My PhD dissertation at Pitt was essentially an expansion of this paper.  I’ve been studying Anabaptism for a long time!

What benefits have you gained from studying the lives of these men and women from a period of time different from our own?

People from a different time and place often say and do things that challenge our own conventions of thinking and acting, and they also often do it in another language. So, immersing myself in the various European worlds of sixteenth century men and women who were called Anabaptists can be a cross-cultural experience, at least when I am not just looking for proof of what I already think they are doing or saying. So, careful historical research can cultivate habits of curiosity and listening that are beneficial for all kinds of cross-cultural communication.  But also, studying Anabaptist sources serves as a spiritual practice that helps me become better acquainted with one cluster of faithful brothers and sisters in the “cloud of witnesses” encouraging us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” as the writer to the Hebrews puts it in chapter twelve. 

In your opinion do you think that Mennonites should regularly read and study the writings of say Menno Simons for instance in the same fashion that Calvinists read the writings of John Calvin and his Institutes?

I have been inspired and challenged by reading Menno and Marpeck and other early Anabaptist writers; however, I know that most Mennonites do not find these writings to be accessible or inspiring.  I do think that those who presume to write Anabaptist or Mennonite theology for the church today should be conversant with these sources, not because they are infallible repositories of Reformation truth but because they offer practical wisdom for being disciples of Jesus Christ that is often neglected by the more systematic or abstract theologies of Protestant reformers like Calvin. Another way to put this is that Mennonites should not read Anabaptist sources to look for some kind of definitive doctrinal core—which is how Calvinists read Calvin.  Early Anabaptists were divided about doctrine and, in any event, did not think it was the most important thing. But there is a spiritual savvy about the difficulties of discipleship in those early Anabaptist writings from which we can learn and which could help us be more faithful followers of Jesus Christ today. If we are going to write theology (or preach and teach about theology), Menno and Marpeck and other early Anabaptist writers show us how to do so in a way that makes faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ the primary test of theological truthfulness—rather than some other, more abstract, criterion such as “orthodoxy.”

In a conversation we once had you mentioned the “age of Confessionalism”; could you explain what that is and how this period affected Anabaptism in light of its beginnings?

Historians identify an era of “confessionalization” that begins in the middle of the sixteenth century and continues well into the seventeenth. During this time, Protestants developed official doctrinal statements such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession that served to define the religious identities of their congregations and to secure regional loyalties to those princes or magistrates who were identified with a Protestant faction, such as Lutheran or Calvinist. Mennonites who lived in these environments, especially in the Low Countries, were influenced to develop their own official doctrinal statements as a way to achieve unity among their divided fellowships and also to explain their convictions in terms that made sense to their Protestant and Catholic neighbors. The result was that Mennonites began to frame their beliefs in increasingly conservative terms, becoming what Michael Driedger has called “obedient heretics.” In my view, the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, which is the most influential of all Mennonite confessions, is a good example of such a conservative framing of Mennonite beliefs, at least when compared with the more radical orientation of the earlier Schleitheim Brotherly Union. For example, article thirteen of Dordrecht offers a much more affirming view of civil government than does article six of Schleitheim.

In my experience I have run into Mennonites that feel that the proto-Anabaptists were way off in their approach to the Bible and ecclesiology. They would rather look to Protestantism or Rome because they have a fully developed theology. What are your thoughts on this? 

Early Anabaptist theology developed in dialogue/debate with Catholic and various Protestant convictions, so there is nothing wrong with being fully engaged in ecumenical discussion about our understandings of the Bible and the church.  In fact, like the early Anabaptists, we should always be open to correction of our convictions in response to light that dawns when we read the Bible together with brothers and sisters in Christ, including brothers and sisters from across the centuries. However, while we should participate in such conversations with humility, I see no reason to assume that early Anabaptist leaders and writers were somehow deficient in their doctrines of the church and of Christ, just because they began with the biblical text, rather than with the “fully developed” creedal or doctrinal frameworks that their Protestant and Catholic interlocutors tried to impose on them. In fact, when we begin, as the Reformers were often inclined to do, with propositional litmus tests, such as those involving the relationships in the Trinity or the nature of Jesus Christ, our attention is distracted from the challenging and transformative and reconciling teachings of Jesus Christ as found in the gospels and we become more concerned with saying the right words than with doing the right things.

You have written, co-wrote and even edited a number of books and articles on Anabaptism, peace, the church and communication. In your opinion what was your greatest contribution to the study of these areas and why? download

The work most often cited in academic literature on Anabaptism is the essay on “Anabaptist Separation and Arguments Against the Sword in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union” published in Mennonite Quarterly Review in July 2000. But I hope in the long run, more people will pay attention to the argument that J. Denny Weaver and I develop in Defenseless Christianity: Anabaptism for a Nonviolent Church. That book explains Anabaptism as an innovative spiritual movement with distinctive theological perspectives; in particular, the book shows how Anabaptism defines the good news that the faithful church offers the world as intrinsically “defenseless” and thus as a gift that cannot be properly appropriated to the political agendas of the world’s imperial and colonial systems. 

My favorite work written by you is Separation And The Sword In Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric From Schleitheim To Dordrecht. It touches on the whole polygenesis origin of Anabaptism vs a monogenetic one. Even today I will see people appeal to a polygenesis origin for whatever reason. Can you briefly address this debate and how your research contributed to finally settling the matter? bk.gbm.03.cov

The polygenesis argument emphasized that Anabaptism had numerous independent contexts of origin, rather than one single proper beginning in Zurich, Switzerland in January of 1525.  I hardly think that my research settled the debate about polygenesis. By the time that my book came out, the more excessive claims associated with the polygenesis model were being qualified and corrected by the polygenesis historians themselves. If anything, my book was just making clear what the polygenesis historians were already beginning to admit—which is that the peaceful and separated form of Anabaptism that endured in a variety of settings and for the long haul can be understood to have been hammered out on the anvil of the Swiss Reformation at first among Zwingli’s students and then in the discussions that led to union at Schleitheim. Certainly Dutch Anabaptism emerged under very different circumstances but even there, when Menno and likeminded Anabaptists provided a peaceful alternative to the violence at Münster, the possibility of a defenseless form of Anabaptism in the Netherlands was influenced by the existence of such communities in Switzerland, Germany, and Moravia—all of them shaped to some extent by Anabaptist convictions that first took shape in Zurich and then at Schleitheim. The more important argument in my book is not so much about polygenesis but about the strategic ambiguity concerning the sword articulated in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union, which says (at least in my view!) both that the sword is an instrument of Satan that Christians should reject and also a tool of God’s providence to which Christians are subject. My argument was that all forms of defenseless Anabaptism struggled with the tension between these two positions, while gradually leaning toward emphasizing the second statement about God’s providential use of the sword—which can be seen in the Dordrecht Confession, article thirteen. The historical guild in North America that is concerned with Anabaptist studies has largely rejected my argument that Schleitheim articulates a strategic ambiguity about the sword, although James Stayer has acknowledged that I’m correct about Dordrecht containing a more conservative view of civil government than does Schleitheim. Anabaptist scholars in Europe at least seem to have taken my argument seriously, even when they disagree with it. I was glad to see this argument from my book cited approvingly in a recently published collection of Anabaptist biblical studies essays.  I think perhaps biblical studies scholars are less troubled than historians by the idea that a text can have contradictory or ambiguous meanings.

You teach rhetoric and communication from a Christian perspective, can you explain exactly what that is and how it is applied?

Rhetoric as defined by Aristotle is the study of the available means of persuasion; communication as a modern discipline is focused on the practices and technologies by which human beings share meaning with one another. In the Hebrew scriptures, speech is first of all neither a means of persuasion nor a tool for information transfer, but rather a ground of creation—words that organize reality by description, storytelling, and lawgiving. In the context of a world that has become violent and disordered, Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the Word sent by God to redeem, restore, and reconcile the world and that as members of Jesus Christ through baptism our lives also become reconciling words and deeds given by God for the healing of the nations. That is what I try to teach my students.

In light of your years in teaching and your writing career can you pass on any advice to aspiring teachers and writers?

Be thankful for good mentors and demanding editors. And when you have the opportunity—pass those gifts forward.

Is there anything that individuals can look forward to coming from the pen of Gerald Mast in the near future?

I have several essays coming out this fall in a book edited by J. Denny Weaver on the theology of John Howard Yoder. I’m currently co-editing with Trevor Bechtel a volume of essays on the political theology of Pilgram Marpeck, which should be out within the year. And I’m hard at work on a book that documents how old order and conservative Anabaptist communities are working around the Internet.

 

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