Today's post begins a series that has been many years in the making. In the last post, I mentioned that there were two stories that had inspired me to start By Thy Words.
This is one of them. This is the story which first planted the seeds in my mind that By Thy Words was needed to dissect and unpack the underlying narratives and presuppositions within these stories.
I've discovered that part of the reason dealing with ConMen publications is so frustrating is because there are so many underlying beliefs that are unstated, it can take a great deal of time to figure out what is wrong and why.
I have another change for my blog, which I will inaugurate in this article. At the end of the post, I will include pictures of the actual text. I have been accused of taking quotations out of context, and I want to make it clear that what I am saying is absolutely true to the spirit of the stories.
I am not exaggerating or twisting their words. I am enjoying having fun with the ludicrous side of things. Lord knows that the Internet has enough serious commentary on these issues.
So, if you have questions about the honesty of my interpretations, check out the pictures and see for yourself.
And as always, enjoy!
Today's story is entitled The Snare of the Fowler, and is a three part serial from the 2005 Christian Example. Let's meet one of the main characters, a young man named Nathan.
"That's one reason I'm glad I'm getting married," Nathan asserted with a flick of his head for emphasis. One sentence in, and you veteran readers can see where this is going. Nathan is headstrong and rebellious, and has an independent spirit. The flick of his head shows his impulsive, unrestrained personality. I have to admit, it's brilliant stage setting, and remarkably concise for these periodicals. "Every time I come home late, I have to give an account to my parents of what I was doing. You'd think I was a baby."
Nathan's two cousins, Paul and John, listened wordlessly to his outburst. Paul's thoughts were rudely torn from admiring the new spring growth of May apples and clumps of wild violets along their path.
Notice Paul and John's stereotypical silence in the face of questioning the Powers That Be. Presumably, they were hoping for Brother Elmer to materialize along their garden path to stop Nathan's mouth, but unfortunately, Brother Elmer was in Carbon Hill for the weekend.
Nathan did not seem to notice their silence. Stunned silence is the language of Menno disapproval. "My dream is to drive a Peterbuilt (yes, that's how they spelled it) from coast to coast. I mean from California to Boston and back again. What a life that will be!"
If this story had not been written in 2005, this mention of Boston would cause me to suspect that Nathan's family was concerned about him getting involved with Sattler College and Followers of the Way and their Bearded Taliban. But thankfully for Nathan's church, that existential threat was more than a decade in the future.
"How will your wife like that? Will you take her along?" John asked.
"Probably," Nathan answered, smiling smugly.
When I first read this, I thought, "Smug? What's he being smug about?"
Then I realized the irony at play. The story is bringing out his selfishness, and how he will require his future wife to sacrifice her comfort for his dreams of long-distance trucking.
This is a theme that will come up repeatedly through this story arc, and there's no question that Nathan is pretty self-centered and kind of a jerk, as we shall see.
The scintillating irony is that the only reason Nathan is the bad guy here is because he is doing something the church disapproves of.
If the church was OK with his Big Dream, his wife would be exhorted to Suck It Up, and submit.
And that's a window into how gross this thing really is, because they KNOW treating their wives this way isn't OK, but it only matters if you're breaking their rules when you are doing it.
It's possible that I'm reading too much into one word, but the overall tone of the story, i believe, bears out this reading, and I will draw attention to that fact as we proceed.
"Our ministers have always cautioned against trucking, especially long distance trucking," John began bravely.
"They can milk their cows, till their soil, and work on their carpenter crews. That's not for me," Nathan scoffed. "Give me a truck and the life of freedom any day."
Whether or not you agree with the conclusion that long-distance trucking is detrimental to family life, this paragraph is a wrenching portrayal of the limited options that young people have in the ConMen setting.
If you have any other aptitudes or interests than farming and construction, you're second-tier. And that invariably leads to people feeling disconnected and alone, and leaving to the disappointment of literally everyone in their lives.
We now get some backstory, which I'm going to skim over. Suffice it to say that Paul has Deep Concerns about Nathan and his lack of Spiritual Fervor.
I have to say again that, while Nathan is by no means a hero, and does seem to have legitimate issues, I feel that what he needs more than anything is a supportive community, as well as, possibly, some mental health support.
A month later, Paul accompanied Nathan to go visit Amy. They were almost at the end of their four-hour drive when they stopped for gas. While waiting to pay inside the convenience store, Nathan nudged Paul. "Let's each buy a lottery ticket. What if we don't win? They only cost a dollar each."
Paul's heart beat wildly. "I can't believe what I'm hearing. Would Nathan really go so far as to gamble? Give me wisdom, Lord," he prayed silently. He shook his head decidedly.
"No. I can't do that," he said firmly. "Gambling is wrong."
Nathan shrugged his shoulders, said, "Okay," and lightly dismissed the suggestion.
Whether Nathan was actually intending to buy lottery tickets or not is open to question. This is the kind of joke I would probably make, even though I believe gambling is silly, not so much because it is immoral, as because it is a tax of being bad at math.
But even if Nathan was making a joke, in the eyes of Paul and his community, it is a joke that is in poor taste, because "fools make mock at sin."
This vignette serves to illustrate Nathan's downward spiral and his willingness to not only break the rules, but also to try to drag others into sin with him.
They spend the weekend in Amy's community, with Paul wondering if she knows the kind of person Nathan is. She seems happy, but Paul thinks forebodingly of their future together, and fears the worst.
On the trip home the next day (apparently they traveled back on Monday), Paul approached Nathan. "Does Amy know about your dream to do long-distance trucking?"
"I'll tell her soon enough," Nathan said, a sly smile wreathing his face. "I will likely drive for the feed mill (another of the short list of approved MennoJobs) for another year. I'll get her used to the idea gradually. Doesn't pay to borrow trouble, you know."
It's things like this that make it impossible to be completely sympathetic to Nathan. He's clearly a sneaky weasel, hiding the truth from his girlfriend, so as to effectively rope her in. That's a serious problem, and it definitely needs to be addressed.
What's interesting is that the story never treats it as a major issue, except as it relates to Nathan's unwillingness to submit to the church's dictates.
And what's also important to note is that the entire culture that Nathan lives in has created this dynamic of discouraging people from being honest about their feelings and plans, choosing instead to work quietly and subtlety behind the scenes, and manipulating people and circumstances to their liking.
"How did you spend your time together yesterday?" Paul asked in a lighter vein. "I need some lessons in courting. I have no experience, you know."
"Well, after church we ate lunch, of course. No one can bake cakes like Amy can. She's quite the cook. The food she serves is worth the four-hour drive in itself.
The boys laughed together.
"Tell me about your devotions, Nathan. How do you decide what passage to read? Do you decide together, or do you pick it yourself?"
"Well," Nathan admitted guiltily, "we didn't have time for devotions yesterday. Amy didn't like to miss, but I didn't mind too much." It is HIGHLY unlikely that Nathan would actually say the final sentence. But it's necessary for the author to further demonstrate his callous disregard for the things of God.
The consternation that Paul felt at Nathan's unconcern showed on his face. "Isn't that one of the highlights of your time together? to allow God to lead you through His Word and to seek His will in prayer?" I cannot even with the unnatural stilted way these discussions go down. Literally NO ONE, not even Pope Francis or the Archbishop of Canterbury talks this way.
Let's talk about another important idea that we will encounter throughout this story. Every. Single. Time. Nathan says or does anything that indicates that maybe he's in spiritual or emotional trouble, the reaction is shock.
Nathan: Reading my Bible is boring.
Nathan: Sometimes, I don't feel like praying. It feels like God isn't even listening to me.
Nathan: I've started wondering if there even is a God.
You get the idea.
The problem with these reactions is that Nathan eventually shuts down and doesn't get his questions answered.
As most of my readers know, I am a member of a reasonably conservative Mennonite church, although, by ConMen standards, I've "gone liberal." We're a little more conservative than BMA, but that's like saying that Manitoba is a little warmer than Alaska to someone who lives in Belize. The distinction is meaningless to these people. As far as they are concerned, I have left the faith of the fathers.
The thing is, I wanted to believe. I'm a pretty hardline traditionalist, and I honestly wanted to be convinced. I remember a window of time that, if I could have gone to anyone with my questions and doubts and had an honest, safe discussion where they tried to hear me and give me some kind of answers, some kind of reason to believe, I would have been persuaded.
I didn't want to "go liberal." My faith in the system eroded over time, and I just realized one day that I didn't believe it anymore, and that I was spending all the time biting my tongue because I was afraid I would say something that would give away how I really felt.
Pulling my membership was about the most painful thing I had ever done. I physically hurt for days after that phone call.
I might have stayed, corrupt as I now know it to be, if someone would have just listened, and tried to take my concerns seriously.
So Nathan's experience resonates with me, and it underscores the Achilles' heel of the system. They can't afford to be questioned, because they have no answers, so those with questions get pushed to the outside where their faith erodes until it is gone.
"To be honest, cousin, " Nathan said, his eyes on the road ahead, "the Bible never really made much sense to me. The stories in the Book of Acts and in the Old Testament, like the ones about Daniel and Joseph, are interesting. At least they were exciting when I was a little boy. But lots of the Bible I find above my head."
"Oh-h-h." Paul drew a deep, disappointed breath. What was happening to his cousin-- his dearest childhood friend?
This type of interchange recurs repeatedly throughout this series with different people. Nathan opens up and is vulnerable about what is really going on inside.
Invariably, the person he opens up to reacts with shock and horror, and tells Nathan by word and tone that something is wrong with him for being the way he is, and he just needs to stop being that way, feeling that way, thinking that way.
In response, Nathan shuts down. Eventually, the pressure builds up and he tries again, only to receive the same response.
I do not want to place all the blame on Nathan's community for his bad choices that he is about to make, and he does make some legitimately bad ones. But if his community would have been able to support him and seek to understand and love him and just listen, maybe the outcome would have been different.
In this case, Paul could have asked, "What makes it boring to you? Maybe you should try a modern translation."
Perhaps Nathan has a reading difficulty, and audio Bible would help. But there is no attempt to help. Instead, Paul essentially tells him "you shouldn't feel that way, because I don't feel that way," which is something every survivor of abuse in a ConMen setting will recognize from the Menno Playbook.
"The Bible is like a tasty meal to me. Of course, I don't understand it all. Then sometimes a good expository sermon throws light on a passage I've just read." This is about as as helpful as telling a lactose intolerant person how tasty you find milkshakes to be.
"You sound like my father," Nathan countered. "He thinks I should start every day with the Bible like he does. The Reader's Digest is more my style." Note the cheap shot at people who subscribe to worldly magazines.
"Is that how Amy feels about the Bible too?"
"I don't know. I've never asked her. She knows that sometimes I feel like giving up on the Christian life. " Once again, we see Nathan being honest about his feelings. And the fact is, virtually every Christian has at some point felt like giving up, but Nathan feels like some misunderstood anomaly, because he's not good at pretending, like everyone else apparently is.
"Giving up? And it doesn't alarm her?"
"Oh, she knows I won't," Nathan assured him hurriedly.
"'What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'" Paul quoted softly.
Nathan did not reply. It was useless to say more.
If I didn't know any better, I would say that this article series is an indictment on Nathan's church for the way that they have failed him.
That is literally the only way that that last sentence makes sense.
Nathan knows there is no point in continuing the conversation, because he's going to get shut down.
I'm virtually certain that the same thing happened in his conversation with Amy. He said, "Sometimes I feel like giving up," and she gasped in horror. (I would put a picture here to illustrate, but Shutterstock didn't have any results for "horrified Menno girls", so you'll just have to use your imagination.)
The story continues with Nathan getting married.
The wedding is ordinary and goes off without a hitch.
Everything stays within normal parameters.
It should lay the foundation for a godly married life full of joy and happiness, right?
But there's a pall hanging over some of the attendees.
Yet Nathan's parents were also plagued with doubts. What was amiss? It seemed Nathan lacked commitment to God and to his bride. Nathan's parents had prayed daily. They had sought the Lord's will. Translation: They had checked all the boxes, and things still went to hell in a handbasket.
They had even thrown out some warnings to Amy, especially after Paul had shared with them of Nathan's dreams of trucking. Amy did not seem to catch the seriousness of their warnings. OK. Hold on a second. They had severe reservations, and gave Amy some vague warnings, but she didn't seem to realize how serious they were, and they just went on and let the wedding proceed without further objection? This is what the more classy individuals in our audience might refer to as a massive Richard Maneuver.
This part of the series ends with Nathan's parents on their knees, begging God to accomplish by other means what they were unable to accomplish.
I find this striking, especially considering the discussion in our last post.
Nathan's parents followed all the rules. And here they are, with a son they are worried is on a bad road.
If you pay attention, you'll notice something interesting.
If you don't follow the rules, and your kids are bad, it's your fault.
If you do follow the rules, and your kids are bad, it's their choice.
If you do follow the rules and your kids are good, it's because you followed the rules.
If you don't follow the rules, and your kids are good, it's in spite of your negative influence.
But no one will ever come to the conclusion that the rules do not actually do what it says on the tin: Produce a certain outcome.
They aren't capable of doing it.
Next time, we'll follow Nathan's downward spiral into the dregs of sin, including graphic descriptions of long-distance trucking, radio listening, and chatting with cashiers.
See you soon.