Whenever I’m at a secondhand store, I always check out the books. Most of the time the shelves are filled with self-help treatises, weird diet books, and a dozen used copies of Harry Potter and Twilight — but occasionally you find some gems. I grabbed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress chiefly because of the title — and because I’m always ready to risk a new author when a paperback only costs me $0.50 — and I loved it so much I immediately sent off for a library copy of its sequel, Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (which appears to also have been published under the title Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?).
Although they were published several years apart, these two books make, in a sense, one long memoir detailing the break-up of Janzen’s tumultuous first marriage, her sibsequent refuge in (and reflection on) the Mennonite community in which she was raised, and finally her wooing by “Mitch,” the born-again Pentecostal whom she weds midway through Mennonite Meets Mr. Right. But as it turns out, Mitch isn’t the only “Mr. Right” in this story; the two books also detail Janzen’s long wooing by God as she returns to faith. In between all that there’s cancer, embarrassing childhood memories, a good dose of humour, and of course, plenty of borscht, four-part German harmonies, and prune soup.
The two books are also somewhat divergent. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress made me laugh out loud perhaps a dozen times. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is also funny — and I did laugh out loud a few times — but it is infinitely more tender. It’s mellower; or I suspect one could more rightly say, Janzen is mellower:
Dating Mitch prompted me to attend church regularly, but spiritual change had been creeping up on me for some time. It started five years ago, when after a long absence I went back to visit the Mennonite community in which I’d been raised. Elsewhere I’ve written about what I saw there, but I haven’t written about what I took away. In simple terms, I saw that people who live by the Spirit experience the Fruits of the Spirit. In the New Testament book of Galatians the Apostle Paul promises believers that the life of faith yields good and practical fruit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Who wouldn’t want those things? I did. Of the nine, I could then lay claim only to two, love and self-control. I adored my family and friends. But isn’t it easy to be loving to folks you like? As for self-control, it’s no great achievement to run six miles a day when you have a genetic drive to do so. The remaining Fruits of the Spirit were distinctly absent in my life. In fact I was static, restless, impatient, grudge holding, skeptical, and petty. The choices I’d made hadn’t made me happy, so I was ready to try something new.
In these past five years my life has changed tremendously. I’ve had ample opportunity to watch and ward, to look for the Fruits of the Spirit in my own life and the lives of those around me. I still struggle with skepticism, but I’ve made real progress in other areas. And I love it that the mystery of faith turns on what is after all a simple logical equation. In surrendering to the divine, we yield to divine transformation. A causes B. This surrender is the only intentional gesture we can make to invite real and permanent character change. It may not perfect us, but, thank God, it sure makes us better than we were. (171-2)
We can cancel our church’s sermon series on Galatians now; I think she nailed it.
I’ve taken a peek at the Goodreads reviews for Mennonite Meets Mr. Right and they are extremely mixed, which is perhaps not surprising considering the gulf in tone and subject matter between it and the first book. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is funnier, and snarkier — and also more heartbreaking and ambiguous. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is written from a very different place and is unapologetically Christian, and I can understand having a bit of whiplash if you’re going into it expecting a straight continuation of the first book. Taken together, though, Rhoda Janzen’s memoirs form a touching story of wandering and coming home again. They may be different than each other — but Janzen is different, too, in a beautiful way. I’m very glad I read them.