The word humor does not appear in Mennonite bibliographies until recent times. Early Mennonite teaching on holiness or nonconformity to the world, taught that in their general demeanor Mennonites were to be restrained and quiet, rather than loud, talkative, or boastful, traits that reflected the spirit of the world. Their interpretation of the New Testament, especially Ephesians 5:4, did not allow for jesting or joking. The Christian was expected to prune the heart and mouth of all unbecoming thoughts, words, and actions. Unseemly light-hearted behavior was often summed up in the word "levity." In addition, the Mennonites were concerned that houses of prayer and worship not be turned into houses of entertainment and mirth through humorous allusions and stories.
This serious mien was reinforced by the long period of intense persecution in the early development of Anabaptism. As the radical left wing of the Reformation movement, Mennonites took their stand against the state church, a stance which often resulted in loss of life, livelihood, and family, situations hardly conducive to humor. At other periods in their history, Mennonites, in their search for purity of life, also protested one another, particularly with regard to church practices and ethics, dividing in the process into splinter groups. When that schismatic activity slowed, Mennonites in the 20th century renewed their protest against war, the draft, and nuclear rearmament, none of which encourages a humorous self-critical approach to life, but is, in truth, a form of judgment of others.
Another factor inhibiting humor is conviction that the Christian would always speak only the truth (Matthew 5:34-37), thereby discouraging the telling of tall stories, the use of hyperbole and understatement, or any made-up story told as being true. Some conservative evangelical groups prefer true stories to fiction.
Although early Mennonites in The Netherlands were humorously portrayed in poetry, fiction, and drama with digs at their conservative dress, their supposed weakness for rich food and drink, their "tricks and dodges," and their sanctimoniousness (literature), Mennonites themselves did not use humor in faith-related activities until much later.
Although opposition to levity in speech is evident in most Mennonite traditions, some of the Russian Mennonite groups, especially those who seceded from larger bodies to protest the lack of spiritual and moral life, spoke against it corporately. John Holdeman, founder of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, wrote that "All ... jesting and joking ... are works of the flesh, and if we live therein we lack of that holiness which is taught in the Scriptures." Historian Clarence Hiebert states that Holdeman contributors to Messenger of truth admonished against jokes, jesting, and laughing 21 times between 1903 and 1960.
The Kleine Gemeinde (Evangelical Mennonite Conference) taught its children to take life seriously, and therefore, laughing and joking were frowned upon. Other small schismatic groups such as Krimmer Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches) also taught nonconformity in speech.
Mennonite Brethren in America in a formal recommendation at their General Conference sessions in 1900 asked members to desist from jesting and joking, whether verbal or in writing, in conversation or in published periodicals.
The Mennonite Church likewise taught nonconformity in speech. In Daniel Kauffman's One thousand questions and answers on points of Christian doctrine (1908), question 529, "What forms of worldly amusement are specified in the Bible?" was answered with "Church entertainments, banquetings, revelings, foolish talking and jesting (Ephesians 5:4)." By 1952 J. C. Wenger interpreted Ephesians 5:4 as meaning that Christians should be able to enjoy clean humor. It is not forbidden to laugh. "He who lacks a sense of humor has neither the flexibility of good mental health nor the normal winsomeness of a child of God." jesting, on the other hand, is "worldly and sensual wit, exhibition of mental wit, light-mindedness."
In the late 20th century, Mennonite use of humor as an approach to life is slowly moving beyond these restrictions, out of the understanding that Old Testament writers as well as Jesus used humor to communicate an idea in a more easily comprehended way. Though coarse jesting is still frowned upon, humor is accepted freely in informal social situations, occasionally in church publications if restraint is used, and less often in worship services.
North American Mennonite humor emphasizes the distinctive characteristics of the Mennonites, reflecting their struggles with the traditional traits of an overt honesty, frugality, dedication to work, close-knit communities, traditional occupations, foods, language, and life-style customs, as well as travel experiences which highlight the "innocents abroad" theme.
New expressions of humor emerge constantly in relation to Mennonite-sponsored group events, such as assemblies, conferences, institutions, Mennonite Central Committee service, relief sales, and Mennonite Disaster Service. Humor as an attitude of joy toward suffering is emerging from experiences with Mennonite Disaster Service with people going through natural disaster, but there is less evidence of it as related to Mennonites' own suffering in the Jewish tradition, as a compensation for suffering. Like other humor, Mennonite humor springs up at the edge of change, when cherished values are challenged; for example, the patriarchal nature of the family and the role of women in the church.
Insider humor includes social criticism of established traditions and of persons in power. Mennonite humor focuses on men, especially on influential men in public positions in local, national, and worldwide situations, caught in weak moments. Mennonite anecdotes include any aspect of beliefs Mennonites have difficulty holding to fully, such as nonresistance, or in which there is some variance with another branch of the church, such as forms of baptism. Inter-Mennonite rivalries are also the frequent butts of humor.
Satire as a comment on the human condition has not been used successfully in Mennonite periodicals, even if clearly labeled satire, indicating that the point of view expressed is likely to be the opposite of what is expressed. The Gospel herald (MC) experimented with "The prayers of Luke Warm," "Seth's corner," "Wit and wisdom," and "Sisters and brothers," the last-mentioned being a cartoon series by Joel Kauffmann beginning in the fall of 1978. Negative reader response to the cartoons caused the editor to cut the cartoons back although a later series, "Pontius Puddle" gained acceptance in other Mennonite and non-Mennonite publications after 1982. Other editors have had similar experiences with satire.
Certain subjects are still taboo for Mennonite humorists. The fine line dividing the sacred from the secular is tenuously drawn. Jokes about some ethnic groups occasionally take place in hell; jokes about Mennonites are more likely to take place in heaven. Stories about Mennonites engaged in adultery, drinking and drunkenness or acts of violence are not freely told. Tall tales are usually absent, except in the folklore tradition of some branches of the Mennonites. Immigration hardships are acceptable as subjects for humor, and more recently the passing from rural life to the new more sophisticated urban life.
Iconoclastic Mennonite humor has had difficulty being accepted in essay, cartoon, or poetry form. However, with the passing of ministers, preachers, and elders (bishops) as models of the ideal Mennonite Christian, the common Mennonite is more readily being accepted as the focus of humor, bringing with it the introduction of a frame of mind toward life that is humble and playful.
Within Mennonite groups who use some German or Dutch dialect, a body of humor exists which developed naturally and spontaneously out of a world view comfortable to its users. The Russian Mennonites, and their North American descendants, lived in two language worlds, and therefore in two related cultures, for decades. The Low German dialect was spoken where life was lived warmly, comfortably and intimately--in the home, on the barnyard, in the store, at social gatherings. People ate and digested, courted and loved, fought and made peace, bought and sold, argued and "neighbored" in the dialect. On the other hand, standard or High German, was the language of seriousness, scholarliness, sophistication, and to some Low German dialect speakers, the language of pretence and pomposity. Although the Low German dialect is often considered funny in itself, a concept reinforced by modern playwrights and song writers who choose humorous material to work with, some scholars argue the language is not funny but is capable of expressing humor because of its immense resourcefulness in distinguishing between nuances with great precision. Like Yiddish, it has a large variety of terms to distinguish between shades of connotations. The humor present in proverbs, sayings, and anecdotes is an expression of the ways things are and an invitation to the listener to see the world in a new way, that of the speaker. Low German humor is frequently a dry type of irony, seldom derisive and cruel, as in black humor, although it is readily recognized for its attempts to cut down class pretensions or dissimulations. Arnold Dyck's comic characters Koop and Boa have been termed the Mennonite Laurel and Hardy team. Because of its restricted subject matter and because the humor lies in the idioms and culture, rather than in plot and action, Low German humor does not usually appeal to an outside audience.
Wiebe, Katie Funk. "How to Start a Civil War." Christian Leader (23 February 1982): 19.
Wiebe, Katie Funk. "The Humble Approach." Mennonite (15 February 1972): 104.
Wiebe, Katie Funk. "Why Mennonites Can't Laugh at Themselves." Festival Quarterly 1 (Summer 1974): 522.
Wiebe, Katie Funk. "How do Mennonites Spell Relief?" With (July-August 1985): 17ff.
Hertzler, Daniel. "Humor and the Human Condition." Gospel Herald (12 January 1982): 32.
Hertzler, Daniel. "Can Laughter Save the Country?" Gospel Herald (31 March 1981): 256.
Hertzler, Daniel. "Laughing at Karl Barth." Gospel Herald (19 July 1983): 512.
Hertzler, Daniel. "What's So Funny?" Gospel Herald (31 May 1978): 444.
"Reclassified." Column of Mennonite humor in Festival quarterly (1975-).
"The Serious Side of Life." Gospel Herald (5 August 1926): 405.
Mennonite Distorter (1986-1997), mixes church politics (gay rights, feminism) with humor, cf. columns by Ivan Emke in Mennonite Reporter, 1988-1995.
Janzen, A. E. and Herbert Giesbrecht. We Recommend ... : Recommendations and Resolutions of the General Conference the Mennonite Brethren Churches. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Board of Christian Literature, 1978: 81.
Hiebert, Clarence. The Holdeman People. South Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1973: 131, 590-94.
Profanity: Swearing, in Jesting and Joking. Moundridge, KS: Gospel Tract and Bible Society of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, n.d.
Holdeman, John. A History of the Church of God. Hesston, KS: Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, Publication Board, 1959: 162.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978: 120-23.
Beck, Ervin. "Reggie Jackson Among the Mennonites." Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 147-67.
Beck, Ervin. "Mennonite Trickster Tales: True to be Good." Mennonite Quarterly Review 61 (1987): 58-74.
Wenger, John C. Separated Unto God. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952: 97.
Bachman, E. "Laugh With the Children." Mennonite (14 September 1982): 441.
Lesher, Emerson L. The Muppie Manual. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1985.
On Low German humor, see, in addition to the bibliography following the articles on Arnold Dyck and literature:
Loewen, Harry and Al Reimer. "Canadian Mennonite Low German." Mennonite Quarterly Review (1985): 279-86.
Reimer, Al, Anne Reimer, and Jack Thiessen, eds. A Sackful of Plautdietsch: a Collection of Mennonite Low German Stories and Poems. Winnipeg: Hyperion, 1983.
Wiebe, Katie Funk. "The Style of Low German Folklore." Journal of American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 5 (Fall 1982): 45-52.
Wiebe, Katie Funk. "Low German: the Language of the True Believer." Festival Quarterly 10 (August-October 1983): 12-13.
Peters, Victor. "With 'Koop enn Bua' on a Journey." Mennonite Life 14 (April 1959): 89.
Epp, Reuben. Plautdietsche Schreftsteckja. Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers, 1972.
Wiebe, Armin. The Salvation of Yasch Siemens. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1984.
Duerksen, Agnetha. Low German Folklore. Hesston, KS: Agnetha Duerksen, n.d.
Ratzlaff, Don. "Mennonite Brethren Game." Christian Leader (4 May 1982): 12-13.
Kliewer, Warren. "Collecting Folklore Among Mennonites." Mennonite Life 24 (October 1969): 169.
Nickel, Gordon. "Laughter With a Hollow Ring." Mennonite Brethren Herald (15 February 1980): 6-9.
Zuercher, Melanie. "Mennonites, Heroes, and Humor." Festival Quarterly 13 (Spring 1986): 10-11.
Hoop Scheffer, J. C. de ."Mennisten Streken." Doopsgezide Bijdragen (Leeuwarden, 1868): 23-48.
Reimer, Al. "Innocents Abroad: the Comic Odyssey of Koop enn Bua opp Reise." Journal of Mennonite Studies 4 (1986): 31-45.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 402-404. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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