The other fetish object has to be the quilt. If on the one hand Martyrs Mirror, that pointedly Anabaptist cipher for the cross, documents horrors done to the bodies of believers, then the quilt speaks to the opposite: creaturely comforts, and the familiarity of the ethnic. This pairing of extreme pain and sensuous pleasure, I would suggest, defines the poles of the Mennonite imagination.
Indeed it bears out the insight of the structuralists and their deconstructive progeny that metaphysics, when you get right down to it, rests on some dualism. If my pairing of the cross and the quilt seems forced or artificial, let me describe what I described for my friend from Pennsylvania. This anecdote points the way to larger stirrings of the Mennonite imagination in which the quilt attains iconic weight.
In the process it has begun to coexist with an older icon, the cross, or, as in this particular instance, actually physically displace it. Recently, I sat in a Mennonite sanctuary in Illinois. At the front of the sanctuary, in the center of the wall, hung a large quilt. It invited the eye. Several other folded quilts rested on the table dominating the center of the stage. These homely objects had literally edged their way into the terrain of the sacred.
They had made the journey from the quilting table to the communion table. During the service these quilts were unfolded and held up for the congregation to see. Members commented on the design and quality of the stitches, in the manner that students of midrash use when discussing a hard saying in the Torah. Call it an exegesis of the quilt. Similarly, the quilt also evoked history. It might be pointed out that this anecdote is too slight to sustain the weight of the argument I am making for the increased iconic significance of the quilt.
I have not carried out a scientific survey of whether such a phenomenon has gained widespread adoption. But in fact it registers as an indicator of stirrings within the wider Mennonite community vis—vis quilts as a self-consciously spiritual practice. Several months before this service, a news caption appeared in The Mennonite Weekly Review beneath a picture of a young man working with needle and cloth. That kind of space can make prayer possible. Here it is useful to point out that alternative liturgical practices are part and parcel of what has come about in the interests of both the theological and the feminist imaginations, and this activity is hardly restricted to Anabaptists.
It is a phenomenon rippling across Christendom as feminist voices register with greater force.
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Before returning to further discussion of the theological implications of the quilt as icon, I want to consider its status in an intermediate phase that precedes the iconic and follows from an earlier, primarily utilitarian use. This is the part of the history in which artists and writers became the primary mediators and interpreters of the quilt. Alluding to quilts is an automatic reflex in much late twentieth-century Mennonite poetry. These poems also illustrate most precisely the shift in sensibility from the quilt as necessity to a self-consciously and often ironically displayed work of art.
Many of us still have direct connections to the first, mostly utilitarian phase. Her quilts were made for beds, not art gallery walls. She did possess religious iconic art coming out of the pietist tradition, but the quilt was not considered part of that repertoire.
This began when quilts became objects of serious art collection as well as capitalist commodities at Mennonite Central Committee relief auctions.
Coffee-table books on the quilt were published-by Mennonites themselves. The quilt was now a piece of highbrow primitive chic. Quilts started to appear on the wall, preferably under tastefully chosen track lighting. The first phase of the quilt, a homely object of utilitarian need, gave way to the second, the quilt in the Age of Warhol, when aesthetic sophistication and monetary prosperity created a Mennonite marketplace of unprecedented means.
High bidders for the quilts could expect ample publicity for both their good taste and faithfulness. Thus Yost puts the quilting into conversation with various other materials and cultural formations: Native American values and spirituality, ecological sensitivity, actual found objects including bleached animal skulls and sand. It does suggest the quilt can be reappropriated in a milieu of cultural pluralism.
Still, it is interesting that the quilted portion of a typical Yost piece is usually clearly demarcated from the rest of the artwork, bumping up against the oil painting or found object, but seldom mingling with it. Kraybill created familiar quilt patterns by affixing colored chemical and nuclear warning labels on a flat surface.
We are now entering the third age of the quilt, in which it firmly reaches the realm of the sacred. Kraybill imbues the quilt with a prophetic, hard-edged ethical valence of its own, which, like the earlier pietistic quilts, aims at explicit moral education. Yet the third stage of quilt as icon has not been as clearly delineated in Mennonite literature per se.
I would suggest a reason for this. While the aesthetic phase contains a good deal of irony Look at what we have become in our self-conscious materialist culture, say poets like Gundy , the third phase, quilt as icon, will ask the audience-or congregation-to check irony at the door. Such a prohibition may create problems for writers. Thus we have assertions that quilting, the actual needlework, is akin to prayer itself. The alienation from our past is overcome. The quilt will reconnect us with the sacred history of our people. This romantic and quintessentially American idea, this desire for authenticity and return to innocence, seldom views irony as anything but corrosive.
Still, one central element to the revival of the quilt as icon makes irony toward such a development difficult to articulate. One critiques this project only at the risk of sounding anti-feminist. The movement of the quilt out of the basement and into the sanctuary, and in some places to front and center where the cross once exclusively dominated the sacred space, is hardly subtle.
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In the old days, manly clergy and elders contemplated the hard doctrinal truths within earshot of the old rugged cross, while the ladies constructed their soft quilts in the safe and invisible confines of the basement below. This reality no longer inheres. I emphasize this gendered nature of the cross and the quilt because such a dualism is central to the structural tension of the Mennonite as well as the larger Christian imagination.
While the Romans fastened both naked men and women to crosses, at times setting them on fire to improve nighttime visibility, the cross tends to evoke images of men, of guys-either the rugged ones in armor hammering spikes home, or the rugged ones taking the pain and trying not to yell. Jesus almost capitulates to a breathtaking rollick on the quilt with that most devoted of women, Mary Magdalen. But he resists temptation and chooses to remain on the cross.
The vision to which Jesus nearly succumbs is the siren call of comfort, of being a regular guy who wants the warm pleasure of a woman and a bed and a quilt. In various countries from Mexico to the Philippines, men still prove themselves by getting hammered to crosses on Good Friday, and then seeing who can last longest before begging for delivery to an emergency room. Is there such a thing as the gratuitous religious imagination of suffering?
To what extent is such an imagination appropriate and salutary, and to what extent pathological? But there is yet another prime reason to consider this gendered tension between the cross and the quilt. That reason is the powerful feminist critique of the ways in which the cross can, and often does, malfunction in the Christian imagination. Atonement theology then says this intimate violence saves life.
Of course the cross has always been liable to misinterpretation, and many other theologians besides those interested in liturgical reconstruction have made this point, principal among them Rene Girard. The quilt embodies those core values of Christian faith that have always been a part of the prophetic and Anabaptist biblical tradition: providing relief to those who suffer, comforting those who mourn, giving shelter to the homeless.
It is worth pondering that at his birth and death, it was women who wrapped the body of Christ in cloth. If the cross creates a theological and ethical conundrum of endless theological dispute and complications, the quilt might seem to be a wholesome substitute or at least corrective to the bloody, endlessly misinterpreted, sacrificial center of Christianity.
To reconsider the relationship between the cross and the quilt might well mean that in the realignment of the faith with new icons, chief among them the quilt, this meditation on horror and the crime done by father to son could become a thing of the past. The new Mennonite imagination will evolve on a more upbeat key. A Study of Community Development. Memorial to the Members of the Constitutional Convention of Wyoming ; see also Reminiscences of a Member of the Wyoming Constitutional Convention.
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