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Wednesday, October 10,2012

Of mice and Mennonites

Michigan author's second memoir covers religious humor and a cancer fight

by Bill Castanier

Readers of Rhoda Janzen’s hilarious 2009 New York Times bestseller “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” may recall her failed date with a guy named Mitch who wore a Jesus-nail necklace. Since then, life has changed dramatically for Janzen — in her newest book, “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?” Janzen and Mitch have each added another piece of jewelry: wedding rings.

This second memoir follows how that little turnabout happened, along with Janzen’s search for spiritual meaning in her new husband’s evangelical church. Janzen, who teaches at Hope College in Holland, where she calls herself a “grammar professor,” may be a singular voice when it comes to her style of religious humor — think Annie Lamott crossed with Phyllis Diller.

“I come by my humor naturally,” Janzen said by phone, while taking a break from her book tour. “My folks were funny.” 

That may sound like the classic set up for a stand-up comedian, but Janzen says the humor she learned from her parents was “more subtle and not for stand-up, popcorn or Letterman.” She says her folks were not only funny, but their lifestyle, revolving around her father’s pastorship in the conservative Mennonite church, often put her and her sisters in comical situations. Like the one she writes about when they moved into a rundown mansion formerly occupied by hippies and “many friendly dogs pooping up a storm in a marijuana frenzy.” 

Mostly, the book is Janzen’s take on her mid-life search for spirituality, which coincided with her diagnosis of inoperable breast cancer. In anyone else’s hands, the book might’ve been a preachy downer, but with Janzen’s clever writing, it is uplifting as she wades through some insider evangelical humor, including “sparkler pompoms,” a “season of abstinence” with her husband-to-be, “butt pads” and “cancer starter kits.”

Janzen said she never expected to marry someone like Mitch, a former stoner/alcoholic whom she describes in the book as previously selling weed out of his backyard and putting pipe bombs in mail boxes.

“I saw myself with someone cosmopolitan, a man of the arts,” she says. “It turned out I was looking for all the wrong things.”

She acknowledges education isn’t all that it is cracked up to be, writing, “what if having a Ph.D. makes you a tomfool?”  Remember, this self-assessment is coming from someone who regularly delivers a 10-minute lecture on the importance of sentence diagramming. (She boasts that she can diagram any sentence from Henry James.) Janzen certainly is not a tomfool when it comes to writing humor about everyday life and a grander search for meaning.

She said she knew she had to shut out her more academic voice, often describing herself with self-deprecating humor. Janzen is at her best when she writes lovingly about how she and Mitch have coped with her breast cancer. While undergoing treatment for cancer she said she began keeping a “humor journal” that helped her in writing the book.

“If you are going to write humor, you have to be constantly vigilant and write it down,” she said.

Liberal friends and family aren’t saved from the sharp teeth Janzen flashes in her writing, but her asides are so richly funny that no one seems to mind. One reason Janzen’s humor works so well is that she is most often the target for her funniest observations. And it’s not as if she doesn’t have a lot material to draw from. For example, she describes her 15-year marriage with a guy who finds a boyfriend online, and her mother’s encouragement to date her cousin because he owns a tractor. Janzen is able to spin everyday occurrences, her strict religious upbringing and her own non-traditional lifestyle choices into a lesson, which is both inspirational and entertaining at the same time.

In “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?” Janzen has done for evangelicals and Mennonites what John R. Powers did for Catholics in “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” and what Bill Cosby did for Bible Belters with his “Noah” bit. She also proves the point that it’s OK to laugh about religion. As for now, she’s waiting for her pastor to read the book and answering the inevitable question, “Does Mitch have a brother?”

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