Mennonite identity is a funny thing. Mennonites themselves are often not quite sure what to make of it.
For the conservative branches of the group, identity is grounded in an array of external visual factors. The cut of a woman’s dress, the shape and cut of her prayer covering, the type of hat a man wears in public, the mode of transportation used when going to church, the type of agricultural equipment used to work the land are all highly visual external identifiers. Since these identifiers are often at first glance rather similar to Amish identity symbols, the public perceives a visual cacophony that makes individual differences indistinguishable. Mennonite identity becomes synonymous with Amish identity. While this may not matter to the general public, it drives Mennonites crazy.
When a Mennonite group gives up its visual identifiers, what is left to identify a Mennonite as unique from any other common faith group in America? How does this lack of visual identity inform a Mennonite’s own self-identity when in public? For the most part, progressive branches of the faith flee from external identifiers, choosing instead to blend in, to acculturate, to become identified as much with the broader society as they are with their own roots. It’s intentional, a part of the difference in the basic theology of the two groups. But in the progressive groups identifying that which makes one a Mennonite becomes much more nebulous.
Once visual identifiers are thrust aside the pull toward full integration into America’s social and religious landscape becomes almost irresistible. It becomes more and more difficult to lay a finger on that which makes a person a Mennonite other than the name of the building in which he or she worships.
One practice that continues to draw attention from onlookers is the ease with which rank and file Mennonites slip into complex four part harmonies during worship services. Most Mennonites still receive their musical chops by parodying their elders in the church pews. A few join church choirs where the skill becomes more finely honed.
In this post, I’m displaying a short video clip of the traditional Harmonia Sacra singings that form the backbone of four part harmonies in the Mennonite world.