Happiness is a Warm Gun

Paul Harvey

A couple of interesting new books, both reviewed in Sunday NY Times, to juxtapose in answer to the perennial American question about the pursuit of happiness. When that pursuit becomes a regimen, or a virtual mandate, then there's trouble in mind.

First, Hanna Rosin reviews Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Suffering through a surfeit of sentimentality which overwhelmed her while going through breast cancer, Ehrenreich's work is a paean to our right to be pissed off. One chapter covers relentlessly happy celebrity pastors:

This mystical positivity seeped into the American megachurches, as celebrity pastors became motivational speakers in robes. In one of the great untold stories of American religion, the proto-Calvinist Christian right — with its emphasis on sin and self-discipline — has lately been replaced by a stitched-together faith known as “prosperity gospel,” which holds that God wants believers to be rich.

I would just add: not just "lately"; this of course is a staple theme of much popular Protestantism from way back in American history.

Second, seemingly very different but addressing many of the same issues: a review of Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. After being ditched by her husband who fell into a gay online romance, and suffering an automobile accident, Janzen returned to her Mennonite community roots, and this wry memoir tells of the virtues of stoicism and toughness (and some really bad food) that came from her upbringing and her no-nonsense mom.

It’s the narrative voice of the person who grew up in an ethnic religious community, escaped it, then looked back with clearsighted objectivity and appreciation.

Also reviewed here by a Professor English at Goshen College (a Mennonite college in Indiana). An excerpt from the book is here.


Both reviews of the Janzen book (esp. the NYTBR one) give me hope that she avoids the dominant trope of Mennonite literary works that reach larger audiences—namely, emphasizing the peculiarly oppressive side of Mennonite upbringings. That tone ring less and less true, so I hope that Janzen has found a way around it. The point that Jessica Baldanzi (the Goshen prof.) makes about Swiss (German) vs. Russian (Dutch-Prussian) Mennonites is an important one, as the vast majority of quality Mennonite literature in North America has come from the Russian tradition. On the other hand, the image of conservative Mennonites (and even more so, Amish) as a quaint, peaceful, tourism-friendly people is largely associated with the Swiss tradition. My friend Sidney King—like me, a Swiss German Menno.—does a great job of addressing this latter image in his 2004 film, “Pearl Diver.”