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Second look at faith fails to deliver

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Since the release of her 2010 bestseller, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, American writer Rhoda Janzen has changed romantic partners, religious denominations, publishers and, yes, even her outfit.

Her followup, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?, is far less about wardrobe choices than about her personal life, her new love and finding her way back to church.

It doesn't make her look fat -- just a little silly.

It is more introspective and serious than the light-hearted Black Dress. Styled along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love -- Gilbert even blurbed Black Dress -- this book could easily be subtitled Heal Pray Love.

As an English and creative writing professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., she begins by facing the news of a fast-moving cancerous lump in her breast. The diagnosis comes early in her relationship with Mitch, a Pentecostal Christian who proposes marriage soon after.

Although her self-described "lady problems" are serious, Janzen provides few details about her illness and recovery, other than some passing mentions of taking meds, losing her hair and forgoing intimacy with Mitch during her chemotherapy.

In contrast to her first book, where she repeatedly mocks her Mennonite faith tradition, Janzen is decidedly circumspect when it comes to Mitch's Pentecostal beliefs and practices, which she comes to adopt over the course of the book.

She mentions "long, noisy, worship services" and their willingness to improvise, "to be sidetracked by the Spirit," but offers little critique.

Her new family must be relieved, but her family of origin -- and Mennonites in general -- might be wondering why the Pentecostals got off so easily.

Janzen raises this question herself in another way when she wonders aloud how to tell her friends and fellow academics that she is attending church on purpose.

Although reluctant to embrace institutional religion of any kind, she eventually realizes her new church is challenging her to become someone she didn't think she ever wanted to be.

Finally, then, this memoir is part Christian testimony and part love story, mixed with a flavouring of serious illness.

Janzen seems uncertain what tone to take, vacillating between lighthearted narrative about renovating Mitch's house and earnestly relaying newfound insights about Christian marriage, sexual abstinence, tithing and spiritual gifts.

Despite her boasts of competency in the English language, Janzen fails to deliver a good story or a strong narrative, offering instead a mixture of anecdotes, background on her new husband and stepson, and lengthy digressions on Christian theology.

Readers are left wondering how she dealt with her own mortality in the face of serious cancer and how the illness contributed to her growing sense of spirituality.

They may even be wondering about the personal fallout from her previous tell-all, where nothing was sacred.

 

Winnipeg journalist Brenda Suderman attends a Mennonite church in the West End where she can wear anything she pleases.

 

 

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?

A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems

By Rhoda Janzen

Grand Central Publishing, 245 pages, $28

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J8

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