Climate Futures Fellow Update: Joseph Harder

Climate Futures Fellow Update - Joseph Harder

I’ve been thinking lately about the similarities between Mennonite hymnals and the More-With-Less Cookbook. Both are Mennonite cultural touchstones: music and food are two things that Mennonites seem to take pride in. These books are the sort of thing given by churches and relatives as coming-of-age, baptism, or graduation gifts (I can personally attest, I have received both as gifts). Both draw their contents from the experiences of Mennonites around the world. Both are reflective of existing Mennonite theology, and simultaneously creative: they develop their own flavors of Mennonitism, and thus influence the shape of the church. They embody the practical essence of what it means to be a Mennonite through engagement in the rituals — be it the cooking of recipes or the singing of hymns — that they prescribe. 

The More-With-Less Cookbook came out in 1976, and directly noted various environmental concerns and what can be done, at least on an individual level, to address them. Hymnal: A Worship Book (‘the blue hymnal’) came out in 1992 — sixteen years later — and, out of forty-two hymns with a focus on nature, only two contained any acknowledgment of our responsibility to care for the land. Music is important to many Mennonites. Why don’t our hymnals make more of an effort to address pertinent social issues? Our hymnals serve as a way of simplifying and bestowing personal meaning to Mennonite theology, and with environmental concern ballooning globally, and increasingly being investigated theologically, it seems to me that our hymnals should reflect this. This feeling is, at least in part, what led me to this fellowship.

A common scene throughout the week -- taking notes on environmental metaphors expressed in hymn lyrics

So, what is the intent of my project? My goal is to investigate expressions of relationship to the natural world in U.S. Mennonite hymnals, from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. I am hoping to develop an understanding of the annals of Mennonite ecotheology and the ideas that facilitated its development, then use this as a backdrop to shed light on the history, intention, and potential reverberations — both positive and negative — of environmental and ecotheological expressions in the upcoming Voices Together hymnal

My time so far has been split fairly evenly between hymnal analysis, readings (primarily about environment, Mennonite history, and hymnology, and ranging from analyses of the Russian national anthem to cookbooks), and conversations with people who know more than me; this has all been both humbling and heartening. I am constantly being made aware that there is much that I do not know, and have been working to come to terms with the fact that my project won’t be perfect and can’t address everything. Despite this whelming openness, I have found the process of learning and distinguishing a thesis to pursue exhilarating: there is so much to read, so much to think, so much to say. I won’t say that this isn’t sometimes paralyzing — but I have been learning to find my way, clarifying my thoughts and rolling with the ideological punches. 

Throughout the next couple months, I will be continuing to pore over hymnals and ecotheological readings as I develop an outline for my writing. My goal is to craft an academic paper for publication (hopefully!) in various Mennonite and musicological journals. I am greatly anticipating getting my hands on a copy of Voices Together and seeing what it has to say — and from there, discovering what it is that I have to say.

Leave a Comment