Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer Reading Book Review: A Joyful Pilgrimage

(With how much I read, I will on occasion do full book reviews as a part of my overall corpus of writing about religion and spirituality.  Here's my latest review. ~E.A.)

With a great many entries into the memoir genre these days, opening one's story in medias res, in the middle of a story or anecdote (literally, "into the middle of things") is increasingly seeming to be standard operating procedure.  After all, with the legendarily short attention spans of today's readership, you have got to hook us and reel us in quick, right?

Well, sort of.  I genuinely believe--and I say this as someone who has opened a great many posts here on my own blog in the in medias res manner--that we are capable of hearing a story through if we know going into it that it will in fact be engaging and worthy of our time and attention.  Such is the case of Emmy Arnold's powerful, elegant memoir, A Joyful Pilgrimage, which you can download in pdf form for free at Plough's website here if you give them your name and email address.

Emmy begins her story, as they say in The Sound of Music, at the very beginning.  She describes her early life up to her marriage to Eberhard Arnold, a 20th century Christian theologian, and by starting with her formative years rather than dropping us in the middle of things, she does herself and her audience a service by giving us grounds to see her as a separate persona, a figure with both similar and different characteristics form her husband, which should inoculate us from the patriarchal tendency to wrap a wife up entirely in her husband's work.

This matters especially in the case of Emmy, because the founding and running of the Bruderhof (German for "a place of brothers") commune was very much a joint effort between her and Eberhard, and if you are searching for a case study of both the great joys and great obstacles of trying to create an intentional community from scratch, Emmy's memoir is a fantastic place to start, because although these events take place in the 1920s and 1930s, in terms of the overall lifetime of intentional Christian community, the Bruderhof movement is really quite young when you compare it to, say, the Benedictines, who were planting monasteries throughout Europe during the continent's Dark Ages.

The Bruderhof story, though, takes a hard turn into tragedy when the Nazi party raids it in the fall of 1933, only months after wresting away absolute power from the other Weimar Republic parties.  Throughout her retelling of this story, Emmy's prose remains both poignant and accessible, almost as though she were recounting the entire story to you from across the porch in a rocking chair over some tea or coffee.

That feeling of casual reminiscing, however, should not be taken for a lack of import--the sheer will and depth of belief in the justice of working towards education and equality for the many people adversely affected by the depression that hit Weimar-era Germany shines through as lucidly as the story itself.

Which is, after all, the entire point of the exercise of reading.  From someone else's story we learn about what we as children of God value and why.  And from Emmy Arnold's story, we learn about the necessity of building up one another, even if the unjust and broken systems around us continue to conspire to have that holy work come crashing down around us.

No tangible goods or services were exchanged for this review, and as with all of my reviews, all opinions here are entirely my own.

Update, 7/29: After posting this review, a rep from the Bruderhof community reached out to me via email; as it so happens, the Bruderhof movement that Emmy and Eberhard Arnold founded is still very much among the living in spite of the persecution endured in its formative years, which was really encouraging for me to learn.  You can learn more about them here.

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