When the Mennonites of the Canadian prairies all decided one day in 2004 to become hipsters, they didn’t even have to change their attire. Keep the beard and plaid shirts. Out-of-date sweaters with timberwolves on them? No problem. Hell, the young ladies could even keep on knitting.
Still, this transition from a lifestyle resembling the Amish to something hip and modern might come as a shock to some people. To many, the term Mennonite immediately conjures up images of buggies and bonnets. Today, however, there are increasing numbers of urban — urbane, even — Mennonites. How did this happen?
You might cite Miriam Toews’s character Nomi Nickel as the original Mennonite hipster. Toews’s bestselling novel A Complicated Kindness was set sometime in the 1980s in the fictional Mennonite town of East Village, Manitoba, and featured a sarcastic teenager who smoked pot and was obsessed with Lou Reed. Although the term hipster wasn’t really used in the ’80s, it may have applied pretty well to young Nomi.
Despite the fact that Mennonites are often characterized as rural and conservative, there has always been a strain of rebellion within the group. This has existed from the very beginning. I won’t bore you with a lengthy account of the entire historical context, which you can easily read on Wikipedia or wherever, but the Mennonites began in 16th-century Holland and Switzerland as a Protestant sect that felt Martin Luther just hadn’t taken things quite far enough with this whole Reformation thing. Mennonites baptized adults, refused military service, were chased around Europe for centuries, and later fled to the Americas to be free. But this persecution and isolation caused a number of idiosyncrasies within the group. Wherever they were, Mennonites were always outsiders, never part of mainstream society. Continue Reading →