Published by Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: October 2nd 2012
Genres: Humor, Memoir, Non-fiction
I missed Rhoda Janzen’s first book, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home so jumping into her newest book, Does This Church Make Look Fat?, was a bit like going to a new high school your sophomore year. Yes, they speak the language but you don’t know any of the backstory or the cliques. Also, I’ll admit it. I wanted to read the book because the title made me laugh out loud. If you read her first book, you’re a little ahead of the game but even if not, Janzen has enough going on in this one and is kind enough to sprinkle references to book one throughout, that you’ll be just fine. In fact, Does This Church, is so front loaded with action, you’ll be at page 100 before you can draw a breath.
Janzen is a Mennonite by birth and upbringing, but like many with an intellectual bent, eventually found the lack of answers to her questions to be problematic. Her love of reading and diagramming sentences led her to a PhD and a career as an English professor and intermittent church attendance with the Episcopals. That’s where this story begins. Within the first three chapters Janzen, coming out of a divorce from a fifteen year marriage, is dating a behemoth named Mitch, who despite a misspent youth is now a fervent Pentecostalist. Janzen approaches this with an academic’s curiosity and open mind, largely drawn in by his caring nature and protective personality. However, after only a month of dating she is informed that she has a large, inoperable tumor in her breast and that the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes.
It’s not clear whether her relationship with Mitch or her devastating diagnosis is the propellant, but Janzen begins to immerse herself in the Pentacostal faith—and in faith period. She lets go of much of her questioning mind and opens herself to…God. At the time of my diagnosis I saw faith in God not as a belief in a real external entity, but as a useful cause-and-effect strategy for managing heartbreak, anxiety, and blame. This can make for unusual reading, especially if you are not prepared for (or expecting) a religious awakening book but Janzen’s humor is such that it is not as off-putting as it could be. Her first experience with someone speaking in tongues?
Even if those gorgeous waves of foreign syllables had come rolling out of my own mouth, I still would have tried to understand the experience as a foreign language. Indeed, is Rosetta Stone offered a course in Holy Ghost for Beginners, I’d have ordered level 1-5 to work on my verbs.
Does This Church covers a lot of territory, largely about relationships. Ours with each other and ours with God. Despite the very dire prognosis, Janzen and Mitch decide to marry and begin to prepare for a life together in Mitch’s home, with his son, and his father. At the same time, Janzen is dealing with cancer and its impact on every aspect of her life. Her tumor does not respond to chemo and it becomes apparent that she may be facing the end of her life. It is now that she realizes how firmly faith has taken ahold of her:
It became clear that prayer really did make a difference. If I hadn’t surrendered to divine will, I would have been fretful, maybe even angry. But it wasn’t like that. It was a season of full rich presence, of mindfulness in the moment, even as the moments ran out.
There is the possibility that in the wrong hands Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? could become a religious treatise but Janzen retains enough of her intellectual leanings so that even as she is submitting to faith and acknowledging it, she is not proselytizing. This is her journey, not one she demands the reader take with her. This religious awakening, mixed with the very important process of marrying a man from whom she is almost diametrically opposed,
Mitch’s and my relationship continually pitted his literality against my metaphoric imagination. Our personalities, our career choices, and especially our spiritual experiences had been shaped by this selfsame divide, and we would have been fools not to see the ramifications of such a fundamental division.
means there’s a lot to process. What makes it possible is Janzen herself, coming through on each page. A wicked sense of humor and a pragmatic mind means Does This Church make Me Look Fat? will be inspirational for those who are inclined towards organized religion and deeply faithful, and still a good read for the rest of us. It’s uplifting without being treacly and an interesting, engaging slice of one woman’s life journey.