Reading the Anabaptists: Anabaptist Historiography and Luther Blissett’s Q
The Conrad Grebel Review 24, no. 1 (Winter 2006)
One of the most fruitful directions of recent theology focuses on the connection of narrative, virtue, and character formation. In this regard, the theological world is beginning to take notice of Anabaptism. Scholars such as Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon, and popular theologians like Brian McLaren and Anthony Campolo, have cited Anabaptist ideals like ethics, community, and biblicism as positive new directions for the twenty-first century church. Yet a careful look at past appropriations of the Anabaptist story reveals that its appeal is more narrative than ideological. The grand testimonies of pacifist martyrs can be transplanted into any already existing ideologies, and in fact have been. An examination of three recent interpretations of Anabaptist history—those of H.S. Bender, twentieth-century Marxist historians, and a recent techno-anarchist Italian novel—reveal that Anabaptism’s spread may have more to do with the drama of its story rather than the purity of its ideals.
Academics often argue that ideas make their way carefully into the public consciousness via papers, conferences, and lecture series, in a rational and orderly way. This may be partially true. The spread of Marxism, however, probably had more to do with rousing speeches on the soapbox than Das Kapital as required classroom reading. In other words, our thinking comes after our images and experiences of life. Ideas travel crouched on the back of character and plot, because otherwise most people’s brains cannot retain them.
The magnetic draw of sixteenth-century Anabaptism emanates from the drama of its inception. Anabaptism’s beliefs cannot be separated from its story. Its theological emphases of discipleship, community, and pneumatological biblicism are inextricably linked to the stories of resolute martyrs dying in flame with their tongues cut out. The Martyrs Mirror collected hundreds of pages of eight-point-type death monologues and added some etchings to heighten the pathos. This pastiche of grisly narratives symbolized Anabaptist mythology for so many years that it was traditionally given as a Mennonite wedding gift. The Martyrs Mirror wedded the simplistic beliefs of a Christ centered nonresistant faith to vignettes of a faithful people bravely standing against overwhelming odds. The early Anabaptists were iconoclasts, rebels, lone gunmen at high noon with Bibles in their mental holsters. It was not the Anabaptists’ systematic formulations but the drama of their lives that enabled their church to blossom and survive.
After these initial dramas had faded, however, theology overruled story in the interests of institutional survival. Menno Simons and other Anabaptist leaders turned drama into doctrine. In recent history, H. S. Bender, the “dean of Mennonite scholarship,” rejected the Anabaptist stories with the most violence, the most blood, and the most pathos and tragedy. Bender’s influential essay “The Anabaptist Vision”1 specifically excludes apocalyptic revolutionary groups as belonging a priori outside the Anabaptist fold. Bender concluded that scholars “know enough to draw a clear line of demarcation between original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism on the one hand . . . and the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand.”2 Of course, scholars did not yet know enough, but Bender pointedly urged them in that direction. His attempt to steer the church between what he perceived as vapid liberalism and violent fundamentalism required a definitive history that definitively rejected violence back to its very origins. To Bender’s credit, his vision sustained the Mennonite church through the fundamentalist/ modernist debates, lasting well into the 1960s.
The contrast between Bender’s chosen story and that of secular German historians shows that one group’s ideological trash can be another group’s narrative treasure. Marxists saw in the early Anabaptists the seeds of the original proletariat revolution. Friedrich Engels cited the Anabaptists as proto-Marxists even before the ideology of Marxism had fully coalesced. Marxist historians of the German Democratic Republic claimed the German Peasants War as their direct ancestor, concentrating on Anabaptism as the original revolutionary force and dismissing pacifist Anabaptism as the degenerate leftover of the commoners’ attempt to nip capitalism in the bud. Even non-Marxist social historians were forced to acknowledge the multiple societal forces that birthed the stepchildren of Radical Reformation. Marxists provided a new narrative/interpretive framework to read Anabaptist theology. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists served the mythological interests of a movement fundamentally opposed to religion in all its manifestations.
Literature, however, was never regarded as one of Marxism’s strongest suits. The grim attempt to unilaterally root Marxist thought in Hegelian dialectical materialism left little room for fanciful expression. The collapse of the Soviet Union called into question Marxism’s metanarrative pretensions, leaving room for a new story in which could be read the early Anabaptists. This surprising interpretation recently presented itself as a novel written by four Italian anarchists using the name of former soccer star Luther Blissett.3 Their novel Q4 implicitly linked the most radical of the radical reformers with postmodern anarchists, the store-window-bashing, computer-virus-writing faceless guerillas of today. With markedly divergent results, the authors of Q utilize the same selective historiography as Bender and the GDR materialists. Just as Bender connected his Anabaptist theology to selective modernist pacifism, and East German historians to Marxist socioeconomic theory, Q’s unique narrative connects the theology of Müntzer and Münster to the weblogs, Black Bloc anarchists, and rogue computer hackers of the twenty-first century.
The Plot of Q and the Radical Reformation
Q concerns an unnamed protagonist who finds himself swept up in the more dramatic fringes of the Radical Revolution of the sixteenth century. The protagonist, also the first-person narrator, accompanies major historical figures throughout the shifting plot. The novel is set up in three parts. Part One, The Coiner, recounts the drama of the battle of Frankenhausen, Thuringia and the protagonist’s involvement with Thomas Müntzer. Part Two, One God, One Faith, One Baptism, moves through the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement toward the apocalyptic capture of the city of Munster. Finally, Part Three, The Benefit of Christ Crucified, shifts away from traditional European Anabaptist history to examine the Radical Revolution in Venice and southern Italy.
As the protagonist fights his way through the decadent underside of the Radical Reformation, his name changes to protect his identity and that of his companions. The protagonist’s pseudonymous subterfuge highlights the narrator’s Everyman quality, and also hints at the authors’ view of the fluid nature of postmodern existence. The narrator comments in the opening in medias res section, “I automatically turn around when people call me Gustav, I’ve become accustomed to a name no less strange to me than any other.”5 The date and location of the protagonist’s action also change rapidly and frequently, always indicated by headings at the beginning of the book’s 117 short chapters. This leapfrogging of character, time, and setting mirrors the fluid identities of Q’s multiple authors, who reject the linear conceptions of reality typified by the East German historians’ dialectical approach.
Q opens with an appropriately fragmented film-like account of the battle of Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525. The protagonist personally accompanies Thomas Müntzer, “the Coiner,” an apocalyptic Spiritualist who eventually joined the peasants of Thuringia in their unsuccessful rebellion against their oppressive landowner. The Anabaptists are being pursued by a secret agent of the Roman Catholic Church nicknamed Q (after Qoelet, the author of Ecclesiastes); this nemesis provides the title of the novel. After this impressionistic beginning, the action shifts to Wittenberg in 1519, where the protagonist witnesses the debates between Martin Luther and his mentor and foe, Andreas Karlstadt. Rather than choose between them, he gravitates to the brash charisma of the young preacher Thomas Müntzer—“his voice: the flame that set Germany ablaze”6 —and inserts himself as one of Müntzer’s lieutenants. The protagonist’s education and literacy aid in Müntzer’s integral role in the rebellion of the surrounding peasants (he watches the conflictleery Hans Denck flee the battle of Frankenhausen before the fighting begins). Part One ends in the protagonist’s crazed, profane monologue against the disciplined resolve of the princes’ troops. This splintered use of language recalls the truncated sentences and dismembered corpses that began the novel’s portrayal of the horror of revolutionary war.
Part Two chronicles the protagonist’s flight to the Martyrs’ Synod in 1527 and his transferal of identity to Lienhard Jost—the sole incidence of the protagonist’s assumption of a historical personality. Melchior Hoffmann and Jan Trijpmaker appear in succession, but the protagonist feels that reformation requires something more than Hoffmann’s apocalypticism. After picking a rusted sword off the ground, he confesses, “I felt a strange shiver as I clutched a weapon once again and I understood that the moment had come to try something magnificent.”7 The protagonist saves the life of Jan Matthys, the eventual leader of the mad apocalyptic city-state of Münster, and finds his ticket to the “magnificent” life of the sword. The impatient protagonist finds Matthys’ revolutionary rhetoric seductive: “He wanted to fight this battle, he wanted to fight it with a passion, he was just waiting for a sign from God to declare war on the wicked and the servants of iniquity.”8 Both the protagonist and Matthys have little inkling of the true nature of the following war on iniquity.
Blissett portrays Münster as a medieval carnival turned Waco, Texas. The section of Q that details the fall of the city bears the subtitle “The Word made flesh.” The initial days of Matthys’ success are filled with wine, women, and song, but Bernhard Rothmann’s apocalyptic preaching soon shifts the party to a fascist rally. Matthys declares, “The kingdom of God is a jewel that you can win only if you get your hands dirty with shit, mud and blood.”9 Arriving back in Münster during the book burning on 16 March 1534 (a historically recorded event), the protagonist sees on the burning pile “a copy of Erasmus, showing that this God no longer needs our language and will not give us peace.”10 The “holy pimp” Jan Bockelson takes over the new “kingship of David,” the city falls, and the nameless protagonist is forced to change his name once more.
The third section of the novel shifts its attention to Italy and away from sixteenth-century Anabaptism proper.11 Part Three focuses on a subversive plot to distribute an anonymous Catholic apologetic for justification by faith titled “The Benefit of Christ Crucified.” The protagonist realizes his ancient enemy Q is still haunting him, and poses as an Anabaptist named Titian to lure the double agent out into the open; Q is symbolically buried under the collapsing nave of a Gothic cathedral. The printing cabal of humanists and Jewish merchants is exposed, Q’s benefactor Gianpetro Carafa is elected Pope Paul IV, and the protagonist escapes Western culture altogether, heading for the Muslim Middle East to become one of the first successful exporters of coffee. The revolutionary German has become a medieval international proto-Starbucks capitalist.
Q and Anabaptist Historiography
Although not identical, Blissett’s interpretation of Anabaptist history exhibits fraternal similarities to the Marxist reading of the sixteenth-century Radical Reformers. At the heart of the Marxist interpretation of history lies the struggle between the actual laborers and the capitalist overseers who make money off their labor without actually laboring themselves. Based on the Hegelian dialectic, Marxism predicts the workers rising up and claiming their fair share of the capital produced by their labor, moving into a restored “Golden Age” of equitable distribution—the famed “From each according to their ability to each according to their need.” History is therefore read through the lens of the struggle between labor and capital, production and exploitation—“dialectical materialism.” Ideology—including theology—serves only as veiled exploitation of those who rightfully create the necessities of society, the justification of keeping the oppressed productive class in its exploited social niche.
Friedrich Engels, one of the fathers of Marxism, mentioned the Anabaptists in his research on the German Peasants War. He searched German history for examples of the upsurge of the proletariat (productive) class and found its original prototype in the Peasants War of 1525. Engels saw that war as the initial impulse of the productive class to oppose burgeoning capitalism before it began, a protest against the emerging bourgeois subculture to which both nobles and peasants were indebted. In typical Marxist fashion, the theology attached to these uprisings was merely a veneer over the interests of material production:
In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by the conditions of the time.12
Engels’s lens of dialectical materialism did not allow him to regard theological interests as a fundamental part of the peasants’ revolution. The rhetoric of biblicism and anticlericalism was merely a convenient way for the peasants to express their material frustrations.
Later German historians in the Marxist German Democratic Republic (GDR) followed Engels’s materialist line. In fact, some tension existed between church historians, who viewed theology as the primary causative factor in the Radical Reformation, and Marxist historians, who saw the class struggle as underlying theological rhetoric. Paul Peachey observed that both sides utilized an a priori conception of reality that necessarily influenced their interpretation of radical reform. In other words, the Marxists had ideological assumptions which subjectively colored their research as much as the church historians:
Intruding into the [Marxist] empirical formula is a non-empirical postulate, ‘dialectic materialism,’ which, however, is accorded empirical status within the scheme . . . . What to the non-Marxist is thus a metaphysical postulate, parading as an empirical construct in the historian’s arsenal, is to the Marxist historian the most scientific of all laws.13
Abraham Friesen points out that Engels’s concentration on the admittedly biased historical data of Wilhelm Zimmerman led to characterizing the Zwickau Prophets and Thomas Müntzer as the true fathers of Anabaptism.14 The belief in the class struggle of production as the most fundamental fact of history obscured Marxist historians to the influential power of ideas and theological beliefs.
The GDR historians’ essays in volume IX of the Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies series, Radical Tendencies in the Reformation,15 provide some concrete examples of the Marxist emphasis on dialectical materialism. One of the first and most shocking is Adolf Laube’s concentration on “the willingness to use force as a decisive criterion of radicality.”16 When the clashes of history are driven by the proletariats’ desire for physical justice, the Marxist historian necessarily excludes pacifism as a second-rate cop-out toward the bourgeois class. Laube sees Müntzer as a prototypical example of Anabaptist proletariat revolution at its finest; Müntzer’s leadership in the Peasants War “acted as catalyst for the formation and radical development of this theology for appealing to ordinary people, as it activated the people as the carrier of the force of the sword and the driving power of revolutionary change.”17 Günter Vogler saw the violent apocalypticism of Münster as the only way the proletariats could break out of their ideological oppression, the “radicalization of the radicals.”18 A concentration on forceful uprising against the middle and upper classes led Marxist historians to concentrate on the violent, apocalyptic strains of Anabaptism as the truest strains of radicalism, leaving the pacifist, ecclesiological Anabaptists as footnotes to the continuation of the bourgeois state.19
The anarchists Blissett share the Marxist affinity for the material basis of the Radical Reformation. Influential figures who rejected the sword, such as Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, and Menno Simons, are notably absent in the action of Q. The Hutterians make an appearance, only to have their sectarianism rejected: “Being pure doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from the world, condemning it, in order blindly to obey the law of God; if you want to change the world of men you’ve got to live in it.”20 The protagonist explicitly rejects Melchior Hofmann’s emphasis on pacifism as unhelpful to the radical reformers’ cause: “Trijpmaker continued to preach meekness, witness, passive martyrdom as Hoffman had directed him to. I knew it couldn’t last. ... As far as Hoffmann was concerned, we should have been a herd of meek preachers, skilled and not too noisy, lining up to be butchered one after the other in the name of the Supreme One.”21 Hans Denck says of the protagonist’s opportunist survivability, “You must have a guardian angel, my friend,” to which the latter replies, “These days you’d be better off with a decent sword.”22 Most pointedly, the protagonist rejects any conception of a transcendent God or spiritual reality as part of the Reformation project. “Frankenhausen had taught me not to wait for a host of angels: no God would descend to help the wretched. They would have to help themselves.”23 In keeping with a materialist concentration on physical rebellion and action over word, Q’s protagonist travels only with the rebellious and the militant, not with the nonresistant or the meek, his sword strapped to his side and ready for action against the upper classes.
Blissett also paints the larger picture of the political undercurrents of reformation, both magisterial and radical. The letters of Q to his patron, Archbishop Gianpietro Carafa (later Paul IV), reveal the Roman Catholic Church’s supposed political machinations. The Church attempts to suppress the Reformation solely to maintain its physical, political, and military power. Q schemes behind the scenes to counter the power of Emperor Charles V, the German noble princes rebelling against the church, and particularly the Anabaptists as a symbol of the military power of the lower classes:
The past few weeks have seen this city shaken by the suppression of the so-called Anabaptists. These blasphemers take to their extremes the perfidious doctrines of Luther . . . in this they are worse than Luther—they also refuse to obey the secular authorities and claim that they are the only Christian community to accomplish civic administration. They wish to subvert the world from head to toe.24
Q nurtures Müntzer’s popular ascension to weaken Luther’s power against the church25 but encourages Müntzer to fight the battle of Frankenhausen when he in turn becomes too dangerous.26 Q also sneaks into Münster as the historical betrayer of the city, Heinrich Gresbeck, to feed Bernhard Rothmann’s apocalypticism so that Q can reveal the city’s weaknesses to the invading Catholic army. Q’s Machiavellian intrigues are couched in theological terms, but clearly his interests and those of his master are fundamentally military and political.
The novel also addresses the Radical Reformation’s economic roots. Müntzer’s original appeal to the protagonist results from his preaching against “everyone who claims to want to bring the food of the soul to the people while leaving their bellies empty.”27 Müntzer rejects the Lutheran churchstates because “the purpose of the German rulers is clearly apparent. It is not faith that fills their hearts and guides their actions, but their greed for gain.”28 In the person of Lienhard Jost, the protagonist rebels against the luxury of middle-class theologians “talking and talking, presenting themselves as great thinkers of the Christian faith. ... It was wealth that guaranteed the fame of Strasbourg. It was that fame that brought writers and students flooding to the city.”29 He bluntly characterizes the background of the rebellion of Münster as “lucre, the accursed lucre of the Dutch traders.”30 Part Three depicts a subtle prolonged rebellion against the pre-eminent bankers of Western Europe, the Fuggers, using forged letters of credit in order to destroy the credibility of capitalism and undermine the financial backing of the Catholic Church. “Money is the real symbol of the beast,” says Q’s co-conspirator Ludwig Schaliedecker, and the authors implicitly agree.
However, Part Three points to one important difference between Marxist historiography and the historiography of the Messrs. Blissett. Rather than seeing ideology as a veil for material interests, the authors of Q see it as a powerful weapon in its own right. A letter to Müntzer outlines Frederick’s fear of the printing press at the latter’s disposal, “and that your words might reach the hearths of revolt that are gradually being lit throughout his territory and beyond.”31 The protagonist sees the press as the most powerful weapon in the revolutionaries’ arsenal, “rapid glances and agile fingers composing the Magister’s writings: projectiles fired in all directions by the most powerful of cannons.”32 He himself invents the very notion of fliers—Flugblätter—to distribute to the peasants the revolutionary notions that will drive them to armed rebellion.33 The intent of the publication cabal of “The Benefit of Christ Crucified” is to liberate the people from the oppressive political power of the Catholic Church by the book’s theological support of justification through faith by a Roman Catholic author. Rejecting the Marxists’ modernist notions of the objective basis of history, the metanarrative of dialectical materialism, the anarchist authors of Q see the postmodern value of ideas distributed without regulation as the keystone of rebellion against the political and economic power of the state.34
Marx, Bender, or Q?
The polygenesis stream of Anabaptist historians has generally refuted H. S. Bender’s characterization of the true heritage of the Radical Reformation as “evangelical and constructive Anabaptism.” These historians point to multiple streams of ideologies and causative factors in the early Radical Reformation rather than to Bender’s concentration on Swiss-German Anabaptism.35 Even a firmly committed Marxist like Laube admits that “Marxist historians now recognize that theology and belief did not simply reflect social issues within the conflicts of the Reformation, but had their own relative importance.”36 Paul Peachey, while admitting his use of the “positivist” model of scientific inquiry in his study of Anabaptist history, nonetheless “recognizes that while the positivist model is valid and indispensable within its own limits, it does not eliminate or itself escape the metaphysical problem which in the end confronts every effort to investigate human behavior.”37 Clearly, modernist concentrations on either theology or materialism as the bedrock of historical inquiry have not yielded adequate fruit. Contemporary critical perspectives suggest that a reading of Anabaptist history must concentrate on more than static abstract patterns of ideology.
Blissett’s novel provides an alternate way to understand the essence of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, and by extension to suggest a missionary strategy for the twenty-first century Anabaptist church. The Luther Blissett project, and the Wu Mings after it, accurately taps into our contemporary zeitgeist; ideologies are more effectively communicated by amorphous, dynamic narratives than by linear and static creeds. In their very rejection of separate authorial identities, says reviewer Franco Berardi, “Luther Blissett’s dis-identity is awareness of the language’s becoming, mutation of roles, becoming community, bodies meeting up with one another, desertion and going adrift.”38 Q’s unnamed protagonist distributing fliers to the peasants of sixteenth-century Europe also celebrates the precarious position of language and truth in our contemporary context:
The ground stalked by all these precariously named characters is that of the frenzy and madness produced by an historical change in the infosphere, the invention and spreading of a new information technology, that is the press, the possibility of reproducing texts.39
In other words, Blissett uses the violent birth pangs of the modernist paradigm shift in the Radical Reformation to point out a similar radical shift in the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century Western world. As the Anabaptists used the newly printed word to mobilize the oppressed of their day, so postmodern radicals use the shifting “infosphere” of the Internet, text messaging, and freely distributed intellectual property to undermine the hegemony of the capitalist superpowers with their radio, television, and outdated notions of copyrights.
As mentioned in the opening of this article, many theologians and church leaders are looking at the genesis of Anabaptism to see if its novel approach to the Christian way of life can inform the theological malaise of our postmodern era. Yet in examining past interpretations of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, it seems clear that the Anabaptist story can be molded to fit whichever ideological biases the reader brings to the text. Is there such a thing as “the” Anabaptist history? Is there such a thing as “pure history” at all? This small study suggests that our quest for objective knowledge is more difficult than we would like.
However, acknowledging our cultural biases and the existence of multiple interpretations of history need not deter theologians and historians from attempting to re-read the Anabaptist story with fresh eyes. Theology and church history, in both their best senses, exist as second-order tools that help the Christian church focus its primary activities of worship, mission, and discipleship. Both readers new to Anabaptism and those who consider themselves the Anabaptists’ spiritual descendants can combine the interpretations of the past to appropriate the Anabaptist story in ways that will encourage the church’s faithfulness today. The dramatic narrative of Anabaptism can combine Bender’s emphasis on pacifism and discipleship, the Marxists’ acknowledgment of economic and political realities, and the Blissett’s use of the power of information. The value of narrative, as illustrated by Q, lies in its multiplicity of interpretation and its ability to speak anew to every generation.
3 The Luther Blissetts now refer to themselves as the “Wu Mings,” Chinese for “no name.” See “Wu Ming: A Summary Account” at http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/ biography.html, accessed 11 June 2004.
11 Tom Finger pays some attention to the neglected branch of Italian and Polish Anabaptism in A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004). See pp. 40-45 for an introduction by a more traditional historian.
12 Friedrich Engels, The German Revolutions: “The Peasant War in Germany” and “Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). Quoted in C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1995), 405-06.
13 Paul Peachey, “Marxist Historiography of the Radical Reformation: Causality or Covariation?” in Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, Vol. I., ed. Carl S. Meyer (St. Louis, MO: Foundation for Reformation Research, 1970), 11.
19 For a more recent materialist slant on early Anabaptism, see Adolf Holl’s brilliantly readable but similarly short-sighted account of Müntzer in The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit, trans. John Cullen (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1997), 221-39.
38 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Bifo on Luther Blissett’s ‘Q’”: www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/ netttime-1-9907-msg00102.html, 27 July 1999. Accessed 11 June 2004.
At the time of writing, Jeremy Garber was entering the final year of an MDiv program at AMBS in Elkhart, IN.