The other night a reached a new high or low. I read an academic book before bed. It was an anthropology book published in the last 20 years, though, so it included a lot of first-person accounts that made it a bit less dry than other scholarly books. It is called Desert Patriarchy by Janet Bennion and was recommended to me as a book about Mennonites in Mexico that had the added bonus of being written by a non Mennonite. It is also about Mormons in Mexico.
Some have called me (as a Mennonite) a Mormon. I have to assume this is because in people’s minds, Mennonites and Mormons are the two unusual religions that start with the letter M. Both have mainstream varieties that you would never be able to pick out of a lineup (unless you belonged to one of the groups). Then there are the kinds that inspire anthropologists and TV series. These would be the Mormons who practice polygamy, and the Mennonites who dress in unusual ways.
Desert Patriarchy studies both religions in their more extreme forms in Northern Mexico under the paradigm of desert patriarchy – two Mormon colonies, one more connected to mainstream Mormons than the other – and one extremely conservative Mennonite colony. I appreciated her observations about both communities, but noticed several factual errors in her comments about Mennonites. She claims both groups are Anglo, which I dispute, and that Mennonite German is a Swiss-German language, which it is not. I am also not sure that the desert is what made either group so extreme, which is central to her argument, so this makes me doubt her overall stance. She makes many historical errors – had she examined the origins of Mormonism within the Great Awakening in the early 19th century in the Eastern part of the US, and the origins of Mennonitism within the Protestant Reformation, she would have refuted her own thesis. I can only hope that since Bennion is a (former) member of more fundamentalist Mormon community in Utah, the remainder of her observations about that community would be grounded in historical fact. These errors of course point to the larger anthropological blindness towards history.
The most disappointing part of this book is that is suggested that there are few, if any, relationships between Mennonites and Mormons. It also didn’t exploit the relationships both communities have between faith and work or faith and large families. That would have been interesting. My next project can no longer be about transnational Mennonite bodies in popular culture, but rather be about the cheese, apples and peaches that connect Mennonites and Mormons. It will involve a lot of taste testing to ascertain how Mormons taught Mennonites how to make the cheese Mennonites are famous for in Mexico. I will also spend quality time learning how Mormon expertise in apple and peach orchards has influenced some Mennonite farmers. If I were an anthropologist, this would be enough to make a book. Since I am not, I will talk about how popular culture sheds light on relationships between extreme religious communities in northern Mexico.