Monday, October 8, 2012

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat

By Rhoda Janzen
New York, Grand Central, 2012
253 pages     Spiritual Memoir

Memoirist Rhoda Janzen says, “What a relief it is that we don’t have to be good at religion in order to seek God! We don’t even have to have a strong sense of belief. All we need is the desire to believe.”

In her second memoir, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat, Janzen displays her desire to believe with marvelously funny stories about a topic that shouldn’t be funny, i.e. seriously dangerous breast cancer. Janzen is an English professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, about an hour from where I live. PhD educated at UCLA, she is an academic who abandoned her Mennonite faith as a teenager. Her first spiritual memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress tells the story of the horrendous time in her life when she returned to her Mennonite roots to heal following a divorce and a lot of broken bones from a car accident. The desire to believe came back to her then and continued after she returned to her academic life.

By this time, she is open to returning to religion, or in her words, with the desire for faith. She meets a “manly man,” who is a born-again Pentecostal, and starts attending church with him. Although they are as opposite as can be (his son says that they might be from different planets), they find they are perfect for each other. 

As fate would have it, shortly after she meets “Mitch,” she receives a diagnosis of breast cancer—a massive tumor in her breast. Fearing the worst, she offers to let Mitch off the hook, but he tells her that he is the right man for this challenge, and so they face the surgery, the radiation, and the chemo together. The chapter that details how she finds out about the cancer raises goose bumps, both spiritually and factually. Yet, the way in which she handles the diagnosis is nothing short of amazing. In her inner being, she seems to know that everything will be all right, and so, as the book evolves, Rhoda marries Mitch, the cancer goes into a complete remission, and Rhoda becomes a part of Mitch's faith community.

I could relate to Janzen’s cancer journey on many levels. I will never forget when my husband, who had been fighting lymphatic cancer for 6 years, came home from a doctor’s visit. He had not told me he was going, so when he came home I was fixing dinner in the kitchen. I was mixing meat loaf as I recall, and he walked in, gave me a peck on the cheek, and told me he had been to the doctor. “The doctor says it’s really bad this time,” he said, and I kept making the meatloaf. Rhoda received her diagnosis over the telephone while she was counseling a student. She finished the session with the student and then went off to teach a two hour class. Sometimes doing common things helps soften the blow.

Janzen really doesn’t linger on the cancer. Most of Does This Church… is a love story and a narrative concerning the nature of faith and its reappearance in her life. It is the story of affirming the present, seizing upon the opportunities that life offers, and restoring the rightful place of faith in God in life. Although her spiritual journey is different from mine, I grew as I read about her journey and about the gracious God that guides her. 

Besides all that, like Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. When life becomes absurd, you can either bemoan the hand you have been dealt, or you can laugh at the irony of it all. Personally, I love Janzen’s humor, her outlook on life, and the affirming way her husband, friends and family love and support her quirky take on it all. 

As the review on the BookReporter says: “This is the story of what it means to find joy in love, comfort in prayer, and--incredibly, surprisingly--faith in a big-hearted God.”

An interesting interview in the Austinist:
Rhoda Janzen’s book appeared on bookshelves on October 2. She is making several appearances  in Western Michigan in the next couple of weeks. I hope to see her when she is in Holland at the end of the month.

1 comment:

MissKimberlyStardust said...

I've been meaning to try the authors previous book for ages it seems and I had no idea that she had written a new book so thank you for such a great review!
-Kimberly @ Turning the Pages