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Martyr stories have powerful hold on faith and life today


Tongue Screws and Testimonies

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Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Publishing Network joint release
November 25, 2010
-John Longhurst

WATERLOO, Ont. and SCOTTDALE, Pa. — What does it mean to be part of a faith tradition that remembers brutal torture and gruesome executions?

That’s the question behind the new Herald Press book Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror.
“What are the benefits and blemishes for communities who remember the violence committed against them?” asks the book’s editor Kirsten Eve Beachy, who teaches creative writing and journalism at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“What parts of the martyr tradition do we tend to remember—and which do we forget? Most crucially, how does this play out in our own lives today?”

Answers to these questions can be found in the book—a reflective, heartbreaking, humorous and sometimes irreverent anthology of poems, creative essays and fiction by new and noted authors such as Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, Jeff Gundy, Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf, John Ruth, Rhoda Janzen, and others.

“The purpose of the book is to show how stories from the Martyrs Mirror intersect with the lives of these writers and their characters, and how these stories continue to have a powerful hold on faith, life, and imagination today,” says Beachy.

Tongue Screws and Testimonies is based on the Martyrs Mirror, the classic 16th century compendium of stories, letters, and court records that chronicles the deaths of over 4,000 Christian martyrs.

Published in 1659 by Thieleman J. van Braght to strengthen the faith of the early Anabaptists, the book is known for the detailed and gory etchings of torture and death by Jan Luyken. For generations it was a fixture in Mennonite and Amish homes, often given to newlyweds as a wedding present.

“As I started to gather poems and stories for the anthology, I was amazed to discover how many writers with Mennonite connections had written about the Martyrs Mirror,” says Beachy. “The book held an important place in their imaginations from their childhoods, and the martyr stories and Luyken’s images left deep impressions.”

It also left a powerful impression on Beachy herself.

Martyrs Mirror pierced me with a two-pronged fork,” she says. “I’m a Mennonite by both birth and by conviction, and these stories had shaped both my genetic inheritance and my adopted theology. Like the other writers who engaged this book, I needed to acknowledge its place in my life.”

As for the collection itself, the writers “speak from individual, not institutional, experiences,” she says. “They are open to baring inherited wounds and highlighting the differences between our worldviews and those of the martyrs. They imagine fully the sensory experiences of the martyrs and try to guess at their inner thoughts.”

At the same time, she says, the writers “hold in tension the past and the present, the martyrs’ lives and their own lives, finding outlets for that tension in poetry, eulogy, story, and humour. The range of responses in the book provides an honest survey of our attitudes toward the martyrs.”

For Beachy, Tongue Screws and Testimonies is for “the young woman who remembers hiding behind the couch at her grandparents’ house to look at Jan Luyken’s engravings, and who still gets thinking about it,” says Beachy. “It’s for the man who, drawn into a Mennonite congregation in middle age, is trying to get a grasp of Anabaptist history.”

It’s also for anyone who, like her, wonders what it means to live in the shadow of these spiritual ancestors, “the ones in tongue screws, the ones hung in cages, the ones stretched on the rack because they couldn’t stop talking about their faith. Should I be ashamed of their fanaticism, or should I be ashamed of my own small faith?

“In the shadow of their fiery acts of renunciation, my ambitions for good seem small and dim, my beliefs wavering and insufficient. And yet I nourish them.”

Tongue Screws and Testimonies is available from Herald Press at or by calling 1-800-631-6535 (Canada) or 1-800-245-7894 (U.S.). Price: $19.99 CAD/$16.99 USD
Herald Press is the book imprint of Mennonite Publishing Network, the publishing ministry of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.