The book begins with a discussion between Roth and a Japanese man he met on an airplane. The man was working for a Japanese agency and wanted to better understand how Americans think. “‘Who was this person, Jesus? He asked. . . . ’ Can you explain to me, ‘he finally said, ‘just what it is that Christians believe?’” (9).
Roth admits that he was caught off guard and has attempted in this book to respond at some length to the question. After a brief look at the variegated history of Christian thought, much of which he finds unsatisfactory, he proposes “to give a simple account of the Christian convictions that have sustained the Mennonite church for nearly 500 years” (13). He writes as a historian and, it would seem, a lay rather than professional theologian with the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as a background for his work.
The first two chapters cover subjects which Mennonites have in common with other Christians and then he follows in chapters 3 to 11 with four distinctive Mennonite understandings: biblical interpretation, baptism, discipleship, and a visible church. With each of the four he describes the Mennonite position, acknowledges problems the position entails and aspects on which Mennonites do not agree with each other and then summarizes at the end.
At the end of chapter 11, Roth acknowledges that Mennonites do not always “have it together” but he concludes, “At their best, Mennonite congregations are settings for Christian practice, that bear consistent and joyful witness to God’s love for the world and God’s desire that all people live in respect and trust for each other” (143).
The above summary of the book is copied from an article written by Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania in the Dream Seeker Magazine, Summer 2010, Vol. 10, Number 3. LINK TO HERTZLER'S ARTICLE
I decided I can't do any better, so I've simply placed it here as my summary review. The following are some excepts from the book about various subjects that caught my attention. They should provide an idea of the book's contents.
A very brief summary of historical Anabaptists: "Inspired by the Reformation, the Anabaptists broke with the reformers by practicing believers baptism rather than infant baptism. Most Anabaptist groups also advocated a fairly literal application of Jesus' teachings that included a rejection of lethal violence and oath swearing, and promoted the practice of mutual aid along with a view of the church as a voluntary gathering of believers whose way of life would inevitably be in conflict with the unredeemed world."
Regarding the Mennonite attitude toward creeds:"Mennonites ... have not generally been inclined to express their faith in such carefully worked theological statements or to integrate the creeds formally into their regular worship time."
(25)"For Mennonites, doctrinal statements are a necessary but insufficient way of describing the essence of the Christian faith."
Regarding the hot button issue of homosexuality:"Currently, some members of the Mennonite church are engaged in a debate regarding biblical understanding of homosexuality. After a lengthy period of study, the denomination as a whole issued a statement that did not recommend changes in the traditional understanding regarding homosexuality and marriage. Yet the church did commit itself to continued conversation and challenged congregations to regard homosexually oriented members in their midst as Christians in good standing, as long as they remained celibate. "
(56) [Some churches, mostly urban, are openly affirming and do not concern themselves with the details of this statement.]
Regarding Martin Luther's opinion of Anabaptists (Mennonites are descendants of the 16th Century Anabaptist movement):" 'The Anabaptists,' wrote Martin Luther, are 'false prophets' who sneak about the country like 'wolves in sheep's clothing, deceiving the innocent.' " (60)
Mennonite attitudes toward baptism:"... salvation in a Mennonite context is understood not so much as a ritual act (the rite of baptism itself) or as a single moment of decision (the precise date of giving one's heart to Jesus). Rather, Mennonites understand salvation more as a lifelong journey of faith characterized by several crucial ingredients: a spiritual relationship with God, a commitment to full participation in the community of faith, and a willingness to follow Jesus' teachings in daily life. Baptism symbolizes all of these things. Like a marriage vow, it is a serious--albeit joyful--public statement of commitment made in full awareness of the responsibilities and consequences implied in that vow. Thus, Mennonites believe that baptism should be reserved for those who are old enough to understand the nature of this decision and are ready to commit themselves fully to this journey of faith."(61)
Mennonite attitude toward the atonement: "... many Christians focus so much on the suffering and death of Christ that they virtually ignore the three years of Christ's work of teaching and healing. This is the reason why some Mennonites have expressed reservations about the Apostles' Creed: it moves directly from Christ's birth to his death, without any mention of his life." (72)
Mennonite family:"Perhaps the most distinctive Mennonite contribution of the topic of marriage and singleness is the conviction that the church--not our biological relatives--is our first family."
Living Simply:"Not long ago, a caller to the well-known NPR radio talk show Click and Clack identified herself as a Mennonite with a moral and spiritual problem related to her car. The car she was currently driving, she explained, was a beat-up "clunker" that, unfortunately, was still in fine running condition. Such a car was consistent with a Mennonite ethic of simplicity, frugality, and good stewardship. Her spiritual problem, she confided, same in the fact that she had fallen in love with the thought of owning a brand new Toyota Prius--a car that she really liked. The Prius promised great gas mileage and was ecologically friendly. But it was also quite expensive, and her old car showed no signs of imminent problems. Was she justified in buying a new car?
In the end, the Tappet brothers, amid lots of good-natured laughter, advised her to resolve the problem by changing denominations."
Mennonites regarding the Eucharist:"Mennonites ... generally speak of communion in more symbolic language. ... communion points to a profound reality of Christ's living presence in ourselves and in the gathered body of believers. But partaking of the bread and juice themselves is not a mysterious event focused on the careful preparation of the elements or the crucial words of consecration offered by an ordained clergy."
Mennonites and the state:"Yet another characteristic practice of the Mennonite church is the conviction that the Christian's allegiance to the church comes before the demands of obedience to the state."
Mennonites relationship with other churches:"... Mennonites did not join the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, or the World Council of Churches. In part, this was because the Mennonite commitment to the gospel of peace made it difficult to enter into close communion with other denominations that defended the just-war tradition. But it also was out of a concern that Mennonites would simply be swallowed up by the sheer numbers of the larger groups."
The human condition:... Christian faith offers a rich and compelling account of the human condition. With unflinching insight it describes our daily experience of living in that precarious space between hope and despair, between life and death, between the world as we know it should be and the world as we often experience it. Christian faith affirms that the yearnings deep within us for intimacy, beauty, harmony, and love are true voices--not merely cultural creations or the accident of our psychological makeup. Our desire for all life filled with meaning and purpose is an echo of something genuine, no less real than the evidence all around us that the world is fragmented and broken."