For a book about breast cancer, religious doubt and a middle-aged romance with a man so unlike her that his son says they seem like they're from "different planets," Rhoda Janzen's Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? is amazingly light-hearted.
Janzen displayed remarkable cheer about dealing with earlier life-changing events in her bestselling first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: Her 15-year marriage ended when her husband left her for a man, then she suffered serious injuries in a car crash with a drunk driver. That first book detailed her break from her career as a college English professor to return to her family home to convalesce from both disasters — and her rediscovery of the value of the Mennonite religion and community she had left behind as a teen.
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? picks up not long afterward, as her relationship with one of her more unlikely postdivorce suitors blossoms into love. Mitch is a Christian rocker who wears a Jesus-nail necklace, a big bald man who bears a resemblance to wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
Formerly a drug dealer and alcoholic with a violent streak, Mitch has found God and gotten straight. He's even cleaned up his vocabulary, as Janzen notes: "So far Mitch's spiciest utterance had been, 'Well, I'll be double-dipped.' Imagine this in a light southern accent, coming from a huge goateed rocker who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. When a man has a gun in his pants, you don't expect him to be double-dipped."
Janzen is an academic with a doctorate from UCLA — a poet, for heaven's sake — and a religious skeptic, but the two of them fall madly in love despite their differences. Although he doesn't push her, she feels she ought to give his Pentecostal church a try — and discovers a different world. In church, she writes, "It's hard to override the Mennonite impulse to behave as if I were at a job interview. 'How do you do, God? I am prompt, reliable, and computer literate.' " At Mitch's church, the congregation, led by a sparkler-bearing choir, sings, dances, shouts, claps, sprints around the sanctuary and speaks in tongues.
They also conduct healings, during which the church elders divine what ailments members might be suffering from and call them up to be healed. During Janzen's first experience with this, one elder mentions someone suffering from "lady problems." She can't imagine it's her — until a mammogram a few days later leads to a biopsy that reveals she has a 3-inch malignant tumor in her breast.
She and Mitch have only been dating four months, but when she offers him a chance to leave, he says, "I'm the right man for this. . . . Ain't nobody gonna bail."
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? details with humor and sweetness their engagement and their shouldering of several burdens that could each sink lesser relationships. Besides coping with her cancer surgeries and chemo, they team up to raise his teenage son, care for his cantankerous father and remodel a house she describes thusly: "The overall effect from the curb was one of dark paranoia, as when a family of couch potatoes makes a pact never to leave the large-screen TV in the basement."
Janzen writes with lightness and insight about her rediscovery of religious faith. She is not so much proselytizing for her particular religion as she is pointing toward the value of examining one's own beliefs, whatever they might be, and finding a way to live with them in joy.
And if, along the way, you discover that a man who uses a bow and arrow to dispatch a hungry raccoon that comes in through the kitchen cat door can also be capable of the greatest tenderness and devotion, so much the better.
Janzen even learns to forgive such things as comma splices. "At eighteen I thought it was much more important to be right than loving. Go figure. Now, at forty-eight, I think it is much more important to be loving than right."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.