Laughing in church

Writer Rhoda Janzen finds faith funny.

Lucy Nieboer

What: Rhoda Janzen book discussion and signing

When: 4 p.m., Wednesday

Where: University of Minnesota Bookstore, Coffman Union

Cost: Free

Age: All ages

 

 Rhoda Janzen, a poet and professor at Michigan’s Hope College, wrote the best-selling comic memoir “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” at one of the lowest points in her life. Looking through a lens of laughter helped her cope after her husband left her for another man, and she suffered major injuries from a car accident.

“I’m not one of those people who thinks humor should be limited to late-night Letterman and popcorn and stand-up,” Janzen said. “Humor actually has a more important use and that’s to help us conceptualize a way to get through difficult life experiences.”

“Little Black Dress,” Janzen’s first memoir, was the story of her return to the Mennonite community, her accident and her rough divorce. Her latest book, “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems,” deals with Janzen’s battle with cancer and new roles as a step-parent and wife.

As soon as readers started snatching up copies of her first memoir faster than hymnals on Sunday church, Janzen knew she wanted to write a sequel. It wasn’t until her cancer diagnosis that she realized her toughest life experiences fueled her best material as a humorist.

Now in full remission, Janzen made a speedy recovery with the help of her new spouse, who was introduced in “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.”

Readers will remember the character Mitch (Janzen changed the names of most of her characters to give them anonymity) as the deeply religious rocker who took our protagonist out on one very bad first date and was presumably never heard from again. They may not realize that the brash church-goer is now Janzen’s husband.

Although his in-your-face sense of faith (he wore a nail necklace on their date to represent the nails of the cross) clashed with her religious skepticism, there was a real between-the-pages spark that brought the two back together after the release of the first book.

“On paper we don’t look like we’d have much in common, but we make a great couple in real life,” she said.

After being raised in the solemn Mennonite tradition and then abandoning organized religion altogether for most of her adult life, regularly attending her husband’s Pentecostal church has been a major change for Janzen.

Janzen explained that as her relationship with “Mitch” deepened, she willingly participated in his church community and kept quiet about her doubts to see what she could learn.

 Adjusting to a new set of religious values definitely hasn’t been easy.

“They’re shakin’ booty at the altar. Mennonites would never do that,” she said.

People of many different faiths have embraced Janzen’s books. After writing “Little Black Dress,” she received countless letters from fans — religious and not — thanking her for the humorous accounts of hardships.

“I think that there’s something at the core of all us, whether or not we believe in God,” Janzen said. “Every single person has to sustain meaning and people look for it and find it in different places.”