By Jonathan Dyck

Conundrum Press, pp. 224, $20

Review by Cole Hartin


Comics have long been the playground for imaginative exploration in science fiction and superhero escapades. And funny papers remain a welcome respite from the tumult of world news. But comics are also becoming the domain for exploring religious questions. Craig Thompson’s Blankets remains an early foray into evangelical subculture, and Alison Bechdel’s most recent graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, is a masterful (and delightful) look at the spirituality of exercise. Both books are deeply personal and recount the experiences of their authors, but fail to convey what religious experience might look like in a broader community. Jonathan Dyck’s Shelterbelts does just this. Dyck weaves together a tapestry of Christian life in the fictional Canadian Mennonite town of Hespeler, and gives texture and nuance to characters we like, people we all know.

Shelterbelts is less of a narrative than a meditation. It contains narrative, sure, like the story of Gerhard Suderman, pastor of Jubilee Mennonite Church, who is trying to shepherd his small congregation to be more open and inclusive, especially given that his daughter Jess is queer and coming to terms with what that means in a small town. Or there is the story of Mike Wall, the pastor of Park Valley, a megachurch with a mission to expand its campus to include a skatepark and coffee shop.

But the vignettes that make up Shelterbelts are not so much leading to a point as showing that life in community is ambivalent, that the characters who populate Hespeler are like the people who populate our lives: They are flawed, they are charming, and none are as good or bad as we might like them to be. The people in our communities, like us, have parts of their stories that are beautiful and parts they would rather forget. In the words of an older Mennonite character featured in the book, Henry Neufeld, “All of our family stories have parts that we wish were different. But that’s no reason to run away from your heritage” (pp. 39-40). Dyck succeeds in presenting these family stories without running from them (and without using them as fodder).

While the themes that Dyck tackles have a quintessentially Canadian flavor, they will resonate with American readers familiar with rural life, especially in places like the Midwest. Religious themes are most prominent, but Dyck gives interesting portrayals of how pacifism is expressed in a country with a military, how old homesteads are being covered in concrete, and how to honor one’s heritage while recognizing one’s ancestors took lands that did not belong to them.

I think priests and pastors would be well-served by reading Shelterbelts, if only because Dyck portrays characters fairly and sympathetically. In a world of polarization and division, the first step to loving our enemies might be to see them in their complexity. This book is an opportunity to attend to the ways that those who are most unlike us are human. If Dyck is critical of religious life, it’s not from a far distance, but as one who knows intimately how Christian life feels. And to top it off, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s Resident Aliens even makes an appearance (p. 31).

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is an associate rector of Christ Church in Tyler, TX where he lives with his wife and four sons.

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