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Book Review: "The Amish Way," by Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher

(Author’s Note: My review of The Amish Way first appeared, virtually unchanged, in this week’s edition of the Englewood Review of Books. It is reposted here with permission. This week’s ERB also includes reviews of The Etiquette of Freedom, The Amish Project: A Play, The Impact of Attachment, and two recent guidebooks on guidance and discernment, as well as an excerpt from Scot McKnight’s One.Life and a poem from John Clare. Also new at the ERB: information on Englewood’s upcoming conference on immigration and the church. Heads up: This won’t be the last book about the Amish you’ll read about here on The Good Books Blog. Now that I’ve finished The Amish Way, I am going to start reading Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive, by Erik Wesner, author of the Amish America blog.)

The Amish are a peculiar people who – considering that they comprise less than one-tenth of one percent of the American population – occupy a peculiarly large place in the national imagination. They are by turns ridiculed and revered in popular culture, and more than ten million tourists visit Lancaster County, Pennsylvania each year to goggle at the country’s oldest Old Order Amish community. (“Shop until you drop,” encourages the county travel bureau without a hint of irony.)

The responses of mainstream Christians to the Amish can be nearly as dichotomous as the culture at large. Amish-themed novels dominate the Christian fiction bestsellers list, with devoted readers snapping up copies of “bonnet books” by the millions. Other Christians handle the Amish the way they might handle the idiosyncratic relative who lives on the edge of town but never shows up for Thanksgiving: when we think about them at all it is to gently mock them or decide if we have to claim them as family. I confess I used to fall into this camp. Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise” came out 15 years ago and I can still recite the lyrics from memory.

If a lot of American Christians don’t know quite what to make of our spiritual kin, there is a nagging sense that something must be made of them. The Amish are “Christians with a difference,” write Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher in The Amish Way. But what if that difference makes all the difference? The way an Amish man or woman’s faith charges every aspect of life, from their plain dress, steadfast living, and tight-knit communities, to their relationship with the land and their famously rigid stance against certain modern technology – these are a witness to us. And The Amish Way is probably the best place to start unpacking what that witness might mean.

The Amish Way discusses a range of topics, including church life, children and family, possessions, nature, evil, and grief. The broad scope of the book reflects the deceptively complex spiritual lives of a people renowned for their simplicity. But holding the book together, as they uphold the Amish way of life, are the “twin pillars” of submission and community.

The Amish use a Pennsylvania German word uffgevva, or “giving up,” to describe the “yielding [of] one’s personal will to God’s will, submitting to the authority of others within the community (parents, teachers, church leaders), and submitting to the wisdom of the group.” When an Amish minister begins his sermon with a confession of his unworthiness and ends it by inviting other ordained men to correct him, that is uffgevva. Children eating after the adults at the church supper is training in uffgevva. Even the Amish practice of wearing homemade, mostly unadorned clothes is uffgevva. Says one Amish deacon: “Most people in the world wear their clothes to enhance their reputation or show off their bodies or to demonstrate their wealth.” But this “is an expression of self-will…[trying] to raise himself above his fellows. Our dress should show self-surrender.”

The authors of The Amish Way clarify that the Amish don’t believe that the collective regulations of the church (called the Ordnung, or “order”) are “an exact replication of divine will.” But violations of the Ordnung are still considered sinful because “they signal self-centeredness and rebelliousness – in short a disobedient heart.”

Aware that the Amish Way is difficult for others to understand, Amos, a minister, explained, “I know it doesn’t make sense to outsiders; they think, ‘What’s the matter with a car?’ Well, nothing. It’s the giving up part. That’s what’s important.”

The Amish word for their church community is Gmay.  Members of the Gmay, who usually live within a square mile or two of each other, meet in each other’s houses for biweekly Sunday services. Leaders (always male) are chosen by casting lots. It is considered too prideful to nominate yourself for leadership, and if your lot is selected there is no way to back out – God has chosen you. About 90 percent of teens eventually choose baptism, and it is the most important decision they will ever make, because baptism commits a young person to the Amish Way for life. An Ohio deacon explained, “Baptism is an indication of our willingness to die to self…so that one can fit into the brotherhood as a useful member.”

Our culture – even our American Christian culture – prizes nonconformity. We shop for churches and value self-expression above all else. Our pantheon of heroes is stocked with mavericks and rugged individualists. The level of surrender and commitment an Amish person makes at baptism is often hard for the rest of us to understand. But the high costs come with benefits: security, harmony, fidelity, and fraternity. The Amish Way is a thousand acts of resistance, but it is more than just saying no to the world. It is saying yes to God, church, and neighbor. One of the reasons the Amish don’t use tractors on their farms is that they refuse to sacrifice fellowship to speed. An Amish house doesn’t have a dishwasher because, in the words of one Amish writer, “[How] can I live in luxury when my neighbor lacks the necessities?” (Also, forgoing the dishwasher gives the children something to do.)

Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher make a compelling and highly readable case that Amish spirituality is a well that can nourish the faith even of non-Amish Christians. The authors are not themselves Amish; they are academics at colleges with Anabaptist roots in Pennsylvania and Indiana, and all of them have written extensively about the Amish. Their previous bestselling book, Amish Grace, told the story of the tragedy in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in which a gunman burst into an Amish schoolhouse and killed or wounded ten children, as well as the extraordinary acts of forgiveness that followed. Shortly after the shooting, the authors asked an Amish carpenter to explain Amish forgiveness. He was puzzled by their question. “It’s just standard Christian forgiveness, isn’t it?”

Is it?  His question gives us pause for reflection.

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