Four years ago this October, gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster, Penn., took hostages, and eventually shot ten girls ages 6 to 13, killing five of them before committing suicide in the schoolhouse. The forgiveness offered by the community was widely admired, and curiosity about the Amish way of life skyrocketed. Evangelical Christians have a heightened interest in Amish spirituality, hoping its insights can deepen their own faith.
The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World (Jossey-Bass) is the second collaborative effort from Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, authors of the 2007 book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Redeemed a Tragedy. Their follow-up provides a detailed exploration of Amish spirituality, which places a high premium on discipline, patience, and simplicity. Randall L. Frame, director of marketing and communications at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, spoke with Weaver-Zercher, professor of American religious history at Messiah College, about the strengths and weaknesses of the Amish way of life.
What is your own history and relationship with the Amish?
Like my coauthors, I was raised in an Anabaptist-related church in a region with a large Amish population. The Amish were different from us, obviously, but because they were so much a part of my cultural landscape, I didn't find them particularly strange or exotic. It was only after I moved to areas of the country where there were no Amish people that I came to appreciate both the uniqueness of the Amish way and the hold that Amish people have on outsiders' imaginations. This fascination remains at the heart of my interest in studying Amish life: the way in which outsiders are drawn to the Amish, talk about them, and seek to appropriate them.
Do the Amish consider themselves evangelicals?
The Amish hold some things in common with American evangelicals: the authority of the Bible, the importance of living lives transformed by Jesus Christ, and belief in the eternal consequences of one's decisions on earth.
But the Amish do not talk about themselves as evangelicals, nor do they share certain evangelical convictions. For example, they are not interested in doing verbal evangelism; rather, they see their community life as their witness. The Amish are uncomfortable with revivalism and other fast-paced approaches to conversion. And they do not seek to bend the larger society to their wishes.
Also, submitting themselves in numerous ways to their community of faith, they are less individualistic in their approach to faith than are American evangelicals.
Your book points out that an Amish education is limited to eighth grade, so there are no Amish Bible scholars, at least none with degrees from theological schools. Is it a fair criticism to suggest that Amish interpretations of certain Bible principles and passages are simplistic?
I would not call Amish approaches to the Bible simplistic. Rather, they are both traditional and pre-modern. That is, their biblical interpretations are firmly rooted in their community's history of interpretation, and their conclusions have not been affected by modern and postmodern interpretive methods. My colleague Steve Nolt says that the Amish sometimes take a "wisdom" approach to reading the Bible, finding particular applications through metaphorical readings of the text. One example is [the passage], "God separated light from darkness," which the Amish interpret to mean that the church and world should be separate. In general, they demonstrate a pre-modern, non-systematic, non-literal interpretive approach that is more akin to medieval allegory.
If you were given the authority by Amish leaders to change one thing about their beliefs or practices, what would it be?
Some Amish communities have been slow to respond to domestic abuse in their midst. This tendency is sometimes rooted in naïve views of human nature: the view that a confessed sin is now in the past, and that life moves on without further consequences. This tendency to deal too lightly with domestic abuse is not unique to Amish churches—unfortunately, it's true of many churches—but Amish women and children are typically less able than others to avail themselves of resources in the larger society, resources that could assist them in their situation.
In addressing the relevance of the Amish way for "the rest of us," you and your coauthors note that you are "a bit uneasy about attempting to patch up modern life by sewing on a few Amish values." That said, what can all followers of Christ learn from the Amish way?
We live in an instant society, and many Christians approach their spiritual lives that way. Many Christians look for quick, easy, painless ways to grow spiritually, and they often end up being disappointed with the growth they see. The Amish point us to the importance of patient practice. They remind us that engaging in everyday—sometimes tedious—practices over long periods of time is the most trustworthy way to foster spiritual depth.
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Christianity Today has covered the Amish numerous times in the past. Christian History spent an issue covering the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Brethren, Books & Culture did a piece on Old Order Amish and Mennonite schools.
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