The land of the free, it turns out, has been rough on people seeking freedom, including evangelicals. Torn between competing visions of freedom, visions we evangelicals helped cast long ago, we wander this way and that, now stumbling, now running, heedless and hesitant, trying like good Americans, like good Christians, just to be free at last. Free indeed.
Not that we usually see ourselves so clearly. But our quandary comes out, sometimes in strange ways—and none stranger than the recent rise of Amish fiction, where earnest romance-writing draws readers into worlds at once familiar and alien. Stories of girls sweating Julys away in layers of dark fabric, boys fumbling for words behind trotting horses, have entranced us by the tens of thousands. One leader of the scribbling pack, Beverly Lewis, has become a New York Times best-selling author with titles like The Englisher and The Brethren. While some evangelicals thrill to visions of a planet Left Behind, others are looking wistfully behind, to a world that's refused to simply go along with it all, the mad dash to freedom be damned.
I used to live among the Amish. I can relate. I was in graduate school then, and my wife and I were living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the parents of two small boys. A few times a week, I drove down aged roads to a university as distant from all the Amish embodied as one could fathom. At least once a week, usually while pushing a stroller or taking a run alongside Amish farms, I was tempted to give up and join in. I mentioned this once to a neighbor, the daughter of an "English" (as the Amish refer to the non-Amish) family that belonged to our large, suburban Presbyterian church. She immediately nodded her head in agreement.
In those days I would drive by a house and see five or six wheelchairs in a circle on the lawn of the family caring for the handicapped of the neighborhood. And I'd look at our own jam-packed, lonely, high-tech life, and sigh. Make no mistake, the allure is real, and it's rooted in a sound intuition: that freedom means order, an order beyond the harum-scarum pace of the freeway, beyond the noise of our little digital jukeboxes.
But the writers of Amish fiction are not simply wistful. They are also critical—severely so, at times. There's a reckoning taking place in their stories, by way of a familiar conundrum the writers see writ large among the Amish. It might be summed up by the following question: When does law cease to be freedom's friend and become its enemy?
It's a question Americans, and American evangelicals in particular, have never quite made up their minds about. Is the Land of the Free really kind to freedom? Or does it tend to thwart it?
A century ago, as this new, liberal rendition of Western civilization was being erected, the astute German social philosopher Max Weber famously called it an "iron cage," despite its evident, emerging liberties. The Amish said "No thanks," ducking out as the cage went up. A century later, evangelicals, among others, wander back, peering through the bars, trying to figure out who's on the outside and who's on the inside. If these books are any indication, it's no easy task.
Amish Rigidity, American Anarchy
To Cindy Woodsmall, the matter is clear: the Amish embody not freedom but bondage—stony orthodoxy, cold hearts. In the end, their elaborate guarding of the Christian faith reduces it, as her narrator in When the Heart Cries puts it, to "adherence to rules."
Woodsmall wastes no time with pleasantries. No sooner does her Amish protagonist, 17-year-old Hannah Lapp, accept a marriage proposal from a Mennonite boy she's secretly seeing than she ends up being raped by an Englisher driving down her lane. It makes for a rough first chapter. As the story unfolds, it's clear that for Woodsmall, what Hannah needs is what her whole community needs: to embrace a freer faith, one more personal, spiritual, biblical. In short, they need to become evangelicals.
Hannah's fiancé, trying to understand this trapped community, has already been given eyes to see; Hannah "fell into guilt far too effortlessly" thanks to her formation within a world of "rigid repression." But through her ordeal, Hannah discovers something precious and wonderful, revealed in a prayer her brother, amid his own spiritual awakening, cries out: "There's a part of You that talks to people sometimes. That tells us something that isn't passed down by the church leaders … or Daed [Dad]."
Lewis tries the Amish on the same charges in her Heritage of Lancaster County series, centered on identity crises of varying levels. When Katherine discovers that she was not born in the Amish community but adopted into it at a young age, her spirit soars—at times. But at no time higher than when she, having left the community, visits a relative's less constrained, more modern Mennonite church. As the congregation rises to sing, Lewis writes, "All heaven came down, pouring right in through the lovely, bright windows. A foretaste of glory filled the place." Free at last.
The part Mennonites play in these two stories is instructive. Placed at the nexus between Amish rigidity and American anarchy, they illumine the underlying effect the Amish have on the evangelical imagination, whatever overt antagonism these writers feel toward what they believe is a misguided, even counterfeit Christianity. Despite the Amish's wrongheaded radicalism, Lewis and friends know, the Amish are doing something right.
Not all the writers see the Amish in such a harsh light. Wanda Brunstetter, author of the Brides of Lancaster County series, skips the Mennonite middle ground entirely, happy to turn the Amish themselves into her ideal Christian community. In her world, warm piety and sound theological sense rule. Her plain people live in an Amish Mayberry, at a charmed distance from the "troublesome, hectic modern world," as bride Miriam sees it.
Struggling with bitterness over disappointed love, Miriam has the good fortune to belong to a community that surrounds her with loving admonition. "You don't seem to be as interested in spiritual things as you should," her suitor is compelled to tell her, echoing the concerns of others. Yet he persists: "I believe we can work through your bitterness together." Here, the deeply communal Amish, heirs of the 16th-century Radical Reformation, draw wandering believers back to the ancient, early church root.
Rightly Ordered Order
Real freedom doesn't come easily for anyone, of course—no not one, no matter the civilization, nation, or faith. The soul longs for freedom and knows somehow that it comes by love, and the best stories show the wonder of this union. "The single desire that dominated my search for delight," wrote Augustine of Hippo in The Confessions, "was simply to love and be loved."
We evangelicals, with deep pietistic roots that emerge from the Augustinian trunk, are not for nothing called exponents of the "religion of the heart." We understand freedom to be the fruit of an experiential, intensely personal faith. We believe that order, while necessary, must serve this end—and we tend to assume that traditional ecclesial and theological forms of order have not done so.
If these writers find fault with the Amish on this count—order gone bad—it has a lot to do with their own stories. A half-century ago, American evangelicals themselves were bound to a strict, idiosyncratic code, one that after the 1960s many evangelicals came to see as legalistic, a core element of the fundamentalism (as they still called it) that had lost sight of freedom itself. If the Amish fiction phenomenon shines light on any chapter of recent evangelical history, it's the jagged, uncertain walk of many baby boomers, in this free-form, postmodern moment, from fundamentalism to what we think of today as evangelicalism.
In light of this odyssey, a palpable ambivalence toward what the Amish represent is to be expected. After Woodsmall's protagonist, Hannah, spends long days in a hospital caring for a friend, she begins to see that the nurses "didn't hang on what men thought or wanted, not like she had." Woodsmall, wisely, grants that a real deepening of common understanding has taken place in at least some areas of contemporary American life, including the confusing realm of gender.
But the older world still speaks powerfully. Hannah, struggling to understand her own ambivalence toward her native community, is touched at a crucial moment by "the tenderness of those who had known her all her life—who knew her mother, grandmother, and even her great-grandmother." And this tenderness "melted the edges of ice that had formed around her heart." The loyalty, the fidelity, the willed innocence of the Amish are noble, we are shown. But for freedom to ensue, they need a complement. For Woodsmall and Lewis, this complement comes compliments of American evangelicalism—dual, dueling identities, deeply enmeshed.
A Celebration of Life
For all these authors' focus on the Amish, there's not a whole lot of evidence of a searching study of them, not of the sort serious fiction at least would require. At their worst, the writers seem to turn to the Amish opportunistically, using them as an adequately alien, adequately familiar community to imaginatively work out persisting cultural and theological questions.
Careless use of a subject is, of course, a familiar pop culture dynamic—how many movies set in the past take the audience no further into it than yesterday's newspaper? But this doesn't obviate the fact that artistic misrepresentation, even when the genre isn't expected to honor high standards of accuracy, is still at some level an injustice. So to what extent have these writers gotten the Amish right?
That's a question for scholars of Amish Christianity to take up. But another world of Amish fiction exists that might help us begin to answer this question. For the evangelical writers have in their midst an actual Amish writer who publishes with a small house in Lancaster named Good Books, more famous for its cookbooks than its fiction. If Linda Byler's work continues, though, that may change. When Strawberries Bloom, published this past fall, bobs along with a comic touch, a story written by a true insider who knows what it's like to grow up caring for horses and eating Amish food and navigating the Englisher world. In Byler's hands, we glimpse what it might actually feel like to be Amish and feel free.
Byler's protagonist, Lizzie Glick, is charmingly drawn, a spunky, impulsive, innocently fickle young woman trying to make sense of love, life, and faith within the bounds of an enduring and demanding tradition. Happily, it's a tradition that comes across as strange, in the best sense; in a few places the book has the feel of a translation. Yet Glick's is also a familiar world. Learning to embrace "the will of God," central throughout the book, is of course a primary aspiration of evangelicals, having a common formation by the language of Scripture (though the communal obligations the Amish believe manifest this embrace will no doubt seem confining to many evangelicals).
Points of distant connection between the Amish and American evangelicals extend in many directions, it turns out. We learn that some Amish use Betty Crocker cookbooks, make pizza, and read Laura Ingalls Wilder (whom Lizzie turns to in a failed effort to persuade her parents to put up a Christmas tree). Amish girls too puzzle over their wardrobe selections, and their families stress the desirability of "a clean and honorable courtship." But then there is this revealing fact: Amish newlyweds in Byler's community don't move into their own house until several weeks following their wedding, after they've had time to visit all who attended the extensive wedding festivities. It's within their guests' homes that they receive their wedding gifts.
Byler's story is a romance, to be sure, a graceful celebration of Amish life. But more deeply, it's a celebration of life itself, absent the melodrama of the other stories. A comic vision guides Byler's narrative, in which reconciliation and union are the final, unmerited, blessed end. The Amish Ordnung, the code that governs life together, here turns out to be not a cage but a pathway, leading to a distinct kind of freedom: peculiar, out of fashion, but real nonetheless, and successful at repelling many of the toxins that survey after survey show have poisoned evangelical families and churches.
It's not just evangelicals who find themselves mysteriously drawn to the Amish these days. Steven Stoll, a leading environmental historian, concludes his landmark book, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America, with an admiring visit to an Amish community. Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry has long lauded the Amish as moral exemplars of the most impressive kind, describing their tradition as "solid enough to build a civilization upon"—an enviable judgment, to say the least, as we the free watch families, neighborhoods, topsoil, and mountaintops being washed to the sea.
Does it mean something that 50-something church ladies are reading Amish fiction at the same time that 20-something evangelical hipsters are reading Wendell Berry? Is this the immaturity of nostalgia? Or the intelligence of hope?
I think it's a good deal of the latter. Or at least I hope it is. In Lancaster we lived one mile from the now famous West Nickel Mines School, where in the fall of 2006 a troubled Englisher shot ten Amish girls, killing five and himself. The community's response touched the world with a witness rarely seen, and nearly impossible to understand. They forgave. Is there greater evidence of freedom?
Eric Miller, associate professor of history at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania), is the author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans).
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Previous articles related to the Amish include:
The Amish's Spirituality for the Long Haul | What they can, and cannot, teach evangelicals. (November 9, 2010)
Out of This World | What this Lutheran learned when he visited the Amish. (September 25, 2009)
The Scandal of Forgiveness | Want to shock your neighbors? Try forgiving them. (December 28, 2006)
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