I grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Farms like the one on the left peppered the hills and valleys of that beautiful place. So did other signs of rural life.
Two years ago I stayed with my sister Sue for several days, preparing for a talk called “The Purpose of Memory” at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.
To prepare, I took long walks in the country and took pictures of quaint Amish and Mennonite scenes, trying to respect their rules against having their faces photographed.
That same year I became friends with Saloma Miller Furlong, whose memoir Why I Left the Amish
was published also in 2011. Many conversations about Amish and Mennonite life have ensued.
Part Two, Saloma Furlong Review of Thrill of the Chaste
I have shortened the review to help us get to community engagement sooner. Saloma gently chides author Valerie Weaver-Zercher for not paying enough attention to the question of authenticity in Amish fiction. Then she gives an example of how harm comes of inaccuracies. Let’s pick up her review again:
By Saloma Miller Furlong
I would say no, there isn’t any real harm done with the inaccuracies of the different color buggies or what language letters are written in. But when an author and her readers superimpose their values on the Amish, then I believe there is real harm done.
In these novels, the protagonists become a born-again Christian, and by doing so, they are now saved through Jesus Christ, something the “works-based” or “rules-based” Amish religion could not do.
According to Weaver-Zercher, some of the upcoming Amish fiction will be super-charged with this message. One author said that she is writing Amish fiction, “To expose the Amish lifestyle as, not Christian, but a cult. They are a community of ‘works get you to heaven,’ not salvation through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross alone.”
I groaned when I read this. During my book talks, I have encountered people in my audiences who ask, “Do the Amish believe in good works?“ Or something similar, “Is the Amish religion faith-based or works-based?” To which I will reply, “Both.” Sometimes they think I misunderstood the question and rephrase it, “Well, what I mean is, do they believe in salvation through Jesus Christ or through good works?” To which I will again reply, “Both. They definitely believe that Jesus died on the cross so that they may have everlasting life, but they also believe that following Jesus’ example in doing good is important in their life on earth.”
One day on our way home from a book talk my husband, David, asked, “What is wrong with good works anyway?” My guess is that many born-again Christians would say that if you believe in good works, then that excludes the belief that Jesus is your Savior. What they don’t realize is just how much they are misunderstanding the culture they are judging and that it doesn’t have to be one or the other and by thinking it is, they are limiting themselves from gaining a better understanding of the Amish people and their tenets.
Another deep misunderstanding in Amish romance novels, when a protagonist decides she needs to leave the Amish she does so with apparent ease. What they miss completely is something so obvious to someone who has left the Amish… no matter the reason for leaving or how sure we are that the decision we made is right, we all have to deal with the loss of community that comes of leaving. For an example of the turmoil that one feels when caught between two worlds, you can read my earlier posts “Anna’s Return,” and “A Letter from Anna” [Saloma’s blog About Amish contains these and other posts below.]
It is tempting to blame the Amish for shunning their family members who leave. But they would not be Amish if they didn’t use shunning as a church discipline. I believe that the cohesion in a given community is commensurate with the level of sacrifice and effort people need to make to be a part of that community.
The Amish have a sense of community the rest of us can only admire or envy. They value community over the individual, which is the reverse of our culture in which individual freedom (sometimes in excess) is valued over community. And the Amish teach that you are either Amish or you’re not—there is no in between. So you cannot have it all.
This is one way in which I feel the Amish are completely misunderstood by the authors of Amish romance novels.
Weaver-Zercher writes about the Amish romance novel transporting the reader to Amish country, “Now, thanks to Amish fiction, America’s own exotic but homespun religionists are as close as the book on the bedside stand.”
I would argue that the Amish romance novels feed the American fantasy that we can have it all—we can keep up the fast pace of our lives and at the end of the day, we can pick up a book and be transported to the rural landscape of Amish country—all without sacrificing anything aside from the time it takes to read the book. It seems to me that this is as momentary as eating candy… it tastes good, but there is no lasting nourishment in consuming it. Furthermore, there is something wrong with appropriating the Amish culture for our amusement.
I wish Weaver-Zercher would have addressed one very important point. The authors of Amish fiction want it to have it both ways—they want to use the Amish culture as backdrop for their novels, while at the same time judging the Amish beliefs as being inadequate for their salvation. Furthermore, they are making a personal fortune by doing so. You don’t have to be born and raised Amish to understand these incongruities.
If I didn’t have to read a bunch of the novels that would certainly give me literary indigestion, I might want to write a book about the myriad of ways in which the Amish are misunderstood, misrepresented, exploited, and appropriated in Amish romance novels and how they set the stage for even greater lies about the Amish culture in reality shows like “Breaking Amish” and “The Amish Mafia.”
Weaver-Zercher’s book Thrill of the Chaste is a good first step in understanding our fascination with the Amish. I would assert that there are deeper reasons for this fascination. We know, deep down, we need something that the Amish have. To be a part of an Amish community, one has to practice self-denial, humility, and austerity and yet we, of the world, don’t want to deny ourselves anything. We sense the divinity in Amish people and even how they achieve it, but we refuse to follow their example. In Suzanne Woods Fisher’s words, “It’s just too hard.”
In Part Three of this series, Valerie Weaver-Zercher will reflect more on Thrill of the Chaste, responding to some of these observations and offering us some new thoughts since the publication of the book in February.
In the meantime, what about the challenge Saloma Furlong lays down. Can we have it all? Isn’t that what you are trying to do?