"You Can't Have it All": Part Two from Saloma Furlong's Review of Thrill of the Chaste

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Amish Farm, 2011

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.

Covered bridge near Ephrata, Pennsylvania

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.

A familiar scene on Lancaster County roads -- an Amish buggy

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:

Part Two

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?


Shirley Showalter


  1. Marian Beaman on June 3, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Shirley asks the questions “Can we have it all? Isn’t that what you are trying to do?”

    I’ll answer the question as Saloma did when she discusses the intricacies of Amish faith and works: In my view, “having it all” is both: not an either-or, yes-no proposition.

    But here’s the catch. Yes, perhaps we can have it all, just not all at once. Life is lived in stages, phases. I’m having a full and happy life living variously over the years as rural – urban, Mennonite – Baptist, rooted – peripatetic, and now my current stage: both plain and fancy in blog world.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      Marian, you ask a good question. And perhaps over a lifetime we can have most of what we want.

      What I mean is that certain choices we make exclude others. And sometimes not just for ourselves. I often think about the fact that having made the choice that I did means that my sons did not have a chance at growing up Amish. Sure, if they were to want to be Amish badly enough, they could join the Amish, but they still did not grow up Amish.

      To be Amish means that you are part of a community. There are some good things about that, and some not so good. If you value privacy, you might not enjoy such a tightly-knit community, for example.

      There is a price to pay for that community. You are required to sacrifice your personal freedom if you are to become a member of the church. And if you want to develop your personal freedom, then you cannot be Amish. So the Amish preachers are right when they say that you’re either Amish or not… there is no in between.

  2. shirleyhs on June 3, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Interesting, Marian. I too noticed the difference of the both/and approach to theology in Saloma’s review but the starker choice with regard to how much of “plain-ness” the outsider or the person who leaves can appropriate.

    Time is indeed the friend of the both/and approach to being plain and being fancy, simple as well as complex. As well as all the other dualisms in our lives.

    Live long enough and you just may get to have your cake and eat it too. At least if you are the one who gets to define the terms.

    We’ll see if others disagree . . .

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:33 pm

      Ah-ha. “If you are the one who gets to define the terms.” That’s called personal freedom.

  3. Kathleen Friesen on June 3, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I have hesitated for the past week to jump into the dialogue. I have family members who have left the Amish church and know others who have left other churches like the Holdeman Mennonites who practice shunning too.

    What I admire about those who have left is that many of them continue to practice the values that Furlong mentions: “self-denial, humility, and austerity” … along with the values of love of family, hard work, and taking time to play and laugh. They bring with them a deep faith not only in the atonement and the need to “do good works” – to practically act every day in faithfulness, but the faith that our salvation also comes through the discipline of being part of, and in relationship to, the church community – the body of Christ.

    Over the years, some more than 35 years away from their departures, some have been re-invited to sit at the family table. Others have not. All know the pain of being cut-off, of having chosen to leave the known for the unknown, of having life split into before and after. I will always remember the lunch with a woman friend, uncomfortable in “outsider” clothes, purchased during the week after she left the church – leaving family, including two of her adult children, behind.

    I have not, and likely will not, read these novels. I would hold with Furlong’s view that they are harmful whenever distorted views of the Amish and misunderstandings of the Amish faith are portrayed. Creating stereotypes of “the other,” is not helpful in bringing understanding or compassion.

    And yet, there are times when fiction can create understanding. When it can lead to the sense that one person’s story is everyone’s story. But to think that fiction is apolitical is also an error. Language creates worlds.

    I have ranged far from your question. As for having it all, I appreciate Marian’s observation about stages and phases. My intention is to choose contentment and growth, time for contemplation and relationship, and a willingness to seek a balance in it all – without having any of it!

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      Kathleen, I’m so glad you did jump in…. You have interesting things to say.

      I am still formally shunned when I go back to my community, which I’ve not done since my mother died. At both my parents’ funerals, there was a feeling of reconciliation with my former community members.

      When my parents were both alive, I visited between meals so that there would be no conflict. But I also took advantage of certain things that weren’t rules. For instance, hugging was just not done in my Amish community, even though there were no rules against it. So I used to hug my mother when I greeted her or said good-bye.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  4. shirleyhs on June 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you for this inside look into family dynamics among the various kinds of plain groups, Kathleen. The topic of shunning holds great fascination for the novelists, most of whom are not Amish and never have been. As writers, however, they recognize the automatic conflict that such a process brings to any plot.

    It’s interesting to see which practices the writers describe and which ones they don’t talk about. You would think that “bed courtship” or “bundling” would be perfect for an Amish romance novel. But evidently, compared to shunning and rumspringa, that’s a relatively unexplored region.

    I am almost finished with Thrill of the Chaste. I, too, have never read any Amish Fiction books. I might pick one up after reading Thrill, but only to see what the first-hand experience is like. Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s analysis is amazingly comprehensive. I highly recommend her book.

    I love your last line: “a willingness to seek a balance in it all — without having any of it.”

    Thank you so much, Kathleen. I know exactly what you mean.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Shirley, I doubt very much that bed courtship would be in “chaste” novels. If such a thing was even mentioned, then mothers would not feel they could hand these novels to their teenage daughters and trust they are “clean” reading.

      Most people don’t equate bed courtship with chaste, though we were expected to practice both.

  5. don jacobs on June 3, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Shirley, I groan with you on this stuff. I have been privileged to have a strong and open relationship with Abner Beiler, our neighbor,, an Amish Deacon. I sift almost everything “Amish” through him and his wife, Ari. As I sit with them and listen to all the shrill voices that we hear about their community these days I find strength and contentment. Abner’s one-liner says a lot, “There is a lot of evil out there!” He knows that there is a lot inside as well but he is not Quixotic, thrusting at windmills he can not stop. To say there is a clash of world-views is an understatement, that is for sure. The chasm between the Amish community oriented world view and the prevailing individual centered world view is so wide that it almost takes a new language to try to communicate meaningfully.

    Don Jacobs

  6. shirleyhs on June 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks, Don. You are fortunate to have such a close relationship to an Amish neighbor. And I am sure you have a lot of anthropological analysis tools that have helped you in other cultures also.

    I think you would like Valerie’s book. She applies cultural, literary, and theological perspectives to this phenomenon. She interviews a number of Amish people almost as wise as Abner and Ari.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Sharon Lippincott on June 3, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Good point there about exploitation. That has occurred to me. I check these books out of the library,so can’t look back to see what I read when, but one author in particular noted that she is not and never has been Amish and relied on input from “her dear Amish friends” to write the book. That may explain many of the myriad inconsistencies.

    I was struck by the fact that the book seemed to be a strong seller and did so by in a sense “selling out” her dear Amish friends.

    Your posts have intrigued me, and I look forward to reading Thrill of the Chaste.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Sharon, you make good points. Valerie mentions in her book that it’s not always clear whether the Amish people who are readers for the authors get paid for doing so. She also mentions that some of those Amish readers have said that they can fix some things, but when the authors didn’t grow up Amish, their dialog and certain other details are not that easy to correct.

      Amish is hard to fabricate.

  8. shirleyhs on June 3, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I’m just finishing the chapter about exploitation in Thrill of the Chaste. Apparently, only one “real” Old Order author has written Amish stories. Her name is Linda Byler, and her books are quite popular, both among Amish and non-Amish readers.

    On the other hand, one author, unnamed, did all her research by reading another Amish fiction writer’s book.

    Caveat emptor!

    Thanks for coming back, Sharon. I always enjoy your thoughts.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:58 pm

      Please see below about Linda Byler. I highly recommend her books… and she is a wonderful person!


  9. Elaine Good on June 3, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    If Don J’s Abner Beiler neighbor is the same man my friend and I interviewed one evening 20-some years ago (bookbinder, historian), I will agree that he’s a very wise man. Also very patient with those of us who are not Amish.

    I have read several of the Amish themed novels because they were passed on to me by my 80+ yr old father who was born (Central Illinois) Amish/now Mennonite. My dad is a person who probably read only 3 or 4 books on his own in his first 60 years. Reading was very difficult for him. The fact that he is now reading several books a week intrigues me!

    I do wonder how helpful it is to discuss/critique books or a genre you haven’t actually read… On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the problem of having to read fiction relating to tough events in one’s past such as rape.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm

      Elaine, back when Beverly Lewis’s first trilogy was published, I read those three books. I had to do a lot of gulping as I read, sometimes bursting out with, “That’s not true!” At other times I just groaned.

      I’ll be reading as many of Linda Byler’s books as I can get my hands on. Mostly for their authenticity.

      There is another Amish-born novelist — Lucinda Streicker-Schmidt, who wrote “A Separate God.” It’s a tough read, but again, it’s authentic and she didn’t look away from tough issues.

  10. shirleyhs on June 3, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    There are a number of wise Amish voices quoted in the book itself. One old order Amish woman is a fan of Toni Morrison and Barbara Kingsolver. Lots of surprises.

    Did Valerie interview you? There’s a story of a daughter-father bond over Amish fiction included in the book. You might recognize yourself or someone like you.

    Saloma can speak to her degree of familiarity with the Amish romance books. It’s not like she’s never read or studied them herself.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Elaine. You read this post twice! I’m grateful for your insight.

  11. Sherrey Meyer on June 3, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    First, thanks again to Shirley for this intriguing look at The Thrill of the Chaste and the Amish community. I appreciate especially the dialogue we are enjoying here.

    Second, in answer to Shirley’s question, can we have it all, it depends on what “all” refers to. If “all” refers to everything I want, then I would have to answer no because I don’t believe, based on my faith walk, that we are intended to have everything we want. We, after all, are not in control. A higher power is and grants what we need, not necessarily what we want.

    I tend to think that the concept of having it all is something that has been foisted on us by media hype and advertising — that to be happy we must have it all. I certainly don’t have it all in those terms, but I have a happy life, am content with the stage of life I’m in, have no major health issues and find each day to be full of something new and enlightening. Couldn’t ask for more really!

    • Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Amen, Sherrey!

      I agree that the idea that we can have it all is foisted on us by all the hyper-ads around us. Our culture basically is fed the notion that we CAN have it all — we merely have to acquire it or achieve it. But when we make one choice, we forgo others — it’s as simple as that.

      I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about gratitude. For me, there is no difference between gratitude and joy. Your post is full of both. Thanks for sharing yours. It happens to be contagious.

  12. Saloma Furlong on June 9, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    Another thought-provoking discussion. I’ll be responding to several of the comments, but first I want to say that I was in Valerie’s plenary session at the Amish conference in Elizabethtown, PA three nights ago, and I was really impressed with her presentation. It was as humorous (if not more so) than her book. She had several of us laughing when she had images of several of the books up on the screen with a photo of Rupert Murdock and made a comment about one of the authors being Murdock’s step-sister. And she delivered all these lines wryly, without cracking a smile.

    I took one of her suggestions to heart, which was to read Linda Byler’s books. Linda Byler is only one of two Amish authors of “Amish fiction.” I was especially delighted when I walked around the corner from the auditorium after the talk, and found Linda Byler sitting with her daughter (who wrote a beautiful book on gardening). I got a chance to meet them both, and they are a hoot! Just delightful people.

    Lo and behold, on the ride home, with my husband driving, I started reading the book. Then I could not put it down until it was done, even after I got home.

    The book is called “Fire in the Night” and is her latest. I will be giving it a thorough review, but I will just say this: it wasn’t a perfect book by any means, but it was AUTHENTIC. And the protagonist is still steadfast in her Amish faith at the end of the book, different from the formulaic outcome of the other books published by evangelical Christian publishers.

    So Valerie, thanks very much for your suggestion. It was a delightful read by an honest-to-goodness Amish author who like yourself, has a wonderful sense of humor.

  13. shirleyhs on June 10, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Thank you so much, Saloma, both for your comments to others above and for this report on a conference I would have enjoyed attending myself.

    You have me interested in reading Linda Byler books also.

    • shirleyhs on June 10, 2013 at 8:40 am

      P.S. This afternoon, at 1 p.m., I will publish Valerie’s response to your review. She took it very seriously, sifting in her humor deftly, as always.

  14. […] I gave her the chance to respond to Saloma Furlong’s review (see Part One and Part Two), I didn’t know she would have an essay featured in the Wall Street Journal right before this […]

  15. Travels | About Amish on January 25, 2014 at 11:43 am

    […] She is going to be writing a response to my review of her book on Shirley Showalter’s blog: 100 Memoirs. Be sure to check in for that in the next […]

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