Why We Love Amish Romances
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.