We live amidst the Amish. Tractors now seem strange to us, and slightly profane; teams of horses plow our fields. No longer does a horse and buggy stopped at an ATM rate more than a passing glance, and it only seems right that shopping centers should have hitching posts. Here, where we live, the mighty beasts of the landscape are made not of steel, but flesh and blood. Modern farm gadgetry is just a rumor.
Today I went for my customary Amish land run. A few times a week I trot twice around a two-mile loop, a course that takes me through four Amish farms and alongside several other Amish homes connected to these farms. When we first moved here two years ago, I ventured out with a sense of caution, even trepidation. Not only do a variety of automobiles race along these narrow roads, but horse-propelled buggies do too. What is the proper approach to a horse and buggy? Does one cross to the other side to avoid being chased or chomped? Can these bearded drivers be trusted to keep carriage and horse on a straight course? Closer to the heart, would the Amish sneer at one of the "English" (their name for us, since they speak a German dialect called "Pennsylvania Dutch") jogging on their roads, alongside their farms?
"Why does that man run, Papa?" I imagined an Amish child asking his father.
"Oh," replies the sage, "because even his body demands work of some kind. You can't sit around all day and expect rest for the soul at night."
My fears were in vain. Horses generally do avoid runners, and the Amish wave politely as we cross paths, sometimes even calling out a greeting. I've detected nothing more hostile than perhaps a muffled snicker.
Three times today I passed a middle-aged Amish woman and a young girl walking the opposite way around the loop, apparently out for exercise as well. At our first encounter we exchanged hellos. At the second, about ten minutes later, the woman caught me off guard, shouting, "You make us look sick!" "Yeah," I yelled back, "but I feel sick!" At our third meeting, she called out, with a hardy Pennsylvania Dutch accent, "Don't tell me you've done the whole loop again!" I merely nodded, now incapable of vocal exertion. "Give me a year," she retorted. As we parted, I felt my spirits buoyed by the exchange. Decent, peaceable, kind: The Amish, die stille im lande (the quiet in the land), as they were once known, are fine neighbors, even to those of us who indulge in such odd practices as jogging, a peculiar folkway of postindustrial America.
As I run, I often find myself trying to gauge just how the Amish are faring in their battle to keep the modern world at bay and their own way of life intact. This day, as the children bob by on their way to their little schoolhouses, a visual incongruence jars me: amidst the collage of blacks, blues, purples, and browns I see neon pink. Thermoses, it seems, have made it onto their back-to-school lists. Is this a bad sign?
Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt, in their recent study Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits, warn that the broader consumer culture is indeed making inroads among the Amish; business concerns play an in creasingly dominant role in a sizable number of families. Apparently this is discomfiting to many within their community. Kraybill and Nolt record the cryptic counsel of one Amish woman: "You shouldn't be in business if you are married." Is she a crotchety member of a generation about to be passed by or a prescient observer of dangerous new times? My impressionistic evidence leads me to affirm the latter.
One day last week the Nickel Mine Paint Store, a small Amish business housed in a barn along my route, boasted a large plastic banner alongside the store's more modest hand-painted sign. Dutch Standard Paints, it announced, in bright red italicized letters. This seemed strange, both in spirit and appearance. Such overt accoutrements of the wider world usually don't achieve this sort of prominent display. Maybe Kraybill and Nolt are right. Perhaps even this venerable resistance is beginning to ebb, as the market goes marching on.
Evangelicals, of course, have long marched in lock step to the market's cadence, tending to its growth while regarding it as a neutral instrument of good and bad. But changing circumstances make for changed vistas, and living amidst the Amish leads me to a different vantage. How do we American evangelicals look to this variety of Protestant, the heirs of the Radical Reformers? What can the Amish, in these strange postCold War days, teach us about faith, community, Mammon?
It is a bright Saturday in January, and I meet with a friend from church for lunch. He is a former aide in the Reagan White House, currently working locally and nationally on a variety of projects to foster what he calls "civil society." He has lately taken it on the chin in some conservative circles for his critique of the market economy, and I am eager to chat with him about this.
"I am anti-Wal-Mart," he recently confessed in the Wall Street Journal, a sentiment not uncommon even in our overwhelmingly Republican county. The developers may be having their way around here much of the time, but the conservative ethos of the area seems to enable many to intuit, however erratically, that these retailers and their kin are steadily liquidating virtues and eliminating habits that make our life here what it is.
We discuss this proposition: Can "conservatism" survive when many of its essential qualities and requisite conditions—individual restraint, deep familial roots, and a sense of place—are under unfaltering assault by corporate capitalism, a system that demands ever more cunning advertising campaigns, bloodless bureaucratized centralization, and community-fracturing dislocation? In America, capitalism and political conservatism have long been bedmates, of course, but as of late some conservatives have called the union into question; a few, following the lead of such maverick intellectuals as Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch, have even dared to proclaim it illicit. Those outside conservative circles thrill to watch so prominent a pair endure a lover's quarrel. Meanwhile, other conservatives remain on intimate terms with the old, but still charming mistress. In the midst of its recent success, American conservatism, never an entirely coherent ideology, has become a many-splintered thing.
My friend has a firsthand knowledge of many of these diverging conservatisms, and is particularly troubled by what's become of the "Religious Right," that bumptious offspring of the efforts, now some two decades past, of Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, and others to establish a conservative, Christian presence in the political arena. Where many see strength, my friend finds a void, a failure to understand the cultural landscape and a resultant inability to advance credible and salutary alternatives. Their political vision, he believes, has little hope of fulfillment, for better or for worse.
I share his perspective. The Religious Right, envisioning itself as a force to combat the modern malaise, just as often seems an unwitting manifestation of it. Technologically savvy but communally deficient, it boasts a gnostic devotion to transformation through the propagation and enforcement of right ideas in the realm of formal politics rather than a more earthy commitment to cultural change at the ground level—in the parishes, neighborhoods, and workplaces where we actually live and move and have our being. True social transformation, whether in the church or the world, requires a thickness of human connection fostered in a rich cultural soil. A personality-driven politics of voting-bloc power does little to halt this erosion. Ironically—and this point drives our conversation—self-proclaimed "cultural conservatives" have failed to understand that corporate capitalism, the truly radical and revolutionary force of history, has done more to diminish the possibilities for this kind of rich common life than any of the other "isms" it usually assails—humanism, scientism, feminism—take your pick. In the words of historian Garry Wills, capitalism "is of all things the least worthy of the name conservative," a premise the Religious Right might fruitfully ponder.
The Religious Right, in the end, reflects not just an ethereal cultural emptiness—it reflects us. Rootless, amnesiac, and shallow, we evangelicals stumble in our efforts to image, both individually and corporately, a God whose majesty and wisdom both transcend and speak judgment upon our more limited visions of the good life. The American Way of Life, for all of its virtues, is not the Way. The confluence of these two visions in our thinking has led to a host of ills and viruses, and so we journey on in our feeble state, only dimly aware that we are playing host to devastation and disease. Having grown up with consumer capitalism, and in many cases grown it, we evangelicals are only beginning to imagine ways of serving as a counterpoint to it. Bound both ideologically and economically to the current order, we are often blinded, in good liberal parlance, to "conflicts of interest."
We try to imagine ways of effectively addressing these matters, but the hour is late and other obligations call. So we leave the restaurant, and amidst the shiny sea of SUVs and sports cars discover that we have both parked our not-so-shiny vehicles at the back of the parking lot. He wryly notes that he's trying to hide his. It makes me think: Perhaps in a culture such as ours we should drive older cars with a sense of honor, see them as symbols of a higher moral order. Yet, amidst these aspirations for nobility, I sense that I was hiding my rusting Toyota in the back as well, falling prey to pressures I should more easily resist. As Tocqueville shrewdly noted, the habits of our American hearts tend to turn community into conformity, a deadly impulse for those who pledge allegiance to another land.
It is the winter retreat of our church's youth group, and during free time on a Saturday afternoon some of the adults strike up a conversation about politics. We sit on sleeping bags in a dingy cabin, the room already ripe with the distinctive scent of junior high boys dorming en masse. The conversation turns to wealth, poverty, and the American church. Our own is a large church, perched along a key artery in an affluent section of the county. It is a meeting place for suburban professionals; numerous lawyers, doctors, professors, and even a few politicians regularly attend, along with scores of entrepreneurs, businessmen, and other white collar types. The very faux clapboard siding seems to secrete Respectability, yet the congregation's deep evangelical impulse cannot be gainsaid.
One staff member recently finished an economics course at the local university. He says, or says that his professor would say, that our church members can justify their sometimes extravagant spending with a little macroeconomic casuistry: their expenditures, far from being frivolous, actually fuel the economy, providing labor for those who otherwise might find none and so helping to sustain particular families and individuals. Another staffer, while expressing qualms about the showy nature of these consumptive displays, backs the larger economic theory, and adds some theological scaffolding to it.
I too want to talk theology, and throw the old straw Epistle of James into the mix. After warning against extending special privilege toward the rich at the expense of those who have less, James delivers a stern, sharp admonition: "But you have dishonored the poor" (James 2:6a, NRSV). I gingerly advance the proposition that while exhibiting faithfulness in manifold ways, we as a church violate the spirit of this teaching. Although we rent no pews, our ethos seems at odds with the rough egalitarian spirit that Christ intends the church to possess. I put this query to them: Do we, in fact, esteem the poor? Do we do all we can to make them feel that our church can be theirs? Is theirs?
The discussion heats up, and biography, inevitably, comes to the fore, along with a welter of conjectures and opinions about class, culture, and faith: How do my roots in dirt-farming Appalachia, for instance, affect my social vision—for better or worse? Do not the more educated, cultivated classes have a tutorial role to play for those of lesser fortune? Is it possible, or even desirable, to unite the various classes in a single congregation? The high pitch of our voices, the flashing eyes, the flush of our faces tell me that this issue is much more serious and close to the heart than our slack treatment of it in formal church settings would suggest.
Perhaps it takes removal from our suburban lairs to prompt such discussions. But our brains grow weary as our civility thins, and eventually the kids, back from a rousing afternoon of tubing on manufactured snow, find us again. Our conversation is left on the retreat, the only place in our ecclesial space where this topic seems safe to broach.
For my birthday, an old friend from college days takes me to a Michael Card concert. Card, long a voice of theological and intellectual integrity in the Christian music industry, opens with a few songs, followed by a tongue-in-cheek apology: "Some of you may have come expecting to see lasers and a light show," he remarks, "or at least a hair piece." But this is a no-frills concert: jeans, T-shirts, a bald head, and a lot of music. Glitter and glam didn't draw this crowd. We came for the promise of potent reflection on the meaning of the Word in our time.
More than three hours and many songs later, my friend and I seem reluctant to depart from the concert hall, unwilling to leave while we still feel the concert's residual glow staving off the night. Standing in a foyer, we continue our running conversation about Christians in the arts and the contemporary Christian music industry—CCM, as it is known, which exerts a sizable presence in our county. Triggered by the emotion of the concert, I find myself verging on passionate as we make our way toward the subject of Rich Mullins, a Christian artist who had died in a car wreck the previous summer. I had just read that according to Reed Arvin, his producer, Mullins kept an extensive journal of musings and confessions that rarely made it into the lyrics of his recorded songs; among these, said Arvin, were things Mullins "couldn't say in the Christian music world." Industry demands, tied as they are to (perceived) consumer taste and sensibility, quarantined more searching reflection and expression.
Learning this struck me deeply. I had admired Mullins as a singularly gifted man, a pilgrim who at times ushered listeners to the edge of the profound. His lyrics often carried the scent of the medieval monastery, unusual in CCM, or anywhere. How might his ability to evoke mystery and image the real have been heightened by a more accommodating artistic climate, I found myself wondering, trying to imagine songs and albums left unwritten. Subjected to this editorial surveillance, Mullins could only offer—so long as he chose to work under the auspices of CCM—a guarded glimpse of himself, a publicity shot retouched by executives thinking more like advertisers than honest brokers. That glimpse we caught of the questing sojourner, it turns out, was a bit too polished and slick.
My anger peaks as my friend and I exchange reflections on the consequences of this barren modus operandi. Like me, he as a youth immersed himself in the music of CCM artists like Mullins, hungering for the meaty fruit of honest encounters with God and self. Mullins stood high above many of the others with whom we spent so much time and energy, people to whom we looked for sustenance, inhabitants of an alternative universe that paralleled the poisonous world of mainstream popular music. We listed for an echo of our own experience in their art. The older we grew the less we seemed to hear it. At first we heaped blame on ourselves for a spirituality that in this light seemed shabby; gradually, we came to sense that the image being delivered by CCM was not everything. The music and message that once seemed vital and genuine began to sound tinny and hollow. CCM, driven by the measure and ethos of the mass market, had found itself by the mid-1980s comfortably nestled on a procrustean bed, taking a stable of artists and legions of fans along with it.
Our conversation moves naturally from Mullins to Mark Heard, a veteran of the CCM world for whose work both my friend and I have developed a deep affinity. Like Mullins, Heard's life came to an unforecasted end. After a remarkably productive career, in which he recorded 14 albums in as many years, he died in 1992 of a heart attack, 40 years old. Of the many Christian artists who fell under the influence of Francis Schaeffer during the 1970s and '80s, he had been the one who perhaps most energetically embodied Schaeffer's call for a theologically rooted social criticism wedded to scrupulous standards of artistic integrity. But by the mid-1980s, Heard and the magnates of CCM were heading toward divorce. Unwilling to adjust his work to the musical and theological standards of the industry, and frustrated with the pietistic bathos of the broader subculture to which his contractual obligations bound him, he struck out on his own as an artist and producer. With Dan Russell he formed an independent label, Fingerprint Records.
Between 1990 and 1992, Heard recorded three records on his Fingerprint label that unfailingly arrest the imagination, some of the most poignant artistic expression and theological reflection done by any Christian in the last half of the twentieth century. His profoundly American music, folk-rock in the Appalachian vein, was so highly regarded by his peers that following his death, Russell compiled a double-CD album of 34 artists performing renditions of Heard's songs, largely taken from these last three albums; in 1995 an abridged version of the project, Strong Hand of Love, garnered a Grammy nomination. Artists ranging from CCM veterans Julie Miller and Phil Keaggy to rockers Michael Been and the Vigilantes of Love to singersong writers Pierce Pettis and Bruce Cockburn paid tribute in song. They saw in Heard an artist whose ability was enormous, vision was profound, and commitment to honest self-revelation unparalleled.
Like Mullins, Heard's faith shaped his art, and in a remarkably uncliched way. Like Mullins, he felt the squeeze of market demands as he struggled for self-expression and theological integrity. Unlike Mullins, Heard mounted an audible protest against these working conditions and the subculture that sanctions them; his last records became his testament of another way. On his final album, the white-hot Satellite Sky, Heard included "The Big Wheels Roll," a rollicking song in which he told the seemingly autobiographical tale of one man's long struggle to live out his calling in the context of corporate America. At the end of the song the man unleashes his rage:
Damn the cool-headed and the setters of goals
Who can feel no evil, no heat, no cold
Who wouldn't know passion if it swallowed them whole
To whom true love is a left-brain risk
For whom the giving of life is a needless myth
Who cover their graves with monoliths
Cool heads prevail, and we'll become extinct
Mutants too unfit to wish
That's the fallout of our fingerprints*
By his life's end, Heard had come to believe that the regime of the market moguls represented not only a threat to his own vocation as an artist, but also to our very ability to live truly human lives. A harsh critique, to be sure, especially when etched so starkly. But is it accurate? Does it hit somewhere near the mark?
Just one rancid cluster of sour grapes, the Christian "realists" might retort, or, more charitably, the unfortunate downside of an economic system that has for the most part served us well. But tonight an opposite conviction gains strength inside of me, fueled by the concert and this conversation. I see embattled prophets denouncing bad-faith compromises with principalities that war against a more Godward vision of the created order. We are ceding ground that is rightfully his, with precious little protest. Nothing countermands these bottom-line dictates, no church, no theology, no god. Some might consider this a useful definition of idolatry.
Now outside the cloakroom, the conversation finally winding down, I feel a touch of guilt for my overly righteous dismissal of the world of CCM, which has indeed, these criticisms aside, served as a conduit for much that is life-sustaining and good, as our experience at this concert attests. But the stories of Mullins and Heard testify of a darker side of the curtain, where a demanding director with overweening authority sits. The o log i cal reflection and honest confession, particularly in the potentially powerful form of art, are being misshaped and falsified.
The market yields a theology shaped not in the image of God but the "niche" to which it shamelessly panders. In this scheme, instead of imitating God, we mainly succeed in reproducing ourselves, our stature ever diminishing. Those so skilled at discerning consumer appetite would do well to heed evangelical social critic Os Guinness: In working out our callings, we are to perform for one audience, the audience of One. The market must not be master.
It is a sunny spring afternoon, perfect for a party. And I end up at one at a house that sits on the edge of Amish country in a neighboring county. I strike up a conversation with a newspaper editor who grew up in urban New Jersey. When I tell him where I live, his eyes light up: it was his childhood vacation spot! I confess that our county's magnetic appeal to vacationers has long puzzled me. Why not go to the beach? To the mountains? In response, he gestures toward the farmland behind the house. "You don't have this everywhere," he re minds me. For the first time, I think, I begin to understand.
My brother once told me that his landlord, an "English" farmer, was out "hauling Amish." What? I exclaimed, picturing a horde of them corralled into a tractor-trailer, Gestapo style. That's what his landlord's wife called it, my brother replied. When he had asked where her husband was, she answered that he was out hauling Amish in his van. The Amish, it seems, sometimes pay the English to take them places their horses cannot. The English who comply seem to imagine this as perhaps a step up from, say, transporting cattle, but probably in the same league. At least, their language seems to indicate a valuing of this sort.
The commodification of the Amish is nothing new around here, of course, where larger-than-life statues and etchings of the Amish adorn our highways, luring tourists into every "authentic" Amish (fill in the blank) you can imagine. Here, with a few traveler's checks, you can watch simulated barn-raisings, tour facsimiles of Amish farms, and ride in look-alike buggies through the countryside. One week later, you arrive home an expert in Amish lore and culture.
At least, this is the way I cynically used to see things. But the comments of the New Jersey urbanite prod me to reconsider, to complicate. When free, our choices are usually sourced in the mysteries of attraction. "You don't have this everywhere." And so they come, peering through the commercialized thicket in search of mystery. Perhaps they see in the Amish what I also glimpse: a distinctive way of life, a deeply embedded communal courage, fostered by generations of devotion to a creed, to a few basic ideals, to a manner of being in this world. And perhaps what they see is that for which they also long, but cannot seem to attain.
Opposites attract. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light." And some of them loved it. Soaked it up. Even discovered themselves made new by it. But the change began with attraction, attraction to something. Something had to be there, something solidly other. Something that made their current way of life seem a sham, a hoax, a compromise. Something that promised a luminous possibility they had to try, that whispered of a realm beyond, yet near enough to touch.
Eric Miller lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when he wrote this essay. He has since joined the faculty of Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as assistant professor of American history. This essay won second place in CT's "Faith and Consumerism" contest, funded by the Global Consumption project of Pew Charitable Trusts, Inc.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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