Thursday, July 10, 2008

Plain Secrets

In "Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish," English and journalism professor Joe Mackall writes about his friendship with the Shetlers, Amish neighbors of his in northern Ohio. The Shetlers provide Mackall a window into one of the most conservative of the Amish orders, the Schwartentrubers.

Mackall does not want to use his limited experience of one Amish group, and in particular, one family, to generalize about the "Amish" as a whole, a group which, at 180,000 to 200,000 strong in North America, outnumbers Quakers. In fact, he's at pains throughout his book to distinguish between the different groups within the Amish: Old Order, New Order, Weaver, Swiss, Beachy Amish, etc. He also doesn't want the book to focus on what he calls "appropriation" of the Amish as a means to self-discovery or as convenient symbols for pushing a particular ideology, be it nostalgia for an idealized past or a back-to-nature quest.

What he wants to do is to focus on one family, the Shetlers, and how they live as Amish.

Yet by deliberately separating themselves from us, the Amish can drive us into introspection. Mackall will spend a good deal of the book as a character in his own personal drama, the hapless "English" interacting with the Amish, and as a narrator, he will repeatedly ponder his own mixed response to people who are simultaneously both his friends and his subjects.

How do you view the Amish? I once saw them as quaint oddities on the outer fringes of society. Later, I began to grasp that religion, not rejection of technology or of the twentieth century, was the basis of their community. I recognized that the allure of modernity to them was secondary to supporting and nurturing community. While I could probably never become Amish, they've come to shine for me as an alternative to the way the "rest of us" organize society, a challenge to the notion that the way we do it is the "only" way or the "right" way. Apparently, people can thrive in a very different setting and in a society organized on very different principles. There are other ways to live.

I remember getting lost once with Roger en route from Philadelphia to his parents' house in York. I perked up as we drove by barn after barn, tidy farmhouse after tidy farmhouse and field after field of corn. I felt a deep sense of relief and comfort that so many family farms were still thriving in this country. A little while later, as we passed several buggies, I realized we were in Amish country. I remember feeling both deeply disappointed that these weren't "mainstream" farms and at the same time grateful for the existence of the Amish and the wedge they provide against modernity.

Back to the question: How do you view the Amish? What do you think we can learn, if anything, from them? And if you are Quaker, do you find it surprising that there are more Amish than Quakers in North America?


Regina said...

Hi Diane- okay, no. 1- you said your husband's parents house is in York- I grew up right outside of York!!! Wow!
How do I view the Amish... almost two years ago, a man went into a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA and held hostage 10 or so little Amish schoolgirls, shot them execution style, killing 5 of them. Two of those lost were sisters. This act of madness reverberated not only throughout Lancaster County but across the river into York County and all of us who had ever had any dealings with the Amish were completely and utterly devastated.
Being in PA at the time, my dear dad had only recently passed away a mere nine days previous to the shooting and I remember thinking... I am glad daddy's not here to see this... it would have broken his heart.
I remember thinking also that forgiveness for this man was impossible, in fact, it was unfair to even think of forgiveness at this moment. But, the Amish were different- they forgave- and truly forgave this man from their hearts almost instantly.
And I think all of us there in that area at that particular time in history, were changed- deeply changed by our Amish neighbors and their willingness to follow Jesus down the path of forgiveness just as he did from the cross.
I love the Amish and always will.
I cannot say anything more than that.
Thank you so much for this wonderful post and I hope you will post more about this book.

Bill Samuel said...

Yes, I do think we have a lot we can learn from the Amish. They seem to do much better at actually living their faith than most of us do.

Most children of Quakers do not remain Quakers, but most children of Amish remain Amish. This shows a real strength in their community.

And Amish tend to have larger families.

While new people rarely join the Amish, they have steadily grown in population while Quakers, which get lots of new people, have not.

There was a time when Friends provided a much more powerful and cohesive faith community than they do most places in this country now, but maybe never as strong as the Amish.

I realize that in your move to Barnesville, you and Roger are in part seeking a stronger Quaker community than you find in these more urban parts. I hope you find it.

Diane said...


York is a pretty area and my in-laws have been very happy there for the past 20 years. It is their retirement home. My children love going to visit them up there.

I too was deeply moved by the forgiveness of the Amish after the shootings, a forgiveness which modeled Christ's love. There was nothing sentimental or self-serving in their actions, just a deep faith in God to pursue justice.


The book does say that the large families of the Amish (often 10 or more children) are part what is causing the growth in the Amish community.