Rarely do I come away from reading a book with the sense that form has perfectly matched function and that the book has changed my mind.
Both of these things are true of Donald Kraybill’s, Karen Johnson-Weiner’s and Steven Nolt’s bravely titled The Amish.
True to its subject, the book is a gentle read. It invites the reader into to increasing levels of understanding of this odd people, The Amish. Though it brings to bear upon its topic social-scientific, historical, and religious-studies rigor, it does so with a profound respect for the Old Order Amish themselves. As a result, the Amish come into clearer focus as fellow human beings who have chosen a certain lifestyle in a world that offers them alternatives. Caricatures fade amid the careful instruction of the authors.
The authors divide 21 rich chapters among five sections: I. Roots, II. Cultural Context, III. Social Organization, IV. External Ties, and V. The Future.
In the view of this reader, the authors’ Big Idea is remarkably simple: the Amish are not anti-technology, anti-modernity, or for that matter anti-anything.
Rather, with a view to preserving certain non-negotiable values, the Old Order Amish self-consciously negotiate the degree to which they will engage the offerings that a modern and post-modern world would thrust upon them.
When I was growing up on the boundaries of the Amish in Central Pennsylvania, it was common to snicker at the hypocrisy of this strange tribe. They would not have phones in their home, but would sneak down to the phone shack at the end of the driveway to make their calls. They would not own cars, but would contract ‘English’ drivers to haul them about.
Kraybill and his co-authors explain that ‘hypocrisy’ is an unpromising explanation for such admittedly negotiated solutions. Is it not closer to reality on the ground to understand that the Amish may treasure uninterrupted and intentional family life in a way that makes using the phone a choice (though it may involved walking 100 yards through the snow) rather than a mindless response whenever the thing decides to ring in the bosom of the family’s space? Gently (there’s that word again), the authors lead one to see the sense of such a complex network of negotiated settlements with a wider world that has made other choices.
Though the authors clearly admire the Old Order Amish, they are realistic about the challenges any community (in this case, a broad network of distinct and interlocking communities) faces in a world where the mainstream declares itself both obvious and inviolable.
The Amish is a work of gentle history, a moniker I choose not chiefly because the object of the authors’ research is a people attempting to remain gentle, but rather because the authors have demonstrated that history and sociological analysis need not reduce the human objects of their research to less than they are. In real life. Quietly. Along the margins of our frenzy.