No melodrama please, we’re Amish

Lancaster_County_Amish_02

As most American denominations have more or less accommodated themselves to the culture around them, the Amish and their countercultural ways have remained a topic of fascination to their fellow citizens. Only a 20-minute drive from where my family lives, Lancaster County has made an industry of Amish life — some Amish participate in reaching out to tourists who want to vicariously experience Amish life.

Given the big market for “clean” romance targeting conservative Christian readers, it seems reasonable that entrepreneurial non-Amish writers would use the Amish as subjects — and make a nice living doing so.

A recent article by Pittburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Ann Rodgers charts the popularity of “Amish” romances.

Among the tourist trinkets at rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike are novels with covers adorned with beautiful, bonneted women and buggies.

For the women readers who have made Amish romance the fastest-growing genre in Christian fiction, these books aren’t exactly steamy aphrodisiacs. Hand-holding is a heart-stopping event.

A hero’s greatest desire is often to teach an English, or non-Amish, heroine about Jesus. Plots may stir an irresistable urge to bake rhubarb pie.

Most Amish-themed romance novels are written by non-Amish authors and are aimed primarily at an evangelical Christian readership. While Amish women do read them, leaders of Amish communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have actively discouraged or banned them.

As I’ve said before, I see a journalistic purpose in religious “culture” stories beyond the culture wars — those that map the decisions that shape the lives of many readers in mundane life. Kudos to Rodgers, who is such a thorough reporter, for picking up on a trend and interviewing not only scholars, authors and publicists but members of Amish communities who object to the books.

Imagine yourself at a rest stop in Pennsylvania, picking up an Amish romance (ok, I can’t imagine doing that, but perhaps you can). Wouldn’t you want to know if they are accurate? Wouldn’t you be interested in how they are received by the Amish?

“Romance books are a great hindrance to a Christian marriage,” said Andrew Troyer, a deacon in that community.

He hasn’t read any, and he said he knows these are intended to promote Christian virtue. But they encourage the wrong foundation for marriage, he said.

“It gets young people all pumped up for the perfect setting, and that’s not reality. Marriage is God-ordained and divine and it’s wonderful to have a Christian marriage. But it takes give-and-take.”

What a wonderful quote — that’s classic Amish doctrine right there. Rodgers nicely distinguishes between the plot lines in some Amish novels (oft tailored to meet the expectations of conservative Christian readers) and the reality. But she also speaks to Linda Byler, an Amish romance writer from the Amish community — and perhaps the only Amish romance writer. Should Byler’s work take off when she signs with a major publisher, that may lead to tensions within the community — and the potential for more good stories.

While I doubt that many readers will now hesitate before picking up that novel on the Turnpike (it may be the least expensive “trinket” in the rest stop), they will have a much better idea of whether the author they are reading reflects accurately on Amish life — and may become more interested in finding out about the real lives of this private community than in romantic fantasies about them.

Picture of Amish girls from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Dave

    I can understand the dour reaction of Amish leaders. Imagine if there were a “clean” romance genre about “devout” Catholic youngsters, written by non-Catholics. They’d get enough wrong to have an effect like fingernails on a blackboard.

  • Jerry

    He hasn’t read any, and he said he knows these are intended to promote Christian virtue. But they encourage the wrong foundation for marriage, he said.

    That quote is a critical part of the story because it allows the reader to see that he judged the books without really knowing what is in them. He could easily be right in his criticism, but since I don’t read romance novels I would not know.

  • http://pastoralmusings.com JLS

    One exception to the rule would probably be Beverly Lewis. She grew up in that area. Her books usually give thanks to folks who helped her research for her books, too.

  • http://amishamerica.typepad.com/amish_america/ Erik Wesner/Amish America

    Interesting post. I run an Amish-theme blog and occasionally receive Amish fiction for review. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to delve too deeply into it. I’ll only say that it is interesting what can be found in some Amish homes when it comes to reading material. I did ask an Amish friend who sometimes comments on the blog (work computer) for his two cents, which I posted a few months ago: http://amishamerica.typepad.com/amish_america/2009/03/ask-an-amishman.html

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Erik Wesner: Please tell us more — what you can, anyhow. What do you know about what is found in some Amish homes?

  • Jill C.

    Are you sure that photo isn’t depicting Amish girls in Second Life?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Jill C:

    Here’s the URL:

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lancaster_County_Amish_02.jpg

    Is it getting so that now Second Life looks like our first one?

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    In response to JLS, while my sources give Beverly Lewis a lot of credit for research, and say the accuracy of her books has improved over the years, they still say she’s off target. And many of the Amish themselves have a bee in their bonnet about the way shunning was depicted in her first novel, which apparently was way overblown despite having been based on her grandmother’s experience. Sometimes its errors of detail. But the biggest criticism was that the characters think and talk too much like standard evangelicals, whose understanding of God’s will tends to be individualistic rather than communal.