Theology is a defining characteristic of much Christian fiction. Which is why the proliferation of Amish fiction has always puzzled me.
In The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, Valerie Weaver-Zercher notes that “The triumvirate of top Amish romance novelists–Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall–have sold a combined total of 24 million books. At least seven of Lewis’s Amish novels have sold more than 500,000 copies each, and one of those, The Shunning, has sold more than 1 million copies. Brunstetter’s fifty books, almost all of them Amish titles, have sold nearly 6 million copies.” (p. 5)
Many have sought to explain the popularity of Amish fiction in evangelical circles. According to Weaver-Zercher, the two factors that have bolstered the Amish trend is the rise of hypermodernity and hypersexualization. “The speed, anomie, and digital slavery of contemporary life have sent many readers, weary of hypermodernity, to books containing stories of a people group whom readers perceive as hypermodernity’s antithesis: the Amish” (p. 10). And with the hypersexualization of American society through television, advertising, fashion, pornography, and erotica, Amish fiction became a literary respite for those who valued sexual purity and virtue. Weaver-Zercher concludes, “The exponential growth of Amish fiction during the first decade of the twenty-first century cannot be understood apart from these ‘hyper’ cultural developments.” (p. 12)
It’s understandable that the Amish way of life would be attractive for people, like evangelicals, who seek to separate themselves from secular culture, its hectic pace and its deteriorating moralities. Indeed, the Amish may be a great example of a community that is “in” but not “of” the world.
My question is: Why does their erroneous legalistic theology get a pass?
Please know, I am not saying that the Amish aren’t Christians. From my understanding, they hold to the central tenets of Judeo-Christian theology — belief in One God, the authority of Scripture, the Deity of Christ, His resurrection from the grave, etc.. I personally feel I can no more determine that all Amish aren’t Christians as I can that all Baptists are Christians.
Nevertheless, a cursory investigation into Amish beliefs should raise some concerns among evangelicals.
In her book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Amish, Susan Rensberger writes,
For Evangelicals and other conservative Protestants, salvation is an unmistakable experience which happens when one trusts Jesus. Amish are different. They don’t believe that anyone is guaranteed salvation as a result of a conversion experience, baptism, joining the church, etc. “…they would consider it arrogant or prideful to claim certainty of salvation.”
The Amish believe that God carefully weighs the individual’s total lifetime record of obedience to the church and then decides whether the person’s eternal destiny will be the reward of Heaven or the punishment in Hell. As a result, an Amish believer lives their life and dies not knowing if they are saved and will attain Heaven (bold, mine)
An article on the Amish at About.com, similarly notes,
Although the Amish profess salvation by grace, many of their congregations practice salvation by works. They believe God decides their eternal destiny by weighing their lifelong obedience to the rules of the church against their disobedience.
If this is accurate, and to whatever degree the Amish believe this, it should be a big red flag to evangelical readers. Sola fide (which is Latin for “faith alone”), is a distinguishing tenet of Protestantism. The belief that we are saved by faith in Christ and not religious works (Eph. 2:8) is a hugely important doctrine. Indeed, a distinguishing trait of many pseudo-Christian cults is a belief in the earning of ones salvation, usually through a checklist of good deeds.
So do evangelical readers of Amish fiction NOT know this? Or do evangelical readers of Amish fiction just not care?
Another rather unique Amish belief is the the Ordnung. Amish America defines the Ordnung this way:
The Ordnung is the unwritten set of rules and regulations that guide everyday Amish life. Meaning “order”, or “discipline”, this German word takes on a deeper meaning in the Amish context. The Ordnung provides the foundation for the Amish Christian community.
The website gives this example of adherence to the Ordnung:
Rules of the Ordnung can help church members better live Christian lives, the Amish believe. The strictures of the Ordnung are generally not found in the Bible, but are frequently based in Scriptural principle.
One example would be rules outlining plain dress, which Amish base on several passages in Scripture. Restrictions on color of clothing and style of buggy, which some may see as harnessing self-expression, in fact help prevent pride and envy, though individual dictates on these issues are not necessarily found in Scripture.
On a deeper level, the Amish believe that submitting oneself to an Ordnung is also a way to demonstrate a humble spirit, an important, Christlike trait. One must subvert individualism and arrogance for the good of the community. Amish do this by faithfully adhering to the Ordnung.
Is it wrong to have a checklist of rules for community conduct? Not necessarily. However, in light of the previous belief (salvation by works), it could be assumed that such strictures are viewed as salvific and become a means to favor with God. Not to mention the ultra-conservative, possibly Pharisaic enforcement of communal rules in general and how biblical such an approach is.
I’ve never read any Amish fiction. (Perhaps that should be my next Fiction Challenge???) I’m sure that much of it is well-written and inspirational. I just can’t help but feel that evangelical readers and publishers give Amish fiction a pass. Because it adheres to two important values of readers of Christian fiction — it’s clean and emphasizes separation from the world — we wink at some of the legalistic, perhaps unbiblical, elements of Amish beliefs. And, oh, also because it’s selling.
I must admit, as a writer of speculative fiction, this is particularly annoying. With my first two novels published in the Christian market, I am familiar with having my stories parsed for theological accuracy by evangelical readers. I was required to write an Afterword for my first novel to explain the appearance of a ghost. I’ve had others question my approach to angels and territorial gods, as well as how “Christian” my characters were. See, for example, this Goodreads reviewer’s comments on my second novel The Telling:
I actually had to double check the back cover: this book is pitched as Christian fiction, but to my mind there is nothing Christian about it. It uses Judeo-Christian angelology as a backdrop, but it could just as easily be considered New Age.
A cursory investigation into Amish beliefs should raise some concerns among evangelicals. But it doesn’t. Why? Why is Amish fiction so popular among evangelical readers? Are the doctrinal issues not as big as I’ve suggested? Or maybe theology really isn’t that big an issue for Christian readers after all. Either way, it leaves me wondering how “Christian” Amish fiction really is. It also leaves me wondering if good theology is actually negotiable for evangelical readers and publishers.