How “Christian” Is Amish Fiction?

by Mike Duran · 12 comments

Amish-1

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.

Anyway.

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.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah March 16, 2015 at 2:29 PM

Gah. So I wrote a blog post last week about my love/hate relationship with Amish fiction. Unless these authors are making this up, I have read several books where the Amish sects say that having a personal relationship with Jesus is sinful and prideful. They can’t read the Bible themselves, they can’t ask questions, and basically wanting to really know anything about the faith not on a surface-y level is forbidden. Therefore the characters have to leave and are essentially shunned in order to become Christians. I don’t think this is ALL of the Amish but reading about that is quite disturbing to me.

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Kessie March 16, 2015 at 4:16 PM

Wow, people call out spec fic and ignore Amish legalism? Pot calling the kettle black much?

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John Robinson March 16, 2015 at 4:23 PM

Agreed. I’ve never understood why stories about a grim, dour, controlling cult appeals to so many Christian women, but it does. They seem to eat it up with both hands, which I suppose is one reason the CBA houses pump the stuff out in freight-car lots. Color me baffled.

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Katrina June 27, 2016 at 12:29 PM

I second your sentiment.

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Iola March 16, 2015 at 6:26 PM

I read a lot of Christian fiction, but I rarely read Amish (when I do, it merely serves to remind me why I usually avoid it). When I do enjoy Amish fiction, it’s usually because the Amish aren’t the focus of the story, just bit-players in a larger mystery or suspense plot.

I absolutely agree with your points about the questionable nature of Amish beliefs: they certainly reflect the beliefs promulgated in the Amish novels I have read.

I’m also not sold on the concept of instituting rules (e.g. in dress) as a way of keeping pride in check. The New Testament is full of prideful people who *knew* keeping the rules was the way to God, but Jesus didn’t see it their way.

What bothers me most is that they don’t appear to educate their children (boys or girls) beyond the age of twelve, which effectively limits their ability to survive in “English” society. It also means many fictional Amish characters come across as naïve and stupid, and I don’t enjoy reading books with stupid characters, a fact I’m reminded of every time I try another Amish novel.

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Jim Hamlett March 17, 2015 at 7:31 AM

Mike–you’ve been in this business long enough to know that publishers publish what they thing will sell (as determined by the marketing dept.). If it sells, they publish more of it. Maybe Amish Vampires in Space isn’t such a bad idea. Go for it!

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Sparksofember March 17, 2015 at 7:47 AM

I think reading a few of the more popular ones would be wise before making such an blanket assumption. I have read quite a few of these Amish Christian fiction books. I don’t usually love them but I’ll read whatever is at hand when the mood strikes. It’s been my experience that 9 times out of 10, the Amish theology is questioned by the main character &/or their family and they end up becoming Mennonites, move to a less strict sect, or their entire group has a “salvation experience”. And in some cases, they are shunned. The characters don’t usually completely leave that way of life – but it becomes about choice and moderation rather than requirement.

So the books aren’t merely clean romances – they frequently are about saving the main characters, their families and sometimes the entire community from their misguided theology. They don’t get a free pass – in fact, you could say they are more “preachy” than a lot of other Christian romantic fiction. Now there are some out there where the theology aspect is very much background and not the focus of the story. But it’s been my experience that more often than not, Amish fiction provides opportunities to explore aspects of faith Christians may take for granted.

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dmdutcher March 17, 2015 at 8:40 AM

I’ll get flamed over this, but the average Christian woman doesn’t care as much about theology as you’d think. More about personal and collective holiness, and Amishness is all about a severe form of personal and collective holiness.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller March 17, 2015 at 10:22 AM

Mike, I have several thoughts on this, but after reading the comments, I have to say, I think David is wrong. I don’t know all women, of course, but I think it’s assuming a lot to say “the average Christian woman doesn’t care as much about theology as you’d think.” Of course I don’t know what you think about the knowledge of theology of the average Christian woman, so it’s not an argument I can actually make.

Be that as it may, my first reaction dovetails with what Sparksofember said. I haven’t read any Amish fiction, but a friend of mine at church—a friend with some knowledge of the Amish and with an understanding of doctrine—was in an Amish fiction reading spree. I asked her about them, particularly about whether or not they were portrayed as Christian, in the sense that their theology agrees with Scripture. She said, no, they were not, that often the story was about the main character finding Christ.

But as you point out, there are a lot of novels out there, some written by people that are merely using the Amish culture as a backdrop, and those I wonder just how much they know about Amish theology.

I’m not dubious without reason. Some years ago I judged a book for a contest which was supposedly set in an Old Mennonite community. Since my background is Mennonite, I could easily spot glaring errors. The author had not done her homework (for example, she had this community oppose education for children past 8th grade, as if that was something Mennonites believe—except, she ignored the fact that there are a number of Mennonite colleges). My point is, with so many Amish books out there, it would not be surprising to find some that don’t get the Amish community right, whose authors haven’t done their homework and who assume they are just regular Protestant believers who want to live a simpler life, or something.

In that regard, I think it’s even more likely that some readers have this same errant view of the Amish. Goodness, if some Christians think Mormons are Christian, why would they think differently of the Amish?

However, I don’t think it’s as much a problem of not knowing theology as it is of not knowing what other people believe. We Americans, at least, seem curiously un-curious about other people. Dare I say we even have this idea that people everywhere are just like us.

But I’m getting far afield.

Here’s my conclusion—some Amish fiction is Biblical. Readers don’t complain about the books that aren’t because they don’t know what the Amish actually believe. Whereas they might complain about things that seem connected to the occult because they do know what the Bible says about sorcery. Now the misapprehension of what constitutes the occult is a topic for another day.

Becky

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Arlee Bird March 17, 2015 at 7:39 PM

Interesting topic to pose. Not having read any Amish fiction or knowing much about it or its authors I don’t have much of an opinion regarding your question. What I would wonder is are the authors those we would consider “Christian”? I suppose the mysterious romantic lure of these folks in the buggies and funny costumes and leading the simple life would be somewhat exotic to most of us so the readers of this genre might be predisposed to a fanciful vision of what their lives might be like.

Also, it seems that I’ve seen where some of this literature is rather anti-Amish and more about people trying to escape the cultish lifestyle, but then maybe this only encompasses a small portion of the genre.

In any case, there is so much to read that I’d probably not be inclined to read any of this Amish literature. It does puzzle me though as to the prevalence of books on the subject.

Arlee Bird
A to Z Challenge Co-host
Tossing It Out

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Daniel M. March 18, 2015 at 12:55 PM

Every now and then I wonder, “Do the Amish read Amish Fiction?”

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Rachel Bishop March 23, 2015 at 11:06 AM

I think it should be called Religious Fiction that way it covers all types. I am reading one right now that is called Historical Fiction called Magdala by Valerie Gross. About the life of Mary Magdalene, but it is a love story between her and Jesus and there is the element of Christianity and that would put it under Christian Fiction, but Historical in this case works too.

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