Book review: ‘Becoming Amish’

Dec 5, 2016 by

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The same desire and longing I identified in the rock/rebellion anti-establishment culture during my early 20s I have found in Christian culture and especially in Anabaptist groups who believe in living out kingdom Christianity.

This is the last sentence of Becoming Amish. It was written by Bill Moser, the head of a family that, beginning in the late 1990s, adopted the Amish lifestyle. Moser and his spouse, Tricia, and their six children lived in two Amish communities in northern Michigan for 15 years.

"Becoming Amish"

“Becoming Amish”

Oddly, though, Moser did not write Becoming Amish. “During final reviews of this book’s manuscript,” writes the author, Jeff Smith, “Bill wrote me a note. He asked that we include this brief paragraph as a parting statement.”

Why would Smith, who is neither Christian nor Amish, give Moser the last word? Perhaps because they had been pals since they were 4 years old.

It’s also odd that Moser, a former member of the “rock rebellion anti-establishment culture,” would wind up in an Amish community. Doing your own thing is anathema to the Amish, a people for whom community is of the highest importance.

In fact, only a handful of the few who try to live the Amish life (rather than being born into it) manage to hang in. According to The Amish, published in 2013 by Donald Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner and Steven M. Nolt, “only about 75 outsiders have joined and remain members of the Amish since 1950.”

Bill and Tricia Moser are not among the 75.

What attracted a professional couple (he an architect, she an occupational therapist) to leave their BMW lifestyle behind?

Moser had an epiphany one night in Detroit. He was at a Christian conference in an arena that could hold 13,000 when the main speaker appeared on a giant screen. “He was neat as a pin, the personification of the kind of Christian man I loathed,” Moser recalled. “I thought, This guy has nothing to tell me.”

Moser was wrong.

“He said, ‘You must put off the old man and put on the new man, put off the old life and put on the new life.’ ”

The words jolted him to consciousness. The Mosers grew to understand that “they wanted faith at the center of their lives in a moment-by-moment, day-in-day-out way.” They also realized they wanted to be part of a community that shared their faith, that they wanted to stay focused on their relationships to their children (which would be guided by the Bible) and wanted to make a living in a way that would keep the family together for whole days rather than being spun off to different places.

What they wanted, in short, was to adopt the Amish lifestyle.

Having joined a Mennonite congregation 18 years ago, I understand the appeal of Anabaptist ways. I was pleased, as Moser was in the case of the Amish, at the lack of stained glass and soaring ceilings, at the absence of a large and powerful church hierarchy and at the unwavering commitment to pacifism and to frugality.

Similarly, I respect the Amish for trying to bundle together all the elements of their lives — school and work, worship and business, ideals and action — to make a stalwart community built on a deep desire for congruency and coherence.

Yet I share some of Smith’s confusion about how the Amish square the use of some tools with the rejection of others. Their mode of transport is horse and buggy, yet, Smith writes, “you can charge a high-tech lithium battery with a generator? You can’t use a button (clothing is instead fastened with hooks), but you can use a fully automated pallet maker?”

It turns out that within the 2,000-plus North American Amish congregations “there is a dizzying array of what’s allowed and what’s forbidden,” Smith writes.

For example:

  • Some communities share a phone or two, while others allow cellphones but require them to be turned off in the house.
  • Some allow only kerosene lamps, others battery-powered lamps.
  • Low-tech communities don’t gravel their roads; high-tech communities of New Order Amish allow diesel tractors.

Will this splintering prove fatal to the Amish? Or will it reveal the attempt of the Amish to be consistent was of the foolish sort described by Ralph Waldo Emerson? I doubt the answer to either question will be yes. Given that the Amish are 250,000 strong and growing fast, what with an average of seven children in every marriage, they appear to have staying power.

After spending 15 years with the more conservative Amish communities in Michigan, the Mosers moved to Salem, Mo., where they took up residence in an Amish Mennonite community. There were two major reasons for the move. I’ve decided to withhold the reasons for their decision, not to avoid issuing a spoiler alert but to encourage you to read the book.

Smith brings to the book a journalist’s detachment — or, in fact, an anthropologist’s; he confesses approaching the Mosers as if they were Tibetan monks. He discloses his lifelong relationship with Bill and reports the facts about Amish life objectively, noting that “America’s culture of plain communities is not one simple unified, monolithic thing, but more a rainbow of communities and cultures that divide along a million different fracture lines,” as well as occasionally confessing his puzzlement.

The result is an honest and nuanced look at a religion and a culture that more often gets painted with a broad brush.

Roger Martin, of Lawrence, Kan., edited a University of Kansas research magazine and later wrote commentaries about KU research for Kansas Public Radio. His book, A Doubter’s Guide to God, was published in July by Woodley Press.


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