We’ve got an Amish community not too far from here. It is the place to go when you need to stock up on produce, farm-grown foods, or heirloom-quality furniture. It is also known as the place to go if you really just need to see some Amish people doing what they do. And a lot of people like to do just that—to go and look, to go and gawk.
Even though we’ve got an extensive group nearby, we recently found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, North America’s best-known Amish community. (Full disclosure: Our actual travel objective was Harrisburg and the overrated Civil War museum there, but every hotel in the city was completely full.) We did not stop on the road outside Amish farms to watch them do their work, and did not go on a bus tour, but we couldn’t help but see horses and buggies around town, and, of course, plenty of the distinctive Amish clothing.
As we headed north, back toward our home, I started to think about the Amish and why we find them so endlessly fascinating. Though they are small in numbers, everyone knows who they are and everyone knows at least a few of their unique customs; though so much of their religious practice appears insufferable, they are regarded as Christians who love and practice grace. They are the heroes of a million stories, the subject of a thousand documentaries. Why are they so fascinating? I have a few ideas.
The Amish challenge us. In a world where we are so completely dependent on our high-tech devices, the Amish somehow manage to survive without them, and even appear to thrive without them. Where we are convinced that newer is better and that we are only ever one innovation away from joy, the Amish seem plenty happy to do without. If you spend time around the Amish, or if you begin to learn about their ways, you necessarily find yourself asking questions like: Do I really need my smartphone? Are all of these devices really bringing happiness? What have I lost in all of this innovation? The Amish challenge so many of our deeply-held beliefs and assumptions.
We want to figure out the Amish. We are fascinated by the Amish because we so badly want to figure them out. Where they proclaim that they have great uniformity in their lives and laws, we see great contradictions. Their faith appears contradictory: They speak about the grace of Christ but live by law; they extend grace to those who harm them, but shun those who leave them; they rejoice in their salvation, but do not share Christ with others. Their laws appear contradictory: The men can have buttons, but the women must use straight pins; connecting to a phone network attaches them to the world, but connecting to a road network does not; they rely on doctors and lawyers, but will not allow their own children to be educated beyond eighth grade. When I see the Amish, with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their grace and legalism, I look for a key that unlocks it all. I look for knowledge that makes it all make sense.
The Amish recall a simpler time. Where life today is marked by endless complexity, the Amish are known for their quiet simplicity. As they go about their lives, they draw us to a simpler time. In some ways the Amish live in the best of both worlds—the world today and the world of centuries ago. They live their day-to-day lives in that simpler world, that quieter world, that slower world. But, when necessity dictates, and law permits, they take advantage of modern innovations. They use horse-drawn buggies to get to their worship services, but hire drivers to take them to the store. They have no electricity in their homes, but give birth and die while connected to modern medical equipment. Their simplicity attracts us. It draws us.
The Amish recall a purer time. The Amish call us to a simpler time, but also a purer time. This purity is an illusion, I think, but it still captivates us. Even though we love our modern technologies, we can’t deny that they have changed us. We tend to think that they have polluted us. Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that we create technologies in our own image and, soon enough, they return the favor. We are products of our technologies, dependent upon them, and shaped by them. When we look at the Amish, unshaped by radio and television, cell phones and web pages, we see something that looks pure by contrast.
We admire the Amish. We admire the Amish for their stubborn refusal to change and to adapt. We are amazed that they continue to live in this high-tech, always-on world in the way they do. Yet they live in it unabashed, unembarrassed by their eccentricities. They don’t allow external pressure to shape their deepest beliefs. With the modern world pressing in around them, they don’t only survive, but thrive. Their communities continue to grow, their land holdings continue to expand, their businesses continue to thrive. We admire them in many ways, but perhaps most deeply simply for being, and remaining, who and what they are.
So I suppose the most fascinating thing of all about the Amish is that they still exist. When they first came to national attention in the early twentieth century, prognosticators gave them a generation or two before they were gone. They thrived. When they received close study in the middle of the century, sociologists and anthropologists once again decreed that they would soon surrender to the world around them. They grew. And as the technological distance between them and us deepens and widens, they seem to be thriving all the more. Their very existence is a marvel; their practices are a challenge. We love the Amish because, in some ways, we long to be the Amish.
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