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2013-04-01 issue:

What's a Mennonite to do?

The Amish makeover of Christian fiction

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

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My grandfather left his Amish home in Holmes County, Ohio, to follow the wheat harvest and never went back. His was a typical journey up what has been called the "Anabaptist escalator": from the lower floors of the Old Order Amish to the more acculturated and more evangelical Mennonites.

In his day and among many of his peers, the personal conversion stories and Bible studies of conservative Protestantism held a great deal more appeal than the buggies, broadfall pants and other world-rejecting gestures of conservative Anabaptism. While he died a Mennonite, John Slabaugh, my mother's father, spent many years worshipping with the Plymouth Brethren and appreciating the Baptists, and he was a dedicated fan of Billy Graham and premillennial theology.

Now, some 100 years after he left the church of his birth, characters dressed like my grandpa’s mother are flooding the inspirational fiction market. Eighty-five new Amish romance novels were published in 2012; that’s one new Amish-themed novel about every four days. It's also 83 more than were published a decade earlier, in 2002.

With few exceptions, the novels are written by evangelical Christian authors and published by evangelical publishing houses. The top three authors of Amish fiction have sold more than 24 million books, and Amish romance novels regularly appear on the New York Times bestseller lists. The Amish-fiction phenomenon has been covered by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Time and Newsweek, among other venues, and full-page ads for Amish-themed novels regularly appear in the pages of this magazine.

That the Amish, whom he left, would become so popular among the evangelicals, to whom he fled, might have appeared to my grandfather the ultimate irony. From his early and mid-20th-century vantage point, the Amish likely appeared in the rearview mirror of history, and the engines of industrialization, urbanization and evangelicalism would have confirmed for him their marginal place in both his story and the larger American one. That fictional Amish women would someday dominate the bookshelves of the Christian bookstores he frequented and that articles about the so-called "bonnet-rippers" would appear in newspapers and magazines around the country—and that Amish-themed reality TV would introduce millions of viewers to Katie Stoltzfus and Lebanon Levi—well, it's safe to say that my grandfather couldn't have seen any of it coming.

As I researched the blockbuster popularity of Amish fiction for my book Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, I thought a lot about my grandfather and about how my connection to him might flavor my consideration of the genre. I knew I couldn't offer an objective analysis about this Amish-fiction phenomenon, to which I felt some intimate if mostly historical connection, and that it would be disingenuous to pretend I was an aloof observer. So I wrote myself and my Mennonite identity into the book. I needed readers to know that I had some skin in the game, so to speak, and that I felt a strange blend of flattery and revulsion as I watched the burgeoning size and commercial strength of the genre.

I'd wager that many North American Menno­nites feel a flicker of pride in our theological and historical connection to the group that has become the buggy-driving superstars of popular culture. This is likely truer of Swiss-German Mennonites who share ethnic bonds with the Amish than of Mennonites of other ethnic backgrounds; still, a shared Anabaptist genotype with the Amish makes all Mennonites, regardless of ethnicity, ecclesial cousins if not actual ones. Maybe all the Amish hoopla in popular Christian and secular cultures signals that there really is something excellent about this faith to which we belong. Indeed, telling Amish-fiction readers I interviewed that my grandpa grew up Amish, or that I had visited with Amish people in their homes, never failed to impress them.

Yet as I read Amish novel after Amish novel, I felt a niggling sense of annoyance, too. It had something to do with the borrowing and benefiting at work in the fact that 60 non-Anabaptist novelists are advancing careers by locating their stories in Amish country. I felt uneasy that a culture and faith that I felt close to was being sliced and diced into loving glances over chicken pot pie and conversions in the cornfield, and I wondered whether readers were learning anything about Anabaptism's communitarian ethics, nonresistant commitments and history of persecution. The near absence of references to nonresistance in the books made me suspicious.

Although I hesitated to blame romance novels for offering a partial view of a complicated and centuries-old religious tradition, I also wondered whether these gentle narratives of marriage and family and neighbor and land did more to illuminate or obscure the identity of a complex culture.

Romance novels are not theology or history texts, and they shouldn’t be read as such. It's a novelist's prerogative to create a cast of characters, choose a setting and build a plotline from the stuff of imagination; if a writer were only allowed to write about her or his own ethnic or religious groups, literature would be much impoverished. And while I didn’t do a factual inventory of the novels—despite the fact that the first question I got from many readers was, "How accurate are the books?"—as far as I can tell, some of the novels do an admirable job of getting both the details and essence of Amish life right.

But as I read Amish novels, and as I interviewed readers and writers and publishers of the books, I couldn’t help but wonder about what is drained from a religious faith when it becomes the epicenter of a commercially successful literature. What aspects of Amish or Anabaptist life are filed down to pleasing size in Amish novels, or perhaps even erased? When one novelist of Amish-themed romances, in describing her workshop "Amish Fiction 101" at the American Christian Fiction Writers' Conference, wrote that the Amish world "is such a perfect fit for Christian fiction," I wondered what part of the Anabaptist story she might be missing.

Let's be clear: Mennonites both consume and produce Amish romance novels. One marketing manager told me that the books produced by his publishing company, which publishes some of the leading Amish-fiction writers' work, sell best near Amish communities. "That's not because we’re selling to the Amish," he clarified; "that's because we’re selling to the Mennonites who live near them." I spoke with many appreciative Mennonite readers of the novels, and heard about many more, including one 92-year-old retired Menno­nite farmer who read almost 90 Amish novels before he died.

Mennonites are creators of Amish novels, too. Good Books, a Mennonite-owned publisher, is publishing the novels of Linda Byler, the only currently Amish novelist writing Amish-themed novels available to a general readership. And Herald Press was one of the first entrants to the Amish fiction field, having published Clara Bernice Miller's Amish-themed novels in the 1960s and 1970s and then Mary Christner Borntrager's and Carrie Bender's novels in the 1980s and 1990s, long before Beverly Lewis landed the lucrative Amish-fiction account.

It makes sense, on one hand. Many Mennonite readers of fiction are looking for the same things other Christian readers of fiction want: novels that won’t offend their religious and sexual ethic and that will spur them on to greater Christian devotion. Amish romance novels are chaste texts about chaste protagonists living within what is perceived to be a chaste subculture: one that has remained set apart from many of the seductions of technology and modernization.

Historian Eric Miller, writing in Christianity Today, suggests a key appeal of the genre to evangelical readers—and, I would add, to many Mennonite readers—is that the Amish are "an adequately alien, adequately familiar community to imaginatively work out persisting cultural and theological questions." Questions of how much freedom is too much, of how a church community should shape the lives of its members, of how Christians should respond to modernization and consumption and changing social mores: these and other questions preoccupy many people of faith, and Amish fiction becomes a stage on which one answer is played out.

For some Mennonite readers of Amish fiction, of course, the Amish are more than "adequately familiar"; they’re downright familial. Still, many Mennonite readers experience the stressors and pace and anomie of modern life in the same way non-Mennonite readers do, and while they may feel psychically closer to the Amish taproot of the novels, they share the concerns of their non-Mennonite evangelical sisters and brothers about the directions and distractions of modern life.

Mennonites are also some of Amish romance novels' most disgruntled critics. One Mennonite professor suggested in an academic paper that the genre is as damaging to female readers as TV shows like The Bachelor, since both contain the underlying message, "Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride—in a limo or a buggy—because a man's agency is all that matters, not your own." And a Mennonite blogger could not disguise her disgust. "Without going into the literary quality (or lack of) of any of these books, the #1 thing that makes me cringe when I read them is the authenticity factor. … It's typically cavalier American to think you can do some reading and visit a few Amish families and write an authentic novel. An Amishman would never be that audacious about a different culture, assuming that you could read about the Masai, for example, and visit for a week and then write a story about them."

It might be a misplaced sense of custodianship that has these writers and me feeling anxious about non-Anabaptist novelists representing "our" people—who aren’t, of course, "ours" at all. The Amish don’t need us as Mennonites to look after them. In fact, many Amish people would likely feel more kinship with fundamentalist-evangelical readers of the novels than they do with some of us Mennonites who share their churchly DNA. Still, it's hard to ignore the sense that people are paraphrasing a religious tradition not far from our own and to wonder whether something is being lost in the translation.

As I talked with Mennonites, both loyal readers of the novels and vehement critics of them, the breadth of Mennonite opinion that exists about the genre became clear.

Mennonites belong to different "taste publics," as theorist Herbert Gans calls groupings of people who share aesthetic sensibilities and ways of evaluating art and literature. What one taste public values—such as uncomplicated prose, piety-driven narratives and happy endings, in the case of Amish fiction—another dislikes. Since Mennonites are a diverse lot in that regard—which is a good thing—I don’t presume to propose some sweeping Mennonite reaction to Amish fiction. And because the genre is nearly as diverse as the people whose lives it fictionalizes, making grandiose claims either about its merits or its dangers is unhelpful.

But here's one more fact that likely would have made my grandfather, who ended up a member of Hartville (Ohio) Mennonite Church, raise his eyebrows. While Amish fiction remains an alpha dog in the world of Christian romance literature, evidence is  gathering that a related subgenre is nipping at its heels: Mennonite fiction.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is author of Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Johns Hopkins University Press, March 2013). She is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and a member of Slate Hill Mennonite Church.

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    Valerie of the Schlabachs--Astute analysis. I've been aware of the Mennonite readers of Amish Christian fiction over the years, and yours is a helpful interpretation. Levi Miller

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