Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christ finds an Amish heart

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, memoirs, christian faith, religion

Ira Wagler was not a bad boy; neither was he an exceptionally good boy. He was an ordinary boy. If he was different in any way, it was that his heart was larger than the box of his upbringing, and that he longed to believe, but not blindly or unthinkingly. He has something of the soul of a Renaissance man, a keenly inquiring mind, and it is hard to keep such a person bound to unthinking tradition for long.

In Ira's case, it was impossible. Born and raised Old Order Amish, the culture to which he became accustomed is one of the most traditional, conservative and restrictive that Western life has to offer. His Amish community was not the tightest of the tight, not quite. The Amish that moved to Aylmer, Ontario, his parents among them, were seeking to found a colony that would be more pure, more tradition-bound than where they had been. Curiously, there are Amish who think the Aylmer community is too "loose" and "worldly", and will not take the bread and wine of communion with them. I wonder what Ira's life would have been like among them. Likely even shorter than his 26 years among his family's church in Aylmer, and later in Bloomfield, Iowa, and still later in other places.

Ira's book Growing Up Amish: A Memoir is a chronicle that begins in Ira's seventeenth year, when he first left to live among "the English", and ends in his twenty-sixth year, when he left for the fourth and last time, no longer to be an Amishman. You could call it a "life and hard times" book, and it surely is. You could call it a Quest, and it surely was. I find it most akin to The Girl Nobody Loved by Dorie Van Stone or The Woman at the Well by Dale Evans. It is a story of a lost soul being watched over by a loving God, finally to find God in grateful acceptance of His sacrifice for sins and His grace to live in His presence.

The book also provides a much-needed window into the lifestyle and ways of the Amish, which are a great mystery to most Americans, even those who live among them. I confess, though I live just over an hour from the "Amish capitol" of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and buy produce from Amish people at a local farmer's market; even though I have sat and talked with a few now and then, I have known little but that they were an ultra-conservative splinter from the Anabaptists known as Mennonites.

Because of their ultra-traditional way of life, I find in the Amish an exaggerated reflection of the experiences of my own, quite conservative Christian congregation. Christian communities everywhere that attempt to maintain a standard of purity while surrounded by "people of lower standards" experience quite a bit of contrarian activity among their children as they grow towards adulthood. The impulse to test boundaries is built into the human character, as illustrated by the story of Adam and Eve in the garden: There was but one rule, and only one, to not eat the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Of course, Genesis 3 begins with Eve hanging around near that tree, wondering why. The serpent is simply allegorical; she needed no prompting other than her own (slightly) rebellious thoughts. How bad could "just a taste" really be, after all? The rest of the Bible provides the answer: tragically bad, but God has a way of redemption.

How do we keep the youngsters from "impurity" and "worldliness"? One way is to eschew contact with that world. The communal Hutterites try to do so. But in some parts of Western North America, there are lots of ex-Hutterites. The Amish at least engage with the English, trading with us, getting jobs among us (if you want a deck built quickly and well, hire an Amish crew. Just be sure to provide transportation!). In the same way, I know quite a few folks who formerly followed a church life such as mine, that they have now left, either for a different "Christian brand" (denomination) or for a non-church kind of Christianity.

An old 1960s byword says it well: Different strokes for different folks. Or the French proverb: Chacun à son goût – each to his own taste. As much as any portion the "body of Christ" may attempt to be all-inclusive, it is not possible. What is liberating to some is stifling to others. Some are quite bored with others' greatest and most precious experiences. And sometimes, when a religious husk has replaced spiritual experience with mindless adherence to tradition, only the most mindless and dull folk will tolerate it. This is what Ira found.

Curiously, although the Amish are considered a Christian sect, the name Jesus never appears in the book, and it is only in the closing chapters that the title Christ is used in a personal way. In 25 years among Amish folk in several localities, Ira Wagler never heard anything remotely close to the Christian Gospel of salvation by receiving Jesus Christ's sacrifice for our sins. He was confronted, again and again, thousands of times, with rigid demands to conform, to perform, to, effectively, save himself by his own efforts. The only time he heard the Christian Gospel was from a friend he calls Sam, whom he met in the last Amish community in which he dwelt. And Sam was not born Amish.

The Amish do not take converts. They prefer to outbreed everyone else (Ira has ten siblings). If a person insists on joining them, they make it hard, very hard, almost damnably hard. You have to learn their dialect of German, memorize tons of their prayers, and go through a process that strongly resembles hazing. It takes years, before one is considered eligible for baptism. Sam had done so. It is obvious that he knew Christ beforehand. He sure didn't attain Christian faith among the Indiana Amish he had joined.

He was exactly what Ira needed. Why did Ira leave, and then return, three times? Primarily, though he wanted greater freedom, he did not want to be a lost soul. He was convinced that only the Amish could be saved. One who left after being baptized was excommunicated, consigned to the Devil, and bound for Hell. During his third return, Ira went through a process almost as tough as Sam's had been, to be reinstated a "member" of the Amish church. Yet he still felt lost, until Sam showed him the way of God's forgiveness in Christ. Only once Ira knew Christ for himself, and knew that it is God who forgives and God alone, did he leave his Amish past behind, his heart at peace.

This does not mean that one must leave the Amish to be saved. Far from it. They do have the Bible, and they do read it, though there is no mention in Ira's experiences of Bible reading for oneself. The Bible alone can lead a person to God. But Ira's experiences limn for us most clearly the difference between faith and religion. He was raised in the bosom of one of the most restrictive and traditional religions found on American soil. It was primarily fear that drove him back to it again and again. Once he attained faith, he was free of religion. He could have remained an Amishman, but the scars were too deep for that. He is a man in Christ now. He lives in Lancaster, a Mennonite, but not an Amishman.

If the best books make us think deeply about ourselves and our experiences, this may just be the best book I have read all year.

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