Saturday, January 17, 2009

Plain Secrets

Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish is about an Amish family living in Ohio. The author is neighbors with them and was allowed, over a period of 10 years, to get to know the family and the Amish way of life.

After introducing us to the Shetlers, his neighbors, the author introduces a young man who has left the Amish. The author has the opportunity to meet with him and learn what it is like to leave his family's heritage. At eighteen, Jonas only has an eighth grade education and says it has been harder to find a place and make a living than he expected.

Any book will bring research and factual knowledge about the topic, combined with the personal perspective and world view of the author. Joe Mackall has an understanding of Christianity and the Bible and is able to use that to explain some of the Amish beliefs and behaviors and well as show where some of those beliefs and behaviors do not have a foundation in Scripture. It is noticeable, however, that the author seems to have head knowledge but not heart knowledge of Christianity. This could be a weakness, in that some of the traits of his neighbors that he finds attractive are honest Christian traits, not just Amish. It is also a strength in that he calls attention to the Christian faith of the Amish. It is more the fault of English Christians that the author finds the Amish so much more Christian in some respects.

The portrayal of the Amish is balanced. There is a healthy respect and even envy of their simple, practical, and full way of life, including a strong sense of community. The insularity and tradition-bound practices are also revealed, along with a very typical (English?) world view that believes individual freedom is paramount and the Amish stifle it in so many ways.

By incorporating the story of Jonas leaving the Amish way of life, the subject of shunning is examined. This is a touchy subject to talk about. The concept of being held accountable for your action and having roles in the church for "getting in your business" and calling you on your sins is very unpopular in America today. When it's done right, the Christian church, and the Amish, sees this discipline (even excommunication) as a display of love. To outsiders, the shunning of a child because they have rejected the beliefs of the church seems cruel and heartless. Where the struggle comes is realizing that the Amish believe that rejecting the Amish way of life leads to damnation of the soul, without any room for considering that the lifestyle can be rejected without giving up the belief in Christ that is the way of salvation.

The world view that all beliefs are equally valid isn't really tenable. But taking every aspect of a religion as equally important, rather than identifying which beliefs are truly crucial and which are opinions or preferences has lead to a lot of heartache and warfare.

A very interesting read providing a glimpse into a different way of life.
I would give a score of 3.5 out of 5.

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