Saloma Miller Furlong
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Review of "Thrill of the Chaste" by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

 

I recently was given a copy of the book Thrill of the Chasteby Valerie Weaver-Zercher, in exchange for visiting one of Dr. Donald Kraybill’s classes. I had known that Weaver-Zercher was studying Amish romance novels, so I looked forward to this publication, for I want to understand the reason for so much interest in this subgenre.

For anyone not familiar with Amish romance novels, they are those books you see in the Christian section of bookstores or in the gift shops of Amish-style restaurants with demure women in Amish garb, some leaning on fences in a pasture, others hovering above an Amish landscape, and still others with a male next to or behind her.  Almost invariably, though, there is the proverbial Amish head covering. The reason for this was articulated by one publisher when he said, “You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.”

A friend recently gave me her impression of walking into a restaurant with a rack loaded with Amish novels.  She describes her impression, “This is Amish smut!” Given these are clean romances, without sex, or in most cases, without even as much physical contact as lip-kissing, this is an interesting impression, but one I share.

The content of these books are formulaic: the protagonist grows up Amish, she arrives at a place in her life (usually through a crisis) in which she questions the Amish faith, and then she has a conversion experience and becomes a born-again Christian. Somewhere along the line, there is a romance, often one in which she has to choose between an Amish boyfriend and an English one. These stories invariably end happily.

Weaver-Zercher has a humorous description of her friend, Margaret’s, reaction to her research when she tried to explain what she was studying.

… she is intrigued and a little confused. Like several other people with whom I spoke, she thinks at first that I am writing an Amish romance novel. No, I clarify; I am writing about them.

“So let me get this straight.” Margaret pauses, her forefinger raised above her chicken and rice. “You are writing about us, who are reading the books that other people write about the Amish.” It is obvious that this project strikes her as a tad funny, amusing in both its degrees of separation from the Amish and the endless ripples of research it suggests. [Pg. 231]

I enjoyed Weaver-Zercher’s wit throughout the book. She describes her own enjoyment of reading the books this way, “Eager to keep reading my latest Amish romance but unwilling to admit it, I would sometimes tuck the book under my sweatshirt when going to the gym or under a notebook when entering a doctor’s waiting room. … The deeper I got into this project, the more fascinated I became by the surreptitious nature of my Amish romance reading.” I felt like she left me hanging on this question. Perhaps answering this question for herself might have given her insights into the “typical” reader’s interest in these books. She does give us several good insights as it is. One she terms hypermodernity.  “The speed, anomie, and digital slavery of contemporary life have sent many readers, weary of hypermodernity, to books containing stories of a people group whom readers perceive as hypermodernity’s antithesis: the Amish.” The other term she uses is hypersexualization in which “sexual discourse, erotica, and pornography are present in almost all aspects of society.” She wrote, “The exponential growth of Amish fiction during the first decade of the twenty-first century cannot be understood apart from these “hyper” cultural developments.”
 
And when Weaver-Zercher mentions exponential growth, she is not joking. She gives us an idea of the astounding growth of the Amish romance novels in the publishing market:
 
Sales numbers and bestseller lists confirm the vigor of the Amish-fiction category. The triumvirate of top Amish romance novelists—Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall—have sold a combined total of 24 million books. At least seven of Lewis’s Amish novels have sold more than 500,000 copies each, and one of those, The Shunning, has sold more than 1 million copies. Brunstetter’s fifty books, almost all of them Amish titles, have sold nearly 6 million copies. [Pg. 5]
 
I agree that hypermodernity and hypersexualization are two reasons why people are drawn to the Amish in general and to the Amish romance novels in particular. I would add another aspect, which Weaver-Zercher named but did not define or give as much attention as the other two: hyperindividualism. I feel this cannot be underestimated. In mainstream culture, we are taught that if we want something badly enough we can either achieve it or acquire it. We think if only we had enough money, then we could have anything we want. We isolate ourselves with screens in front of our faces how many hours per day? For however long it is, we are not interacting with other people during that time, which means we’re sacrificing community. We cannot possibly have meaningful interpersonal interactions in a community setting and be in our own world, too. People try, but they don’t succeed. It seems unplugging and living a simpler life is not as easy as reading an Amish romance novel.
 
Weaver-Zercher’s best example of this phenomenon is Suzanne Woods Fisher, host of the Toginet Radio show Amish Wisdom, who invites her listeners to “slow down, de-clutter, find peace, and live a simpler life” each Thursday afternoon. However, Fisher’s life is anything but simple. She is the author of numerous Amish books and is contracted with her publisher, Revell, through 2016. In 2012, she had ten books on the market with eleven in the works. In one particular busy stretch, five of her books appeared in seven months. She writes them at about the rate of one every three to four months.
 
Besides being a radio host and author, Fisher is mother of four children and she has a little grandchild, a dad with Alzheimers and a mother who needs lots of help. Her husband is a finance executive who travels frequently. It is Fisher’s hypothesis that Amish fiction is “a response to the feeling people have of being out of control with technology and change that is coming so fast. The feeling that you have a cell phone and you are never off the hook, you are responsible to be available all the time—it’s just overwhelming. I think there’s a longing for a life in which you’re unhooked and detached, and we can’t do it; it’s too hard.”
 
The irony of “fast texts about a slow culture” is not lost on Weaver-Zercher. Several authors are contracted to write at least two books per year, besides Fisher writing at least three per year. So the people who want to read Amish books to fantasize about slowing down their lives are causing the already hyper capitalist publishing industry to go into overdrive. This is one of those incongruities of Amish romances.
 
I thought that Beverly Lewis pioneered the Amish romance novel when she wrote The Shunning back in 1997. However, Weaver-Zercher points out that there were several antecedents, including Sabina: A Story of the Amish by Helen Reimensnyder Martin published as early as 1905. She names at least five others. From reading Thrill of the Chaste, it is clear that Beverly Lewis came out with The Shunning at the right time—the market was ripe for an Amish story.
 
As I was reading Thrill of the Chaste, I kept feeling that Weaver-Zercher was missing something vital in her study.  I wanted, in the worst way, for her to analyze the accuracy, or more precisely, the authenticity of the Amish romance novels.  Finally, on page 197 (of her 250-page book), she addresses this when she writes: “To what extent terms like authenticity and accuracyeven matter to most readers of Amish fiction is uncertain.” A paragraph later, she writes that the most frequent inquiry she received from people is how accurate are these novels. I would assert that if this was her most frequent inquiry, then it does matter to people. And then the truth comes out in her description of her response, “Whenever anyone asked me whether Amish novels are accurate… I usually mumbled something vague and entirely unhelpful…. I doubt I gave anyone the answer they were looking for, partly because I wanted to argue with the question.”
 
It seems the reader may not have gotten any idea of Weaver-Zercher’s feelings about authenticity in the Amish novel, had it not been for her friend Richard Stevick, who one day told her she must deal with this question of accuracy.
 
And so for the following chapter, Something Borrowed, Something True, Weaver-Zercher finally does write about the lack of authenticity of some of these stories, though she often puts the criticism in others’ voices, including mine. (She quoted from my blog post Amish Fiction).
 
Weaver-Zercher then asserts that most inaccuracies are generally invisible to anyone outside a relatively small crowd of Anabaptists or their friends, and that it is likely that Amish fiction clears up more popular misconceptions about the Amish than it creates.  And then she asks, “And if readers walk away thinking that the Amish in Lancaster County drive black buggies instead of gray, or that Amish people write letters in Pennsylvania German rather than English, has any real harm been done?”
 
Then Weaver-Zercher writes, “novelists cannot be released from all responsibility to the actual world, however, especially when they’re writing stories about a living ethnic and religious culture to which they and most of their readers do not belong. Representing one culture to another comes with a host of ethical responsibilities, and the ancillary dangers—circulation of misinformation, appropriation of cultural symbols, assertion of control—are many.”
 
This would have been a wonderful passage with which to start a book about Amish romance novels, but that would be a whole different book. Being it is so close to the end of the book, it hasn’t been part of the discussion from the start. I find it so very inadequate and incomplete.
 
I would say no, there isn’t any real harm done with the inaccuracies of the different color buggies or what language letters are written in. But when an author and her readers superimpose their values on the Amish, then I believe there is real harm done. Because I am not writing a book-length review, I will focus on one real way I feel harm is done.
 
In these novels, the protagonists become a born-again Christian, and by doing so, they are now saved through Jesus Christ, something the “works-based” or “rules-based” Amish religion could not do, is the implication.
 
According to Weaver-Zercher, some of the upcoming Amish fiction will be super-charged with this message.  One author said that she is writing Amish fiction, “To expose the Amish lifestyle as, not Christian, but a cult. They are a community of ‘works get you to heaven,’ not salvation through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross alone.”
 
I groaned when I read this. During my book talks, I have encountered people in my audiences who ask, “Is the Amish religion faith-based or works-based?” To which I will reply, “Both.” Sometimes they think I misunderstood the question and rephrase it, “Well, what I mean is, do they believe in salvation through Jesus Christ or through good works?” To which I will again reply, “Both. They definitely believe that Jesus died on the cross so that they may have everlasting life, but they also believe that following Jesus’ example in doing good is important in their life on earth.”
 
One day on our way home from a book talk my husband, David, asked, “What is wrong with good works anyway?” My guess is that many born-again Christians would say that if you believe in good works, then that excludes the belief that Jesus is your Savior.  What they don’t realize is just how much they are misunderstanding the culture they are judging and that it doesn’t have to be one or the other and by thinking it is, they are limiting themselves from gaining a better understanding of the Amish people and their tenets.
 
Another deep misunderstanding in Amish romance novels, when a protagonist decides she needs to leave the Amish she does so with apparent ease. What they miss completely is something so obvious to someone who has left the Amish… no matter the reason for leaving or how sure we are that the decision we made is right, we all have to deal with the loss of community that comes of leaving. For an example of the turmoil that one feels when caught between two worlds, you can read my earlier posts Anna’s Return, and A Letter from Anna.
 
It is tempting to blame the Amish for shunning their family members who leave. But they would not be Amish if they didn’t use shunning as a church discipline. I believe that the cohesion in a given community is commensurate with the level of sacrifice and effort people need to make to be a part of that community. The Amish have a sense of community the rest of us can only admire or envy. They value community over the individual, which is the reverse of our culture in which individual freedom (often in excess) is valued over community. And the Amish teach that you are either Amish or you’re not—there is no in between. So you cannot have it all.  
 
This is one way in which I feel the Amish are completely misunderstood by the authors of Amish romance novels. I will save their misrepresentation of what they call “pow-wowing” for another day. And rumspringa—I’ve already written extensively on that.
 
Weaver-Zercher writes about the Amish romance novel transporting the reader to Amish country, “Now, thanks to Amish fiction, America’s own exotic but homespun religionists are as close as the book on the bedside stand.”
 
I would argue that the Amish romance novels feed the American fantasy that we can have it all—we can keep up the fast pace of our lives and at the end of the day, we can pick up a book and be transported to the rural landscape of Amish country—all without sacrificing anything aside from the time it takes to read the book. It seems to me that this is as momentary as eating candy… it tastes good, but there is no lasting nourishment in consuming it. Furthermore, there is something wrong with appropriating the Amish culture for our amusement.
 
I wish Weaver-Zercher would have addressed one very important point. The authors of Amish fiction want it to have it both ways—they want to use the Amish culture as backdrop for their novels, while at the same time judging the Amish beliefs as being inadequate for their salvation. Furthermore, they are making a personal fortune by doing so. You don’t have to be born and raised Amish to understand these incongruities.
 
If I didn’t have to read a bunch of the novels that would certainly give me literary indigestion, I might want to write a book about the myriad of ways in which the Amish are misunderstood, misrepresented, exploited, and appropriated in Amish romance novels and how they set the stage for even greater lies about the Amish culture in reality shows like “Breaking Amish” and “The Amish Mafia.”
 
Weaver-Zercher’s book Thrill of the Chaste is a good first step in understanding our fascination with the Amish. I would assert that there are deeper reasons for this fascination. We know, deep down, we need something that the Amish have. To be a part of an Amish community, one has to practice self-denial, humility, and austerity and yet we, of the world, don’t want to deny ourselves anything. We sense the divinity in Amish people and even how they achieve it, but we refuse to follow their example. In Suzanne Woods Fisher’s words, “It’s just too hard.”

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