Thursday, March 26, 2020

"All About the Amish" - Karen M. Johnson-Weiner

For 30 years, "All About the Amish: Answers to Common Questions" author Karen Johnson-Weiner has been friends with and studied the faith and culture of the Amish. 

With close to 350,000 Amish spread across 31 U.S. states and nearly 6,000 more in Canada, the Amish population has actually grown but society's understanding of the Amish continues to be surrounded by mystery, myth, and pop culture-fueled misunderstandings. 

"All About the Amish: Answers to Common Questions" tackles these understandings head-on with an easy-to-read, breezy yet informative and engaging collection of extended and in-depth answers to common questions that many have about one of America's most unique religious paths. Do the Amish pay taxes? Are they Christians? Why do they use horse and buggies but agree to ride in other people's cars? These are the kinds of questions addressed by Johnson-Weiner, who is the co-author of "The Amish" and author of "Train Up a Child" and "New York Amish." 

"All About the Amish" is a rather straightforward journey, starting with the early days of the Anabaptist movement of which the Amish are a branch after a schism among the Swiss Brethren caused division among the more conservative and progressive members of the growing movement. 

As a former Church of the Brethren minister and graduate of the denomination's seminary, I found Johnson-Weiner's journey through these early days to be a definite over-simplification of the birth and growth of the Anabaptist movement. However, that mild disclaimer comes with an acknowledgement that "All About the Amish" provides a surprisingly in-depth yet understandable explanation of the movement, its roots, its divisions, and the theological concerns that ultimately resulted in the Amish. As a seminary graduate, I may have longed for more but most readers seeking an understanding of the Amish will be more than happy with the information provided by Johnson-Weiner. The remainder of the structure for "All About the Amish" is simple and easy to understand. 

The book essentially unfolds as a series of interconnected questions, many of which you've always wondered about and many of which will have you saying to yourself "I've always wondered about that but didn't realize it." While other books have sought to explain the "basics" about the Amish, few have gone into such great detail regarding the theology and diversity of the Amish and why understanding that theology and understanding that diversity is so important in developing a true understanding of why the Amish are the Amish.

Johnson-Weiner has an understanding of the differences between Pennsylvania Amish and Indiana Amish, for example, and has insight even between the different communities within states and regions and often times for those communities that are only a few miles apart. She understands, and can easily explain, the reason for different colored buggies, subtle changes in clothing, and even why some Amish have access to phones while others do not. She can talk about Swartzentruber and Beachy and others and offer authoritative guidance as to what these names mean within the Amish tradition and how they differ. 

In short, Johnson-Weiner has obviously been friends with the Amish for so long that she understands, and obviously respects, their beliefs, practices, and differences from each other and from the world at large. While it may seem odd that the Amish would so willingly share their lives with someone whom it is known will ultimately write about them, it seems apparent from Johnson-Weiner's writing that most Amish are not opposed to being understood. They are opposed to seeking glorification themselves. They give all glory to God and would shy away from anything that would place that glory on themselves or that would potentially encourage them to stray away from God or the community. It seems understood, and is certainly true here, that Johnson-Weiner never betrays that trust and in writing "All About the Amish" writes a book that serves as a way of understanding one of America's most misunderstood religions. 

While that trust that Johnson-Weiner has obtained with the Amish is a huge part of what makes "All About the Amish" such an enjoyable and engaging read, it's also part of what makes the book a rather "soft" read. Johnson-Weiner occasionally hints at more challenging issues and images facing the Amish, such as their attitudes toward submissiveness within family gender roles, "All About the Amish" never really delves into some of the more negative stereotypes and questions one might have about a faith that so intentionally sets itself apart. 

"All About the Amish" addresses, at least somewhat, about the Amish being pacifist. While much has been written about the West Nickel Mines shooting, it was a shooting that brought the Amish what was probably undesired attention. It would have been intriguing to explore the Amish response to this tragedy - Why did they reportedly so embrace the wife of the shooter? How did they respond as a community? "All About the Amish" also doesn't delve into controversies such as reported concerns about abuse rates, media reports regarding Amish-owned "puppy mills," and a couple of recent reports of Amish crime that have all created both questions and stereotypes within the wider population. Are these reports accurate? Are they outliers if true? How do communities respond to such important concerns as abuse and reports of crime? Could Johnson-Weiner have addressed these concerns in a way that remained respectful of the Amish and that didn't risk damaging the obviously trusting relationship she's developed? That's a point that could be argued, though the absence of addressing some of the more challenging "common questions" at least modestly hinders a more complete understanding of the Amish culture and way of life. In other words, "All About the Amish" is written in such a way that Johnson-Weiner's in-depth, comprehensive way of answering common questions will inevitably lead to even more questions and a greater curiosity. 

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, no book, no matter how comprehensive, can ever answer every question or illuminate every aspect of a faith. 

This relatively short, breezy read doesn't aim to be the most comprehensive resource ever written. It aims to provide authoritative answers to some of the most common questions people have about the Amish and, in that goal, Karen Johnson-Weiner definitely succeeds with the majority of answers precise, detailed, and acknowledging of the diversity of those who are Amish and the fact that, despite commonly held misperceptions, they do change and adapt and shift their practices for a variety of reasons. "All About the Amish: Answers to Common Questions" is a beautifully written and well-informed resource that will be deeply appreciated by anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the Amish and their beliefs and practices. It helps to dispel many common myths and beliefs society has about the Amish and treats both the Amish and the reader with dignity and respect.

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