Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Growing Up Amish, by Ira Wagler

Growing Up Amish, by Ira Wagler is a very interesting book. This was our last selection for my local book club and I had "ho hum" feelings going into it but discovered that I couldn't put it down once I revved up and got going. This may possibly go on my "favorite reads of 2012" list. Maybe. Quite possibly. (It could happen.)

Ira Wagler is an excellent story teller. Born into a small Old Order Amish community, he documents his growing up years in the community and explains how it was that he came to leave the Amish in his late teens/early twenties. The majority of the book focuses on him wrestling with wanting to leave the Amish but always coming back. On the whole, he left his family five times before making the final decision to leave at the age of twenty-six. He explains the family chaos and pain that he left in his wake, and how he spent a great deal of time wondering where it was that he belonged in the world.

The Story of Ira is interesting on its face, but the things which I was promoted to think about and consider are vastly more interesting. (At least they are to me.)

#1 - Throughout the whole first half of the book I really had to wonder about Ira's parents. Ira was the ninth of eleven children. As I understand it, only two or three children are still part of the Amish community. The rest have left. In my mind, this means that the parents didn't do a very good job about explaining why they believed what they believed or why they carried out their faith in the manner which they did. In fact, Ira says this many times over in the first half of the book. His father was emotionally distant from his children. His mother did not attempt to connect very well. There just did not seem to be a whole lot of nurturing and or teaching going on from the parents to the children. You might say that's because there are eleven of them and I would say that's not really a very valid argument or excuse. Parenting eleven children well can be done. (It's just going to have its own set of challenges that you have to be aware of and meet head on!)

"Those who were born in the faith had better stay, or they would surely face a terrible Judgment Day. That's what we heard. What we were told by our parents and what we heard in the sermons at church.
But they never explained why. Why we were special. Why we alone knew the only true path. Only that we were and we did.
That sure made for some messed-up minds and messed-up lives. Not for the drones - those who accepted without question what they were told. But for anyone with a speck of spirit, it could get a little crazy." (Chapter 12, Page 85)

But then . . .

Even the most thoughtful, Wanting-to-be-God-Honoring Christian Parents can have a child who walks away from the faith to embark on their own journey. I cannot deny that this is so as I have seen many examples of such a thing. Really I have to ultimately admit that salvation is a gift of God and is nothing to boast in. I would do very well to remember this. (That last sentence is a mini, albeit intense lecture to myself!) Ira includes the following paragraph in his book:

"For my parents, it was one more embarrassing burden to bear. As it always is for Amish parents when a young son leaves. (Or a daughter, although daughters leave much less frequently.) Somehow, even though mostly unspoken, the feeling is that it reflects badly on the parents' abilities. And their methods of raising children. Maybe if they had been stricter, it wouldn't have happened. Maybe if they had broken their son's will way back when he was a child. Maybe this. Maybe that. The regrets, the mental guessing games that never stop." (Chapter 9, page 60)


Counter that with this:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
I do think his parents, if they had half a desire for Ira to stay within the fold of the Amish, should have taught him the reasons behind what they believe. When you fail to explain your faith to your child, do not be surprised if they walk away from it when they grow up. Why should they stay with it? They do not know why you do the crazy things you do! Talking, sharing, nurturing, walking with them on the journey - all of these are important things. But really it is God who calls and so those of us who do follow in the footsteps of our parents would do well not to boast but should merely be thankful. It should fill my heart with joy that God has seen fit to call me His own and I should live mindful of that gift. Which leads me to point number two.

#2 - Ira painted a pretty grim picture of the Amish. They don't sound like a very fun crowd. He explained that every Order is different from another. He says at one point that even the Amish think that other Amish are weird. Some Orders or groups of Amish are allowed to wear buttons and have phones and mustaches. Others are not. I guess I always just assumed that the Amish are all alike but Wagler goes to great pains to explain that there are indeed differences and that for a young man, one group might seem far more oppressive than another.

Mostly though, Ira paints a picture of joyless folk, even going so far as to say:

"But it wasn't only the outside world that drew us. We were also repelled by what we saw and heard around us every day. Most of the adults - those securely anchored in the faith - didn't seem any too happy in their daily lives. In fact, they were mostly downright grumpy. There was little in our own world that attracted us, made us stop and think, "That's what I want. To live like that." (Chapter 11, page 80)


Counter that with this one example of many:

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. Psalms 63:5-7

We aren't designed to be recklessly joyful, glorying and exalting in superficial things. But salvation in the Lord is most definitely not superficial and knowing that we have been redeemed should fill our hearts with joy that is overwhelming and overflowing. If we walk about morose and angry at the world, why should our children find our faith appealing? What about our faith would be so, to them or anyone else? I don't know about you but I really do not enjoy the company of myself when I'm in a bad mood and I certainly am not inclined to seek out the fellowship of people who are perpetually down in the dumps. That grows wearisome and I can't imagine that children of Christian parents who walk around acting as if God is dead are going to be convinced that Jesus rose and was victorious so that we might also live.

#3 - On the tails of my last paragraph, I also have to confess that I love the ideals that the Amish way of living seems to entail. I like the idea of no telephones. (I seriously hate my cell phone with a purple passion.) I like communicating through snail mail. I like working while the sun is up and resting in the evenings. I like regular life to move along at a slow clip instead of feeling ruled by my computer and errands and appointments. I like the idea of working one's own land and being in a community in which all of the people at least appear to think and act alike. Why don't I just say it?: I LOVE RULES! I like the idea of knowing what it is that one is allowed to wear, allowed to eat, allowed to say. I could get used to that. I have a peculiar affection for rules and embrace them when I meet with them. They are a comfort to me. I could probably go all Old Testament on you if given half a chance. But I'm not to live under the law so much (which is really something of a shame, I think. *wink*)

Remembering that while rules are important and have a much needed place in society still, I'm living in a state of grace. (Oh good heavens, there's that word again!)

This book was a thought-provoking one for me. I suffered through it in the sense that it made me argue with myself and lose. I made others suffer through my thoughts which I shared outloud at book club. (Thank goodness for the "backspace" and "delete" buttons on my keyboard, that's all I have to say!) And yet I learned. Or, I hope I've learned. To reiterate a bit, I hope I've learned these things:

1. Not to boast in my salvation;
2. Not to demand perfection of my children;
3. To offer my children arguments and explanations for the things we believe and do so that they can ponder certain truths for themselves;
4. Not to carry around a bad attitude like a prized trophy;
5. Not to live by rules (but be a respecter of them all the same.)

I'm still "munching" on this book. I do think it's a winner of a story and would heartily recommend it to anyone. If nothing else, it offers curious insights to the Amish culture that you might not have the opportunity to learn about otherwise.

As a final note: this book really makes for some great discussion in a book club setting. If you're looking for a good suggestion to make for your group, this is a great one! If you care to read another opinion on this book, I'd point you to Tim Challies' review of Growing Up Amish.

I'm going to stop talking now.


Stephanie Kay said...

Hmm.. I wonder if the reason his parents didn't tell him WHY is because they didn't know. They were just following the rules and lifestyle that they had been taught.

I think I'm guilty at times of focusing on getting work done and training my kids and forgetting to have fun and enjoy the process. I'm a little afraid to think of what my kids will say about my parenting when they are grown!

Annette W. said...

I am thankful that my Amish friend is a happy woman...

Though from some of our conversations, it seems that she either 1) is not comfortable/capable explaining/defending the WHY behind a couple of questions or 2) hasn't really questioned too much herself.

I wonder if it is 2)...she seemed to indicate that we just can't know some things.

Whether good or bad, I have not pushed her in my/her faith. I kind of felt that she closed the conversation. Will keep praying for opportunities though.

I know of other Amish who have lost multiple sons to the English. I kind of want to copy this out and share it with my friend...but I think I will just through conversation.

Bluerose said...

I've been wanting to read this one for awhile now! While I don't share the same beliefs as the Amish(obviously), I'm still so curious about their lifestyle. I long for that simplicity! But, I know there's more to them, that the fictional books don't always tell about.

Taia said...

OK, I left a long comment but it disappeared.

1) One branch of my family is Amish/Mennonite. "Leaving" includes going to another branch. If my children are Christian, I'm happy. I don't necessarily expect them to make the same denominational/worship choices I do.

2) The Amish don't have ordained clergy. I think this results in a transmission of culture more than Biblical knowledge.

3) I am SO glad I'm not Amish. I'm very much of the "live in accordance with your values and beliefs" persuasion and believe that most decisions are permissible, so why have them dictated by a bunch of rules down to whether you can put a safety triangle on your buggy?

Shonya said...

Intrigued. . .can I get this book from the library and lock myself in my room for a day and just read it? Cuz I need a break. . .lol

Barbara H. said...

I've had a draft of a post sitting around for a while about the plethora of Amish fiction and how I don't think the Amish life is as idyllic as many seem to believe. I've pretty much read just Beverly Lewis's books, and she clearly explains that for most of them it is a works-based, not a faith or grace-based religion, and different Amish churches can vary widely on what they teach and allow. Though her books are based on her grandmother's experiences, it would be interesting to read a true account of an actual person struggling with these issues.

Barbara H. said...

BTW, I do agree with the list of things you learned -- valuable lessons.

Jennifer said...

This book interests me mainly because of the whole long line of Amish fiction that in many, many way claims Amish living to be so much more wonderful than the more common approach. I also really like books that pull back the lace curtain and reveal the least the truth as one person viewed it.

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject, and I'll be watching for this book because I know I would enjoy it.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Something further to ponder regarding the question of why so many children leave the Amish lifestyle:

Their very way of life REQUIRES that an extremely high percentage leave. They practice subsistence farming, and do not make enough money to buy additional land for the next generation. They have large numbers of children. Something has to give, or there will not be sufficient land for each of the children. Since the men (for the most part) are the breadwinners, they are the ones who must leave. As for the daughters, presumably, if they stay, a high percentage remain unmarried, as there are insufficient men to go around.

This is analogous to polygamist sects, where the young men must leave, or there are insufficient women for the older, wealthier men to marry as additional wives.

Taia said...

I disagree that they practice subsistence farming or don't buy land for the next generation. My brother lives by several Amish families. While it's true that many are transitioning to livelihoods other than pure farming (like furniture making), they spend little and have money. My brother said the price of land has skyrocketed and he and his wife (an engineer and a chemist) were easily outbid on smaller parcels of land by Amish families buying for their children. (This is in Indiana. Your experience may vary.)

BerlinerinPoet said...

1. I totally agree with this whole post and

2. I laughed for DAYS thinking of you making gathering motions and saying "Rules! Rules!" In fact, I'm laughing as I'm typing this!

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Hmmmm. . . I read a book a few years ago about a girl/woman leaving her Amish roots/family and marrying an "English" man. Very interesting but also very sad.

We live about thirty minutes away from an Old Order Amish (?) community. In fact, the picnic table we got for Christmas was made by one of the families.

Very interesting and convicting, to think that I'm NOT communicating the joy of my faith like I should. Sigh.

Krista said...

I used to read a lot of Amish fiction, some more well written than others! ;) But it all seemed the same and rather fake. This sounds like a very interesting book.
When I was in grad school there was a show on during the summer called Amish in the City and I watched it religiously (it was a reality show). I thought it gave a decent perspective on their life although the college age kids in it were in there "rumspringe" time.
I definitely hear you on wishing for more simplicity at times, but I think I would have a hard time with ALL the rules!
And I LOVE the conversations I'm beginning to have with Cory about life and religion and things. Just today we were talking about Hannakuh and why we don't celebrate it because we're not Jewish... you can see where this is going. And all from a stamp he saw on the wall at the post office!

A Faithful Journey said...

Oh this sounds like something I MUST read!! Thank you for the great review! I remember seeing this book awhile back, but for some reason, never gave it a second thought! I will now! :)

Janet said...

Fascinating review. Thanks for bringing this book on to my radar!

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