More Titillated Than Thou

How the Amish conquered the evangelical romance market

Ann Neumann writes: Peering out from a wire rack in a grocery store was a religious vision of sorts: a paperback romance novel that neatly summed up classic yearning, confining cultural norms, and the hazards of defiled purity. At the center of all this familiar masscult longing and inner turmoil was an unlikely heroine: a young Amish woman, barefoot, clutching a suitcase, her white-bonneted head turned away from a mysterious man in the foreground. Here, plopped down in a hormonally charged set piece, was a figure straight out of the homey folk tradition known as Amish country pastoral. Though this pious woman couldn’t seem more out of place, the book is called Found ; it is the third entry in a series called The Secrets of Crittenden County. There were other books, too, in the rack—The Quilter’s DaughterLeaving Lancaster—clearly meant to evoke the remote corner of central Pennsylvania where we were standing.

My sister and I grew up in the heart of Amish country, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We came across these curious specimens on a routine shopping trip to a rural grocery store. Like people growing up anywhere, we share a complicated relationship with the customs of our homeland, but seeing them serve as the backdrop of a faith-based fiction franchise was a blow to our hard-won sense of 51HkKvPYPaL._SL250_place. It was a bit like what many rent-strapped single women writers in New York must have felt when they first encountered long-lunching, fashion-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame, or how Appalachian teens might dissect descriptions of District 12 in the Hunger Games franchise.

[Order the book “The Quilter’s Daughter(Daughter of Lancaster County) from Amazon.com]

My family isn’t Amish, but we’re probably the closest thing—we hail from nearly three hundred years of colonial American Mennonite stock: cussed true believers who moved from Germany to flourish in the free-thinking heart of William Penn’s settlement in the New World. Like the Amish, Mennonites are Anabaptists—adult-baptizing practitioners of an ardent brand of European Protestant pietism that often overlapped with Old World peasant political uprisings, but served in the American setting as a forcing bed for the Amish separatist quest for purity and the Mennonite traditions of pacifism and communal self-help. As the heirs to an easily misunderstood spiritual legacy, we feel protective of our Anabaptist background when it becomes a product label.

The commercialization of the Amish brand is, of course, nothing new. My sister and I have a long familiarity with kitschy Amish books: guidebooks to Pennsylvania Dutch country, Amish “wisdom” books, “Plain” cookbooks. But the strange cover of Found represented something new in this faintly comical face-off between the self-segregated communities of faith we knew and a cultural mainstream incorrigibly curious about what it’s done to offend pious Anabaptist sensibilities. For a tortured Amish conscience to be front and center on a mass-market paperback meant that the bonnet-clad and buttonless Amish were merging, however awkwardly, with more commercially tried-and-true narratives of tested devotion and romantic longing.

[Read the full story here, at The Baffler]

At a minimum, the novel was suggesting that the Amish represent something more than an exotic, out-of-the-way religious curiosity in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Shelley Shepard Gray, the author of the Crittenden County series, who sees her writing as a way to promulgate her more conventional brand of evangelical faith (she’s a Lutheran), seemed to be signaling that the Amish experience, long the object of prurient curiosity from an intensely modern (if only intermittently secular) American mainstream, was ready for prime time. The woman on the cover of Found could be an inspirational symbol of female spiritual self-discipline, or a cleaned-up lady on the make of the sort featured in endless Danielle Steel contributions to the bodice-ripper genre. My sister and I each purchased a copy of Found , agreeing that we would read it and report back.

But when we spoke on the phone a week later, we discovered that we didn’t have all that much to talk about. We had both finished reading the novel, but we had to concede the book had clearly not been written for us. We had enough distance from the inspiration genre to declare it unliterary, a critical wasteland—flat writing, over-the-top drama, a studied lack of awareness of the wider world—and enough proximity to Anabaptism, to Plain communities, to find the story false and idealized. If these books were selling millions of copies, we knew they weren’t selling to us. Who reads this stuff, anyway?

Spiritual Retreat

Tons of people, it turns out. There are around three hundred thousand Amish people in America, but millions upon millions of readers are choosing to live vicariously in a pristine Amish settlement of the imagination, where zippers, cars, and many of the breathlessly touted gadgets of the digital age are forbidden. While you’d be hard pressed to find a more stolidly patriarchal religious community than the Amish, who prohibit divorce and deny women any alternative to obeying their male masters in the home and any position of spiritual authority in the church, the audience for this curious genre is overwhelmingly female….(read more)

Source: The Baffler

Illustration © ROXANNA BIKADOROFF



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