Review, Nancy Sleeth, Almost Amish: One Woman's Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life
Many people, within Christianity and without, realize that modern culture has not done right by most of us. And the movie Witness has become a recognized classic not for the workmanlike mystery, but because we recognize the lessons Harrison Ford learns as ones we could pursue ourselves. But most of us remain unwilling to embrace an Amish level of austerity to achieve the spiritual renewal we know we need.
Nancy Sleeth says we need not go that far. If we understand the principles underlying Amish simplicity, we can live in a manner that feeds our spirits and gives us a vision of the future. The Amish, and close relatives like Mennonites and Hutterites, live without certain modern conveniences, not because they reject the world, but because they choose to stick by principles of deliberation, mindfulness, and common bonds that much modern society has lost.
The Amish, Sleeth says, don’t so much reject technology as accept a certain range of questions. They will not adopt new processes or technologies without asking first: how will this help me build up my family? My community? My relationship with God? This results in more diversity than pop culture would admit, as different communities have different attitudes to, say, electricity or cars.
Sleeth and her husband came to what she calls the Almost Amish life by way of Creation Care, a form of evangelical environmentalism. As adult Christian converts, the Sleeths dived into faith from an angle most long-term believers seldom consider. And in seeking ways to steward the earth by reducing their carbon footprint, they discovered a lifestyle notable for simplicity and forethought that corresponds with Amish theology.
In short, anything that numbs the soul, alienates loved ones, or idolizes selfish appetites, the Amish will not accept. Many communities reject centralized electricity because it lets them consume power mindlessly. Many communities permit passive solar power or diesel generators because they require forethought and thrift. The same applies to cars, computers, and mass media.
This simple core principle, rooted in Christian Scripture, informs all aspects of Amish life. While their communities look homogenous to outsiders (and most of us know little except what we see in TV and movies), Sleeth asserts they are actually a rich and thoughtful people. Standardized moral checklists violate their most treasured beliefs, because they preclude thought and prayer.
The benefits of this lifestyle range from obvious to subtle. Divorce and violence, while not unheard of in Amish communities, are rare enough to remain shocking and strange. The vast majority of Amish families own their own businesses, and failure rates remain low enough that most Amish pass the family business to the next generation. Obesity, type II diabetes, depression, and STDs scarcely exist in Amish communities.
Sleeth denies the dreamy sentimentality that colors our perception of the Amish in, for instance, Beverley Lewis’ romance novels. The Almost Amish life, Sleeth asserts, requires hard work and constant vigilance. But that’s part of what makes that lifestyle so appealing for many true believers and earnest seekers. We fear our modern, technological, isolated life has left us both lazy and numb.
The subtitle, mentioning “One Woman’s Quest,” suggests this is a memoir of discovery. Not so. Sleeth uses personal experience to show how she discovered certain ideas, or to bolster the applicability of certain claims. But overall, this is mainly a manifesto for those who, like her, care about the life we live, and the world we’re leaving to posterity.
Though Sleeth writes from a Christian perspective, for Christian audiences, secular readers can benefit from this book as well. Her principles derive from Scripture, but they reflect underlying truths that are not unique to one religion, or indeed to any religion. Many people who lack faith share the realization that modernity, cluttered with technological distractions and awash in unwanted stuff, has become inimical to a well-rounded human psyche.
I have one trepidation. Sleeth repeatedly asserts the importance of close-knit community to live the Almost Amish life, but talks little about how to create and sustain that closeness in today’s constant hurlyburly. I recommend The Sharing Solution, from Nolo Press, to link Sleeth’s principle to practicality. This book discusses how to build community bonds, and back them with amicable contracts for our tragically litigious society.
Almost Amish life offers hope that suffocating modernity doesn’t have to end us. We have the power to reassert control in our lives. Sleeth gives us the principles; now it’s up to us to find strength and make it happen.