I had seen Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler recommended by a number of people, so when it came through on sale for the Kindle app, I snagged it.
I’ve been somewhat dismayed at the rosy fascination in Christian circles for the Amish, resulting in a multitude of Amish fiction. I suppose there is an air of mystery about them that always piques curiosity. I understand admiration for their work ethic. I know some long for simpler times with less technology and wonder if the Amish might be on to something. I would have no qualms about someone living without electricity and modern conveniences because they felt it would benefit their family time or the ecology. But I do have a problem with deeming anything modern as “worldly” and condemning people to hell over such arbitrary practices as wearing a mustache, having rubber tires on a buggy, varying any degree on dress or hair styles, etc. “Legalism” is such an overused buzzword in Christendom today, but the extreme legalism of the Amish is seemingly overlooked.
Ira Wagler’s memoir strips away the romanticism and gives us a clearer view. He grew up in a prominent Amish family and community in Canada, the ninth of eleven children of a man well-known in Amish circles for his writing. As he grew into his teen years, he felt more and more constricted and constrained, “stuck in a stifling, hostile culture consisting of myriad complex rules and restrictions…arcane laws based on tradition…not to mention the drama, dictatorial decrees, the strife among so-called brothers, and the seemingly endless turmoil that resulted.” At age seventeen he left in the middle of the night and traveled by bus to work for a man who had once visited his father’s farm.
He enjoyed the freedom, but he missed his family and the stability of life at home, plus, after long days of hard work, he wasn’t really getting ahead financially. So he decided to move back home. His family and church accepted him, but the old conflicts rose to the surface again:
And therein lies the paradox that would haunt me for almost ten years: the tug-of-war between two worlds. A world of freedom versus a world of stability and family. A world of dreams versus a world of tradition. And wherever I resided at any given moment, trudging through the tough slog of daily life, the world I had left called me back from the one I inhabited. It was a brutal thing in so many ways, and I seemed helpless to combat it. Torn emotionally, moving back and forth, always following the siren’s call to lush and distant fields of peace that seemed so real but, like shimmering mirages in the desert, always faded away when I approached them.
He ended up leaving home five times altogether, always returning again until the last time, at age 26. People encouraged him to “decide to do what’s right, and then do it,” and assured him that once he just settled down, everything would be ok. He tried hard to make it work, even being baptized and joining the church. But “A mental choice, absent a real heart change, is no choice at all. We couldn’t force ourselves to be something we were not. That just couldn’t happen. And it didn’t.”
Believing that “The Amish way provided my only chance of salvation,” and that if he permanently left the fold, he would end up in hell, still couldn’t provide motive enough to stay, though it grieved him.
Personally, he “probably always believed there was a God, a sort of dark and frowning force. I just didn’t believe in him, to the extent that I thought he could or would make an actual difference in my life. I tried to believe, in my heart. But I couldn’t, in my head. I’d heard about him all my life. But if he was everything the preachers claimed he was, he sure had a strange way of hiding himself from people like me.”
Depressed and desperate, in a “mental trench of darkness from which I could see no way out,” he felt he had no choice but to finally leave the Amish for good. But then ” a sliver of light” came to him. Most of the praying he had ever seen in the Amish community was scripted, but he “decided he could simply talk to God. Ask for his help. Not by reading from a little black book, but by talking to him, man to man. Or man to God.” So he did, merely asking for the desire to do what was right.
Less than a month later, he met and almost instantly meshed with an English man who had joined the Amish, yet was a true believer.
He explained that there was no human penance for my sins. No way I could ever atone for all the things I had done. But…there was someone else who could atone. Who could wipe the past away and give new life. Heal all the wounds — my own and those I had inflicted on so many others through the years…
By quietly showing me Christ’s love, my friend had led me to the Source of that love. For the first time, I truly grasped that Christ had died for me — suffered, bled, and died–and that I could be his through faith. I was amazed at how simple it was. Why had it all seemed so hard, so impossible before?
The book ends with his final departure from the Amish at the age of 26. There’s a short epilogue at the end, but I would have liked to have learned more how about he finally adjusted to the outside world in the twenty years since he left, how his relationships with his family were since the final break, what kind of career he finally chose, etc.
I enjoyed this book quite a lot, not only for the view into what it was like to grow up Amish, but also to marvel again at how God draws people to Himself.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)