Amish Christian Romance and Unread Books
What makes a book worth throwing out? Though at one time I might have answered, “Nothing,” the impending arrival of a first child forced my wife and me to be less idealistic. Some books were gifts that we never read and never would, among them contemporary Christian biographies. Redundancy was a helpful next consideration. We are both seminary students in the same program, so we had duplicates of textbooks for classes taken before getting married. One of each duplicate—church history, theology, commentaries, missionary theory, to name several—went into the donation pile. Standards such as Lewis’s Mere Christianity that we both owned were set aside as well. Relevance is another criterion to get rid of a book. I grew up in the church, and my wife worked at a Christian bookstore; this led to a backlog of devotionals and handbooks on reading the Bible which were fine but written for an audience in which we no longer found ourselves. More for the donation pile.
This last group gave us an idea. We see our education as a step toward bringing better teaching to the church as a whole; these books could help do that now. Our church has three or four shelves which we call the library. At the time, those shelves held Amish Christian romance, self-published theology of dubious quality, a Nat Geo article on Jesus, and a few quality textbooks on Bible reading. The airport paperback aesthetic of the Amish books dominated the shelves. Far be it from me to question the theological value of fiction, but the lack of variety was an eyesore. As a theology student at a church founded by and often pastored by seminary professors, I thought we could get a little more educational value out of our library. We could have a systematic theology at hand for the curious teenager and a copy of early creeds for public reference. Our books in need of disposal had found a home.
The assistant pastor in charge of, among other things, educational ministries loved the idea. He was a recent graduate of the degree my wife and I are pursuing; he joined us in our discomfort with the bookshelves full of one niche genre. It was of little use to most of the church and suggested a certain target demographic to visitors. However, he knew that a small segment of the church maintained a strong affinity for the Amish romance, so he wanted to switch out the books discreetly. We dropped off two boxes of donated books at the church on a Wednesday.
By Sunday, the pastor had swapped a shelf of Amish romance—none of us could say which titles or authors—with the donated devotionals, biographies, and textbooks. By the next Wednesday, the donations, along with any nonfiction books that had been in the library already, were gone. The Amish romance was back, as if it had never been touched.
The agent of this removal was a self-organizing group of elderly women. They had noticed the pile of Amish romance books placed on the ground. For reasons we will shortly explore, they were upset enough to switch the books back themselves and confront the assistant pastor. I don’t know what was said, but I know the Amish romance stayed. Our curated donation of theological books, including a book about missionary work commissioned by our denomination, for our denomination, was disposed of.
The question that has lingered with me is why? Why did these people want the Amish romance collection to sit untouched? Why could there not be any theological nonfiction? Why were these novels important enough to disregard the decisions of the pastor?
To address these questions, I am blessed with that most bafflingly precise and thorough of resources: the academic monograph. Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels seeks to explain the proliferation in publishing and consumption of this genre of fiction. For those who don’t know why there’d be 300 pages of annotated research on the subject, here’s a primer. What Weaver-Zercher means by “Amish Romance” are romance novels set in pastoral Amish settings, featuring female Christian heroines, and encouraging traditional familial morals. The books are particularly popular among Christians, stereotypically older evangelical women. Weaver-Zercher challenges that stereotype, though it does fit the group at my church. These novels are mostly written by non-Amish folk. The protagonists, whether originally Amish or not, usually end the story happily married with the positive prospect or reality of children in their future among the Amish.
Though an Amish lifestyle is generally praised, the protagonists accept it on their own terms. In his recent interaction with Daniel Silliman’s Reading Evangelicals, Cameron McAllister points out that praise of self-actualization is common among America’s top selling evangelical fiction, including Amish romance. They preach the importance of individual fulfillment and personal spirituality. It is likely a coincidence that the self-styled authority to sabotage a pastor’s plans for the church’s educational library was found among our church’s fans of this literature.
Presaged by Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly in 1979 and kicked off properly in 1997 with Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning, Amish romance has been on the rise. Only five novels in the genre were professionally published in 2006. That number spiked year by year, with 85 published in 2012, the latest year available to Thrill of the Chaste. By that year, the top three Amish romance authors had sold a combined 24 million books. Roughly thirty percent of multiple Christian bestseller lists were Amish titles. These numbers are not enough to establish ubiquity even within the American Christian population, but they suggest that my fellow church members’ interest in the genre is not unique. Publishing houses and careers have been built on Amish romance. So too, it seems, has some amount of collective identity for genre enthusiasts.
Weaver-Zercher centers her explanation for the appeal of Amish romance on the concepts of hypermodernity and hypersexualization. Hypermodernity refers to an inflation of consumption in all aspects of life. More media is produced with more money and consumed more ravenously. More work is done faster in pursuit of more money. While technology and globalizing forces facilitate the fast pace of hypermodernity, that pace rather than its tools are the essence of hypermodernity. Amish romance provides an alternative world to our hypermodern one. The genre’s pastoral settings and earnest yearnings for family and fulfillment provide a slower and more grounded view of the world than that which confronts its readers in their real lives. The view of the Amish as rejectors of modern technology and dynamism —however accurate or not—provides the impetus for an Amish setting specifically rather than a less precise pastoral environment. The books are also products of hypermodernity in that they are written and marketed with set structures at scale to sustain businesses.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, the genre does not use hypersexuality—the elevated commodification of hypermodernity as applied to sex. Romance is chaste throughout, with nary an explicit scene. The bar for chastity is defined by late 20th century purity backlash against sexual revolution norms. Amish romance sees little need for touch, much less something more.
Amish romance novels, for their evangelical audience especially, also function as religious instruments. They praise Christian values as filtered through majority America’s traditional familial ideals. They discourage sex outside of marriage. They often present the free salvation Jesus offers as a contrast to a salvation earned by works supposedly preached by some Amish. Skewed though this portrayal may be, viewing one’s religious convictions as the antidote to societal and spiritual wrongs is an attractive perspective.
Weaver-Zercher reminds the reader that, for all the deeper draws the genre may have, its adherents also enjoy the books as stories. She encourages critics to resist the temptation to reject the novels as romance and be sure they do not discount their readership for being female. If the books look identical from the outside, that’s more a result of marketing and lack of exposure than of reality. As with any genre, the distinctions between the individual stories matter as much as the similarities.
The same can be said of the readers at my church. Any number of insights in Thrill of the Chaste might help explain why individuals defended their Amish romance from the onslaught of teaching material. Hypermodernity and hypersexualization exist today as much as they did when Thrill of the Chaste was published a decade ago. These broad concepts do not, alas, explain the particulars of my church’s situation.
Hypersexualization, I dismiss as a factor outright. Our book donation included nothing steamier than Augustine’s Confessions, and even if the Amish romance offers a defense against the perceived tempest of modern sexual license, the storm stays outside our church.
Hypermodernity is more relevant. The new books we offered were identical, technologically, to the old, yet they were forces of hypermodernity because of the change they represented. The books suggested that whatever community had formed around the library, likely under previous leadership, was less important than the Christian education promoted by our young assistant pastor and the books’ seminarian donors. The added nonfiction was not modern in any historical sense; rather, it was hypermodern because it was new, functional, and put in place without the traditional though informal role of the church members as custodians of the library. The perceived infringement of stodgy academia on real life with Jesus has a stubborn heritage in the evangelical church. I believe, for this group, our book donation embodied the edging out of their place in the church by upstart scholars, represented literally by the replacement of their favored novels.
Scholarship is not new to our congregation, much less to Christianity at large. My church has had a close relationship to the seminary since the church was founded. A significant portion of the members are students and families that stay only long enough for a Master of Divinity or PhD. Some, such as professors and the assistant pastor, make a more permanent home. There is thus always a significant portion of attendees with formal theological training. Still, the most specific answer the women who threw away our books gave for why they did was that “there have never been seminary books here.” In the scholar’s eye, this statement is absurd. There were already hermeneutics textbooks in the library, and even if there had not been, the church is and always has been suffused with the fruits of formal Christian education. Any church carries the heritage of monks studying in their cells, theologians debating in lecture halls, and candidates writing theses.
I saw the replacement of the Amish romance with educational material as a natural outgrowth of our church’s academic character and in line with the broader Church’s heritage. The women saw the same event as a hostile usurpation of their experience of the church. After all, their Amish fiction books have been at the church longer than me, my wife, and the current pastoral staff combined. It’s easy for us to say that we have the weight of knowledge and history behind us, but we made no attempt to explain that ahead of time. The women were right about one thing: we felt disdain for their books and wished we could be rid of them. If we had more books to donate, more Amish romance would have been pulled. Given our treatment of the library, it would not be a far leap for the women to conclude that we do not value their presence or contributions in general.
I doubt we are alone in trying to bring academic insights to bear on a group that does not see a need for them, and I know we are not alone in facing anti-intellectualism. When we tried to force a change, everyone lost. The whole church, including the angry reactionary group, lost resources that could have benefited the whole. The Amish romance fans carry responsibility, but so do those officially in charge. The top-down approach did not work and did not have to happen. The issue isn’t that we started too big; we didn’t make a large change to the library. The problem is that we started too high—that is, removed from those we wanted to reach. We could have respected the standing tradition while trying to adjust it by starting with an open dialogue. As the affection for Amish romance shows, sometimes people prefer things to move slowly.