As most American denominations have more or less accommodated themselves to the culture around them, the Amish and their countercultural ways have remained a topic of fascination to their fellow citizens. Only a 20-minute drive from where my family lives, Lancaster County has made an industry of Amish life -- some Amish participate in reaching out to tourists who want to vicariously experience Amish life.
Given the big market for "clean" romance targeting conservative Christian readers, it seems reasonable that entrepreneurial non-Amish writers would use the Amish as subjects -- and make a nice living doing so.
A recent article by Pittburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Ann Rodgers charts the popularity of "Amish" romances.
Among the tourist trinkets at rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike are novels with covers adorned with beautiful, bonneted women and buggies.
For the women readers who have made Amish romance the fastest-growing genre in Christian fiction, these books aren't exactly steamy aphrodisiacs. Hand-holding is a heart-stopping event.
A hero's greatest desire is often to teach an English, or non-Amish, heroine about Jesus. Plots may stir an irresistable urge to bake rhubarb pie.
Most Amish-themed romance novels are written by non-Amish authors and are aimed primarily at an evangelical Christian readership. While Amish women do read them, leaders of Amish communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have actively discouraged or banned them.
As I've said before, I see a journalistic purpose in religious "culture" stories beyond the culture wars -- those that map the decisions that shape the lives of many readers in mundane life. Kudos to Rodgers, who is such a thorough reporter, for picking up on a trend and interviewing not only scholars, authors and publicists but members of Amish communities who object to the books.
Imagine yourself at a rest stop in Pennsylvania, picking up an Amish romance (ok, I can't imagine doing that, but perhaps you can). Wouldn't you want to know if they are accurate? Wouldn't you be interested in how they are received by the Amish?
"Romance books are a great hindrance to a Christian marriage," said Andrew Troyer, a deacon in that community.
He hasn't read any, and he said he knows these are intended to promote Christian virtue. But they encourage the wrong foundation for marriage, he said.
"It gets young people all pumped up for the perfect setting, and that's not reality. Marriage is God-ordained and divine and it's wonderful to have a Christian marriage. But it takes give-and-take."
What a wonderful quote -- that's classic Amish doctrine right there. Rodgers nicely distinguishes between the plot lines in some Amish novels (oft tailored to meet the expectations of conservative Christian readers) and the reality. But she also speaks to Linda Byler, an Amish romance writer from the Amish community -- and perhaps the only Amish romance writer. Should Byler's work take off when she signs with a major publisher, that may lead to tensions within the community -- and the potential for more good stories.
While I doubt that many readers will now hesitate before picking up that novel on the Turnpike (it may be the least expensive "trinket" in the rest stop), they will have a much better idea of whether the author they are reading reflects accurately on Amish life -- and may become more interested in finding out about the real lives of this private community than in romantic fantasies about them.
Picture of Amish girls from Wikimedia Commons