"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, April 5, 2013

Amish, Hippies, and the Rest of Us

I have for some time been deeply interested in the Amish, among whom I live in northern Indiana, which has the third-largest population of Amish in the country.We buy all our vegetables from a nearby Amish market, and much else from another Amish store. Last week I watched this interesting PBS documentary on them. I've read a number of studies about the Amish, including John Hostetler's Amish Society; Carol Highsmith and Ted Landphair, The Amish: A Photographic Tour; and Leslie Kelly, America's Amish Country II.

What interests me is not their theology, nor their largely non-sacramental and aliturgical life, none of which I could accept. (At risk of pressing on them categories they do not recognize, I would be inclined to say that their manner of life, especially their biblically grounded stewardship of the earth, has a deeply "sacramental" quality to it in a way that Alexander Schmemann described very well.) Instead, what interests me is precisely their manner of living: small, local, agrarian, and with a constant wariness about how new technology can damage their families and communities. And yet, given the strictures on their life, they flourish: recent studies indicate that they have large families and an extremely high rate of retention (I've seen numbers above 90%) of their youth, which no Christian church anywhere on the planet comes close to replicating. In speaking of the Amish I am not, I hope, indulging in any kind of romanticism or contrarianism; I am certainly not a Luddite. I know it is a besetting sin of too many Eastern Christians, and so I try to keep a firm check on any impulse towards nostalgia for a "simpler" or "better" past that never was.

But the quiet example of the Amish raises questions for me that I have long considered about the globalized world in which we live--ecological questions, sociopolitical questions, economic questions, and ultimately philosophical and theological questions. These are questions that first came to me in the late 1990s when I was writing an MA thesis on Alasdair MacIntyre, whose most influential book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, first published in 1981, ends with a famous passage about the similarities (but also differences) between the collapse of the West-Roman Empire into the Dark Ages, and the "new dark ages which are already upon us." In such a context, MacIntyre said, we are awaiting "a new--and doubtless very different--Saint Benedict." That language has led some, e.g., the Orthodox blogger Rod Dreher, whom I read daily with great interest, to speak of a "Benedictine option" for Christians today--looking at new forms of community, new ways of living, in our present circumstances.

Some years ago Dreher wrote a book I read with relish, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. (Dreher also has a new book out this year, to which I will attend later. I hope also to interview him about it.)

If, following Paul Evdokimov, all Christians are called to a life of "interiorized monasticism," how possible is that in the world in which most of us live today? Can the silence and contemplation, the prayer and solitude, which are necessary components of any monasticism worthy of the name, be lived today when we are surrounded by so much technology? Should we not, Amish-like, look more critically on our phones, tablets, computers, and cars? What would a new, and doubtless very different, monasticism look like? How can we be more like the Amish? How can the vision of a "crunchy" conservatism be lived on more than an individual "boutique" basis? Are Christians of our time called to live differently in intentional communities? (Catholics like this family would seem to think so. In 2006, I spent a few days with some friends who were then part of the City of the Lord, a Catholic intentional community in Phoenix. There was much there that was attractive, but the charismatic worship was deeply repellent.)

I have no answers to these questions, but continue to think about them. I hope my thinking will be aided by the recent publication of a book from Paraclete Press, which has published a number of good works in Eastern Christianity, monasticism, and much else besides: David Janzen, The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Paraclete Press, 2012).

About this book, which was brought to my attention by my good friend, Fr. Jason Charron, the publisher tells us:
In the 21st century, a new generation of Spirit-energized people are searching for a new—yet ancient—way of life together. David Janzen, a friend of the New Monasticism movement with four decades of personal communal experience, has visited scores of communities, both old and new. The Intentional Christian Community Handbook shares his wisdom, as well as the experience of intentional Christian communities across North America over the last half century.

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