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    Negotiating With Modernity

    April 2, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    I keep having these aha moments as I’m reading through my book about the Amish. This is followed by a series of huh, ah, yes, and oh! Don’t worry. I’m not converting. But it really is interesting to try and view modernity–and technology–through the eyes of a people who negotiate very carefully with it.

    And I’ve learned a lot of strange facts about the Amish as well. Did you know that they aren’t very fond of abstract thought? That abstract words are the English words they are the least likely to know? Did you know that they are often tri-lingual, speaking German in church, English when speaking with outsiders and conducting business, and Pennsylvania German in the home and with friends? Did you know that many people call the Amish dialect Pennsylvania Dutch, though it is not Dutch, but German, and calling it Dutch is actually a mispronunciation of the German word Deustch?

    Yep. If they ever come up with a Trivial Pursuit game based on the Amish, I will finally have a fighting chance at winning the game.

    I hate that game.

    It’s so…trivial.

    So anyhow, I thought I’d share a few more quotes today from The Riddle of Amish Culture. And also commentary, if I happen to feel inspired:

    The Simple Life

    The Amish pursuit of thrift and austerity is not a masochistic drive to win divine favor or guarantee eternal life. It is an acceptance of the historical fact that their austere way of being–developed over the years–has produced a wholesome life. In short, it has worked and, to the Amish, is the way things are supposed to be, the way they work best.

    When Dean Abbott was recently thinking about America’s broken public school system, he used a news story about violence on the part of students to support the concept that the school is broken. Now, obviously, I have no qualms with the idea of the school system being broken. After all, society continue to decline, and so the schools want the children at earlier ages, at later ages, and for longer hours and school years, and children get stupider and less civilized as this happens.

    However, I’m not quick to blame the schools because I actually think schools are a part of a bigger idea that has failed, and that is the overall approach to raising children. Or not raising them, as the case may be. So when the Amish hold on for dear life to their own approach because it works, it should give one pause. In general, the American approach to life does not work in that it does not typically produce people who glorify God and enjoy Him, which is to say it does not produce people who fulfill their ordained primary tasks of life.


    New things are not rejected immediately by the Amish just because they are new. Innovations are cautiously evaluated to see where they might lead and how they might eventually affect the community.

    Neil Postman would applaud this sort of behavior.

    The great irony here is that in Amish society, with fewer labor-saving devices and other technological shortcuts, there is less “rushing around.” The perception of rushing seems to increase directly with the number of “time-saving” devices. Although much time is “saved” in modern life, for some reason there is less of it and rushing increases. The perception of rushing increases as the number, complexity, and mobility of social relations soar.

    Technology only saves us time if we let it. Otherwise, the phone, TV, computer, Nintendo, and whatnot can actually consume time. The simple life, it seems, is truly simple. No one imagines a simple life where they feel constantly late, behind schedule, or overworked, do they?

    Dress Codes

    Both Amish and Moderns dress for success, but the standards of success differ radically in the two cultures…In Amish society, dress signals…submission to the collective order. Modern dress accentuates individual expression, whereas Amish dress enhances group solidarity.

    As a symbolic language, dress communicates information about the self, the occasion, and group ties.

    Conforming to the code is a redemptive ritual that binds one to the group and reveals a willingness to yield to history, to church, to God–a yielding that places one in touch with divine mysteries

    A minister noted: “You can single your people out, your families out, which way they are leaning by the cut of their hair. After twelve years of age, you can just about tell what they’re thinking by their hair.”…”How a child is dressed,” said one mother, “gives away the mother’s heart.” {emphasis mine}

    So, ironically, although the Amish appear to be engulfed by dress, they in fact spend much less time, money, and worry on clothing than do Moderns.

    At the grocery store last Monday, I saw a boy, not yet two-years-old, whose hair was cut in a Mohawk. I have seen little girls, younger than my son, dressed like loose women and wearing large earrings and lots of makeup. The heart of the mothers, are they revealed in this? What does this say about them? Are they really trying to help their children identify with certain subcultures within our society? Or do they simply not give thought to what they have done to or allowed into the lives of their precious children?

    I, personally, don’t have a ton of specific rules and restrictions about dress. My daughters do not have to wear certain types of clothes of certain lengths. Instead, I care about the feel of the clothes. In other words, what are my children being identified with? It is my hope that they are identified with childhood innocence, purity, and virtue. I have already tossed a couple skirts that, though technically modest in how they fit my older daughter, seemed to exude a certain attitude that I wanted to defend our home from.

    And as I think of all of this, I think that, yes, sometimes Modernity is more complicated. The Amish really don’t have to sit around, scrutinizing their child’s clothing for any hint of impurity.

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  • Reply Brandy April 6, 2008 at 1:52 am


    My real problem with Trivial Pursuit is that I have never won the game. Ever. And though I don’t have to always be a winner, I don’t particularly enjoy being a complete (and repeated!) failure. 🙂


    Welcome to Afterthoughts! Thanks for enjoying all the quotes with me. This book is written like a sociology text, so it can be very dry at times. However, it is packed full of information on the Amish. Others I have spoken with say the author is a true authority (as much as an outsider can be) on Amish culture. If you have ever wondered why they do what they do, it is a wonderful book to answer those questions!

  • Reply Carrie April 5, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    What a GREAT review and such interesting thoughts to “chew” on. I followed your link through Semicolon and I don’t think I’ve ever been to your blog site before but I LOVE the title (and reason for it)!

    I’ll be keeping an eye out for this book. It seems to have given you plenty to think about and reason through and I’m intrigued! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Kimbrah April 3, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    What do you have against Trivial Pursuit? 🙂

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