For a long time, most Americans knew little more about the Amish than that they made finely crafted furniture and pursued a quietly stubborn resistance to modernity. But lately, against all expectation, an avalanche of Amish romance novels and myth-making TV “reality” shows like Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia have turned the mighty gaze of popular culture toward this small Christian group numbering just over a quarter-million people.
The Amish have traditionally piqued our interest with their slow and simple way of life. They are not in fact Luddites, merely hesitant and discriminating in their adoption of new technologies. Some fifty years after the telephone first appeared in Amish communities, a grandmother told me, “It’s still on probation.” A single Amish hymn, sung at a torturously slow pace, may stretch over fifteen to twenty minutes in a three-hour worship service. Where speed permeates modern life, with its instant downloads and constant tweets, its express mail, fast food, and lightning-quick microprocessors, slowness characterizes Amish culture. What better countercultural symbol of slowness and simplicity could there be than a horse-drawn buggy plodding along a country road as GPS-guided cars swoosh by?
Donald B. Kraybill is distinguished professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and author of many books on Amish society, including The Amish, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.