'Almost Amish': Is There a Hidden Gem in That Horse-Drawn Buggy?

Maybe they're more than living museum pieces of a barely remembered schism-within-a-schism in Swiss history. Maybe they're reluctant beacons lighting a path away from dystopia. Maybe, if we look closely, we'll see freedom among the wary, rule-riddled Amish. Perhaps their backwardness isn't so backward and our advances aren't so advanced -- and perhaps they'll help us reclaim our spiritual footing as we face the sober fact: God's creation chafes beneath the Type-A, multi-tasking melee. Something must be done.

Nancy Sleeth has eaten the fish and spat out the bones. She looks beyond the group's obvious flaws, learns from their attributes and applies their lessons in "Almost Amish: One Woman's Quest For a Slower, Simpler, and More Sustainable Life." The result: An entertaining, thought-provoking, refreshing, nuts-and-bolts manual for those of us who feel enslaved to the grid and our gas guzzlers. We know that massive dilemmas like climate change demand a matrix of societal solutions interlinking changed priorities, altered transportation systems, urban renewal and international negotiations; but still, we feel like hypocrites behind our steering wheels on our 40-minute commutes. We want more from ourselves.

Sleeth is the author of "Go Green, Save Green," and managing director of Blessed Earth, a faith-based non-profit organization she co-founded with her husband, Matthew, a former emergency room physician and hospital chief of staff. Matthew says he felt like he was "straightening deck chairs on the Titanic" as he rescued individual patients on a sinking Earth. The outcome: The family drastically cut its fossil fuel and electricity use; he wrote "Serve God and Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action" (Zondervan, 2007); he shelved his career and, along with Nancy, founded the organization. Blessed Earth has produced videos and sponsored such initiatives as The Seminary Stewardship Alliance (institutions have pledged to teach environmental stewardship) and Creation Care Year (they partner with influential churches and offer forums, seminars, lectures, small group studies and panel discussions).

Thus their travels, and thus the constant query at the question-and-answer sessions: "What are you, Amish or something?" The refrain forced her to investigate the strict sect that broke away from the Mennonites under the leadership of Jacob Amman in 1693 near Bern, Switzerland. The Mennonites, named after their founder, Menno Simons, were the largest group of so-called "Anabaptists," or rebaptizers, who disagreed with infant baptism and, later, opposed all participation in war. Both Protestants and Catholics hounded them during the Reformation's turmoil. Some Amish, along with other Mennonites, migrated to Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana and parts of Canada.

She found much to admire as she culled their views on technology, finances, nature, simplicity, service, security, community, families and faith. There's wit (read her description of her husband's bland wardrobe: he sometimes "gets wild" and wears a blue oxford shirt); there's wisdom (she quotes Wheaton College professor and former blogger Alan Jacobs: blogging is the "friend of information but the enemy of thought"); there's everyday application, including advice on gardening, bolstering local farmers and Sabbath keeping. And don't forget the Amish recipes.

It's all hedged with the "almost" qualifier: Not all should cut off their electricity and toss their cell phones; she's arguing for an uncluttered, ecologically harmonious life in which technology serves and does not rule. Awaken from the boob tube's trance. Shelve those anonymous social network "friends" and their Internet rants. Feast with long-forgotten sons, daughters, siblings and neighbors -- and learn from those bonneted, enigmatic, simple and yet startling people (who else would show hospitality to a murderer's family after he killed several children and himself?).

Still, she would have done well to tip her hat at the Amish dark side -- if, for no other reason, than to fend-off critics and heretic hunters (I can just see the blogosphere banners: "Nancy Sleeth Says We Should All Become Amish!"). She admires their schools but neglects the eighth-grade cut-off point; she commends their lasting marriages but doesn't mention that divorce is banned (I'm all for life-long marriage, but I want all the facts). Shunning, which she only barely acknowledges, was one of Ammann's featured centerpieces. He seemed to relish it. He excommunicated elders and ministers throughout Switzerland and enforced strict regulations on beards, hat styles, clothes and shoes. How do you spell P-H-A-R-I-S-E-E? He was an ornery pacifist -- and his societal withdrawal ignores an incarnational Lord who mingled among the impure and told his disciples to do the same. Christianity's warp and woof calls for engagement. Typical among legalists, Ammann couldn't see the forest for the trees.

Perhaps most ominously, evidence suggests that 39 genetic ailments afflict the Amish due to a limited gene pool. And the future bodes ill: The sect's rising population stems from large families. Few outsiders convert. Amman's descendants in Europe were wise as they rejoined the Mennonites. The faction has evaporated there.

But the book's attributes far outweigh its flaws, and the Sleeth family is the very model of Christ-like engagement (their daughter, Emma, has also written a book and their son, Clark, a fourth-year medical student, plans on a career in medical missions). What's more, there's none of the condescending spite plaguing many progressive Protestants or even my fellow progressive Evangelicals -- and none of the Jesus-really-didn't-mean-it-when-he-said-that sneak-aways. The Sleeths are bringing us back to a non-gutted Bible. And shock of shocks: The cures for our social, environmental, moral and spiritual maladies come wrapped in the same package. In a bow.