Growing Up Amish is a moving memoir of a life and lifestyle that is foreign to most of us: the Amish. Ira was born and raised in the Amish tradition, leaving and coming back several times before leaving for good when he was twenty-six. Years later, Wagler writes this heartwarming memoir that gives us a vivid picture of Amish life.
That’s the greatest aspect of this book. Wagler writes in a captivating style that explores the Amish life he left without condemning it. It’s not a polemical tirade against his heritage but an honest look (from his perspective) at the world he was raised in.
One of the many interesting things in this book is his exploration of faith. You would think growing up in a strictly religious community that he would have a strong belief in God. Not so. “I probably always believed there was a God, a sort of dark and frowning force. I just didn’t believe in him, not to the extent that I thought he could or would make and actual difference in my life” (198).
His description of Amish religious services is almost suffocating in its monotony (at least from the perspective of a born and raised Baptist). You think Baptists are traditional? Think again. Their hours of singing and preaching, with no attempt to do anything creative was difficult even to read. It’s almost a point of pride that their services are an endurance test for the faithful to sit through.
Why would folks willingly sit through monotonous services and oppressive rules and regulations? Because Amish believe that’s the only way to get to heaven. “The only way I could ever make it to heaven was through the Amish church. That’s what I had been taught all my life, and that’s what I believed” (210). Baptists don’t feel they’re the only ones going to heaven. They just feel they’re the only ones doing it right. The Amish take it to a whole new level, teaching that the only way to heaven is through the Amish church. Even the Mennonites, a similar faith that is still very traditional by modern religious standards, are too worldly for the Amish.
Against this rigid and oppressive way of life, Ira rebelled, leaving the Amish way of life three times and coming back. Each time he left, it was an attempt to find freedom, to escape the suffocating nature of his life. Each time, he came back out of fear, or habit, concerned for his salvation, yearning for the structure he’d known all his life. He couldn’t find lasting happiness inside or outside the church.
How did Ira’s life finally find resolution? The third time he returned, Ira encountered an Amish man who was different, an Amish man that pointed Ira to Christ, not just a forbidding and demanding God of the Amish. He helped him wade through religious rules and rituals and (for the first time) discover the beauty of Christ. “By quietly showing me Christ’s love, my friend had led me to the Source of that love. For the first time, I truly grasped that Christ had died for me–suffered, bled, and died–and that I could be his through faith. I was amazed at how simple it really was. Why had it always seemed so hard, so impossible before? (258)”
After a radical encounter with God’s grace through Jesus Christ, Ira felt the freedom to leave the Amish community once and for all, not out of spite, bitterness, or anger, but out of freedom. Salvation didn’t come through the Amish church, it came through Jesus. “The box of Amish life and culture might provide some protection, but it could never bring salvation” (265).
1. The Amish church is a fascinating culture. They are unknown, an oddity. It’s been a fascinating experience to peek behind the curtain and get a first hand account of Amish life. Although the Amish pursue life in a different way from the rest of Americans, they are humans who love, grieve and worship, just like us.
2. The Amish church reminds me of the Pharisees in the New Testament. From the portrayal of this book, the Amish church seems to be all about rules and regulations. God is portrayed as a distant and angry God. The Amish use condemnation and fear (as opposed to grace and love) as their religious fuel. They are quick to condemn the outside world to Hell, even those who would claim to follow God as well. The exaltation of rules and requirements reminds me of the Pharisees. I know it’s not a kind portrayal of the Amish, but thankfully they’ll never read this blog because the internet is from the devil.
3. The Amish are in for a rude awakening in heaven. The Amish think they’re going to be the only ones up in heaven. I would beg to differ from their assessment. If Jesus truly is gathering people from every tribe and nation and tongue and race, then heaven will be much more crowded and diverse than they’re expecting.
4. The Amish life is a heavy burden for those who follow it. Ira was consistent in his portrayal of families he knew that were Amish. It was a hard life. There was an absence of joy and laughter. It was a heavy burden, physically and emotionally. And yet, they believe it’s the only way to heaven.
5. We shouldn’t dismiss the Amish. We should learn from them. Their devotion to family and their hesitancy to be corrupted by the world are commendable. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to echo their assessment that the rest of the world (outside the Amish church) is going to Hell, I would agree that the rest of America has become much too friendly and comfortable with worldly things.