Nancy Sleeth. Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2012. 272 pp. $14.99.
Interest in sustainable living is gaining momentum. With more and more women finding ways to go greener, cook from scratch, and simplify, it is no surprise we're seeing a plethora of new books promoting these ideals.
In her book, Almost Amish: One Woman's Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life, Nancy Sleeth, noted speaker on faith and the environment and managing director of Blessed Earth, offers ten principles of Amish life and then devotes a chapter to each. From technology to depending more on community, Sleeth invites her readers to consider the Amish way of life and how it can be applied to their own living.
The Amish Way
In each chapter, Sleeth provides examples of how the Amish community lives out its principles. She shares stories of how it lives with less, uses technology as a tool rather than as a master, and depends on family and community to meet its needs. Its goal is not to be bigger and better, but to depend on God and one another.
Sleeth observes that by living off the land, the Amish are more aware of their dependence on God (74). She then makes the assumption that “the more time they spend in God’s creation, the more they come to know the Creator” (91)—an assumption that seems to suggest all Amish are indeed worshiping God.
Sleeth gives a very positive, idealistic view of the Amish. And while we can certainly draw principles from some aspects of their lifestyle, it’s dangerous to paint any such group as having the answer to a slower, more meaningful, even more spiritual life. Unfortunately Sleeth offers little nuance and fails to mention some aspects of Amish beliefs and practices, such as shunning, which would contradict a biblical understanding of the gospel.
The principles Sleeth articulates are certainly not exclusive to the Amish. Living debt-free, serving God and neighbor, and buying locally are all advocated and practiced by those of varying philosophical worldviews. Sleeth could have bolstered her argument by selecting principles that were truly unique to the Amish. Identifying universally advocated principles and attributing them to the Amish seems contrived.
The ‘Almost Amish’ Way
For each principle derived from the Amish way of life, Sleeth submits ideas from her experience on how to practically implement the principle in an “almost Amish” way. She explains how to simplify your life, reduce your ecological footprint, and have a more meaningful existence.
At times, however, her practical tips seem to be rather arbitrary. She chooses how closely or loosely she follows the Amish way. The Amish women make their own bread by hand, while Sleeth makes it with an electric breadmaker. Amish women don’t wear makeup at all, but Sleeth uses a small pencil case worth. Her specific examples, while meant to be helpful ideas, could leave one wondering exactly how she reached these conclusions. If Amish living is indeed better than our own, why not live exactly like them? If we choose not to live exactly as they do, then where do we find the line of “almost Amish”? Sleeth doesn’t conclude that everyone should draw the line where she has. Rather, she encourages readers to think creatively about how they could incorporate Amish ideals in their own life. Her tone, however, sometimes comes across as if she has found the ideal balance.
The book emphasizes the Amish way of life with Scripture merely used as support. It is true that we can find practical help from people living different lifestyles. But while we can find inspiration from Christians and non-Christians alike, we must ultimately embrace the Bible as the sole authority and foundation for our living. It’s a dangerous line to cross when we adduce scriptural proof for human-devised principles. Buying locally is good for our economy. It’s possibly better for our health, and may very well be our best option in some cases. It does not, however, make us more godly.
Statements referring to Sleeth’s “spiritual and environmental conversion experience” (4) further confuse the gospel. Is she stating that these are one in the same? Does her spiritual relationship with Christ somehow correlate to how well she cares for the earth? It is only by God’s grace through Christ that we have a right relationship with God. Sleeth may very well believe this, but her generalizations and assumptions leave much confusion. For example, it's not clear how, apart from God's intervening grace, spending time outside each day with your children will "change your relationship with God" (90).
While there are certainly lifestyle benefits to living a simple life, without a clear biblical understanding of the gospel, there will never be eternal benefits.
Johanna Hanson lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where her husband, Brian, studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They are members of Third Avenue Baptist Church. Johanna is a stay-at-home mom to three young children, and blogs regularly at My Home Tableau.