"The Amish romance novel," like, say, "Jewish conversion fiction," is one of those genres that strikes the uninitiated as hopelessly esoteric ("surely there can be only a few of those things") but, in fact, attracts a wide-ranging audience, especially amongst evangelical Christians. A subgenre of the inspirational romance, studied recently by Lynn Neal, Amish romance novels potentially reveal much about the fruitful intersections between supposedly "religious" and "secular" cultural domains. In its approach to these novels, Valerie Weaver-Zercher's Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Johns Hopkins, 2013) is an avowed descendant of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, a study which yokes critical analysis of romance conventions to the empirical study of reading practices--who reads the romance? How do romance readers evaluate and use these books? To what extent do they embrace or resist romance narratives? Given the subject matter, Weaver-Zercher takes things a step further: how do the Amish (of whatever affiliation) respond to these novels, given that the authors frequently have a somewhat tenuous relationship at best to Amish communities?
As Weaver-Zercher explains, the Amish novel has always existed in a problematic relationship to other narratives of American Christian culture, not least because--at least historically--many evangelicals have not believed and still do not believe that the Amish have a saving faith (although, she notes, this is changing). In practice, this means that Amish romance novels, especially ones published in the early years of the genre, have a strong conversionist bent, as the romantic lead (or leads) transitions from a "rule-bound" to "Jesus-filled" (119) faith, from justification by good works to sola fide, from "repressive Amishness" to "liberating evangelicalism" (118), and so on. Those of you who have been reading my blog for the past decade or so should recognize this narrative trajectory, as it also characterizes 19th-c. conversion fiction. (Is there anything that can't be squashed into a "works/faith" dichotomy?) However, Weaver-Zercher posits that even in novels that don't figure the Amish as unchristian (or un-evangelical, anyway), Amish culture and belief offers what she calls a "transport" to an idyllic, faith-filled, organic location, defined by its freedom from the demands of our over-technologized and over-sexed "hypermodernity." Although Weaver-Zercher is at pains to acknowledge that this strategy may have some spiritual positives for evangelical readers, she also warns that it obscures the realities of Amish life (in particular, she notes, the strong commitment to pacifism [222-24]), inadvertently transforms the Amish into historical remnants rather than a living people (134), and, frequently, "risks disregarding the cultural integrity, complicated history, and sometimes recondite spirituality of the people at the center of the books" (218). In particular, the habit of relegating the Amish to "history," to a kind of figurative pre-modernity nestled within contemporary culture, resonates both with Johannes Fabian's famous analysis of anthropological rhetoric and, again, with traditional conversionist and/or supersessionist narratives, in which one religion (Judaism, Catholicism) is summarily consigned to the past so that another (Christianity, Protestantism) can claim sole access to the fullness of divine truth.
Weaver-Zercher's analysis of how these books are produced, marketed, and received can sometimes feel a little ad hoc, especially when it comes to the question of reception; this is a by-product of her sometimes folksy tone, which on occasion makes it seem as though she is rustling up readers over the dinner table. As she notes, the success of this subgenre makes it typical of the ultra-commercial quality of American religion (with its endless supply of inspirational gimcracks, cards, books, music, and what-have-you), and she points to the importance of social media in constructing author-reader relations and, of course, upping sales (92-96). One of the results, she argues, is that "[f]ictional accounts of Amish life slice it into serving sizes such that readers can consume the tasty parts--Amish Christmases and midwives and brides and quilts--without needing to digest the ecclesial authority, pacifist orientation, or communal practices that stick in a modern craw" (101). Amish romances thus form part of a religious bricolage, in which readers appropriate the least challenging aspects of the Other's practices and incorporate them with an entirely different (and perhaps dissonant) lifestyle. (The fondness of some Christians for the Kabbalah Centre is a similar case in point.) This appropriative strategy underlines Weaver-Zercher's finding that, in general, readers find a "replica of themselves and their own ecclesial journey" (118) when reading these novels; the novels are written for those already sure of evangelicalism's rightness. Actual Amish readers are not as harsh on these novels as one might expect: Weaver-Zercher catalogs reactions that range, in effect, from "yikes, no" to laughter to outright enjoyment, although she also concedes that there's no hard statistical data about these readers (184). Still, Weaver-Zercher, working with transactional theory, reiterates the important point that religious fiction can generate complex and resistant responses from readers; the didactic mode does not foreclose alternative or unintended appropriative meanings, no matter how hard it may try.
For those of us who hang out with nineteenth-century religious fiction, this book offers a number of helpful strategies and reminders. First, like F. Elizabeth Gray, Lynn Neal, and others, Weaver-Zercher points out that what look like aesthetic flaws from one POV may, in fact, be a productive part of a work's spiritual or missionary project on the other (74). Second, she reminds us that didacticism does not, in fact, produce a lockstep readership: readers of religious fiction are just as likely to resist and rewrite as they are to agree wholeheartedly with the author's position. Third, her reminder that religious publishing is a business like any other does call us to investigate how and why certain types of religious fiction became popular (or not) at specific moments in nineteenth-century culture, and how such fiction was produced and distributed; in particular, the American habit of pirating everything in sight needs to be taken into account when we think about transatlantic influences, as well as the importance of translation when it comes to the development of Catholic fiction. (It would be interesting to know, for example, just how much "Anglo-American" Catholic fiction was really French.) And fourth, there's room for more archival research on readers responding to and interacting with non-anonymous religious novelists. Did they send fan mail? Did they ask for spiritual guidance? Did they make pilgrimages to authors' homes?