The Helpful and The Hopeful
A Feature Review of
Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life
Reviewed by Paul Chaplin
Wealth of literature on a given topic, as anyone involved in “Emergence” churches will report, is not necessarily a true measure of actual realised change. However, it can indicate that a growing number of people are taking certain ideas seriously (at least they’re buying the books!), and so it is encouraging to see, in Almost Amish, a new addition to the broad category of Christian contemporary writing on issues like simplicity, local economies, stability, and consumerism.
The story of author Nancy Sleeth (who also wrote Go Green, Save Green), husband Matthew (author of Serve God, Save the Planet and The Gospel According to the Earth), daughter Emma (author, at age 16, of It’s Easy Being Green) and son Clark, is one which begins with a self-described family-wide “spiritual and environmental conversion experience.” I list all these book titles since they tell a story all by themselves. The Sleeths are a family of Christian environmental activists, and it was the increasing comparisons people made between Nancy Sleeth’s lifestyle and that of the Amish (drying clothes on a line, simplifying wardrobes) that led to this book. Sleeth points to the Amish as a people group more than any other in 21st century America which are counter-cultural, committed to air drying clothes, enjoying intact families and healthy communities, who enjoy gardens, home cooked meals, uncluttered homes, almost nonexistent debt and strong local economies, and who restrain their use of technology. Therefore, perhaps we should take a look at Amish life and see what we can’t learn.
Sleeth moves through various topics: homes; technology; finances; nature; simplicity; service; security; community; families; and faith, each for which she offers thoughts and suggestions, interspersed with bits of narrative from her own experience, as well as providing us a window into the Amish approach to and practice in these areas. While some of the divisions of topics seem a little confused and some ideas are repeated, the breadth of discussion covers a great deal and it’s hard to imagine anyone not taking a few if not many valuable ideas away.
Sleeth begins with a chapter on homes, the best in the book – both interesting and challenging. She writes not just about measuring and restricting our purchases and possessions, but also about the space and layout of our homes. She describes of the Amish virtue of keeping homes orderly and uncluttered as having its own intrinsic value and benefits. While we are perhaps used to reading about how possessions can be dangerous as the objects of our desires, we are probably less used to concentrating on the benefits of the actual absence of possessions. Sleeth concludes the chapter asserting, “Our homes reflect our values. They reflect who we are inside and what we hold most precious. If our houses are cluttered, our hearts are too. Possessions should work for us; we should not work for them.” While I’m torn myself on how important it is to strive for tidiness, remembering some of the most welcoming and hospitable families I’ve known and the chaos their homes have exuded, I have also certainly have experienced the mental freedom and peace that comes with an ordered and uncluttered physical space – food for thought.
Sleeth also offers us her vision of the kitchen as the heart of the home, where families enjoy fellowship and as the main locus of hospitality to others. You needn’t have a huge or modern kitchen, Sleeth asserts – it is the communion of people rather than the flashiness of meals or appliances that makes the kitchen the heart of the home. Anecdotally, I often get the sense that one of the greatest barriers to people welcoming others into their homes is a perception of the inadequacy of the space or food they can offer, which is tragic since in the giving of hospitality – much like the giving of the best gifts – it truly is the thought that counts. Sleeth also describes the wonderful Amish practice of housing older parents in their own homes when they need caring for, a practice sadly so rare in our society today.
In a chapter on technology, a particularly countercultural area for the Amish, Sleeth reminds us that the Amish do not see it as inherently bad, but rather approach it as if it has a massive “CAUTION” warning stamped on it. The Amish consider carefully and slowly what technology they will adopt, and actively opt for certain practices which they know to be inefficient and irritating. Sleeth explains the Amish preference, for instance, for batteries over generators. Batteries require more forethought, more conscious rationing, and are more controllable. While some Amish choices may seem to be splitting hairs, there is reasoning behind each. A great example offered is the Amish use of diesel generators and an inverter to run small household appliances. Sleeth explains, “The conscious decision to make power loud, costly, and inconvenient leads people to use less of it and to live more mindfully.”
Another helpful section in this chapter introduces the concept of “sleeping with your good ear down”. Partially deaf in one ear, Sleeth explains how she sleeps with her better ear to her pillow to drown out the noise of her husband, and suggests we can take a similar approach to technology when we are unable or unwilling to be rid of it, turning mobile phones off when we don’t want to be disturbed or taking temporary fasts from different technologies. Most powerfully, Sleeth warns us that technology can drown out God, going as far as to suggest that not having a TV as a family has been one of the greatest gifts they have given their children – “How can we hear the voice of God if we are multi-tasking non-stop? How can we see the face of God in still waters and green pastures when we are chronically refreshing the screen? The digital generation is a distracted generation.” This is contrasted later in a chapter on nature, where Sleeth wonderfully quotes George Washington Carver – “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if only we will tune in”.
The greatest strength of the book is perhaps the venue for its greatest weakness. It is extremely helpful and encouraging to read the account of the Sleeths, who are a living example of their ideas. They know what it is like to experience wealth and live in comfort, and yet all are relentless advocates for a simpler, slower, and more sustainable lifestyle. There are countless practical and realizable suggestions in the book, including a delightful encouragement to go on picnics and a heartfelt rallying call for the practice of “stopping by.” At the same time, the Sleeths’ story is their own, and may at times or for some feel difficult to relate to. It is great that they could replace their Sedan with a hybrid, and that they could, with the savings from selling their first massive house purchase a “superefficient counterflow woodstove”, but while the Sleeths’ downward move towards simplicity will have been a huge challenge (getting used to one car from two), in other ways they could spend their way into a more sustainable lifestyle. Their starting point of privilege isn’t really recognized, and sometimes language can (accidentally I’m sure) sound self-congratulatory and perhaps be alienating – “The changes we were making in ourselves rippled outward in concentric circles – first in our family, then in our church, then throughout the community.” The book may also grate on those who find it difficult to hear excessive praise of children by their parents.
It is also imperative to say that those who consider themselves at all feminist will find this book quite a struggle in a number of places. The book carries throughout a heavy assumption of male leadership, both in the accounts of Amish practice as well as the narrative of the Sleeth family. This background assumption becomes foreground in the chapter on the family, where Sleeth explicitly spells out a fairly stark essentialist view of gender roles, interestingly seeming unaware that many readers may find her assumptions rather troubling – “Few would argue with the notion that Amish families are intact in part because they respect traditional gender roles. Believe me, I know.” This blind spot is also reflective of a completely uncritical approach to Amish life, but given that in many ways the book is more about the Sleeths than the Amish, it’s not fair to expect the book do more than draw out some helpful nuggets.
Having said all this, I hope that readers will grit their teeth and bear some of the frustrating sections and turns of phrase, because I truly believe that these flaws don’t contaminate the rest of the book, which is for the most part a great combination of the helpful and the hopeful. There are some wonderful themes to see unravelling throughout the chapters, especially a frequent reminder that all we have is not our own, and is not earned, but is from God. In different contexts and different colours, this same idea is brought to life countless times, each time meaningful and challenging, and each time drawing us in to faith even while laying out practical advice. Nancy Sleeth never judges or criticizes, but smilingly nudges us and encourages us to try out some Almost Amish habits.
For those, especially families, who are looking to move towards a slower, simpler, more sustainable life, Almost Amish is a great starting point.