When Transformation Transforms the Transformers

In arguably his most important book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes the following about the Amish (in ways that neo-Calvinists might find instructive and inspirational):

First, the Amish communities are, at their center, religious. They are bound together not just by various worldly necessities, but by spiritual authority. . . Whereas most contemporary sects of Christianity have tended to specialize in the interests of the spirit, leaving aside the issues of the use of the world, the Amish have not secularized their earthly life. . . .

Second, the Amish have severely restricted the growth of institutions among themselves, and so they are not victimized, as we so frequently are, by organizations set up ostensibly to “serve” them. Though they pay the required deferences to our institutions, they accept few of the benefits, and so remain, in perhaps the most important respects, free of them. They do not become dependent on them and so maintain their integrity. As far as I know, the only institutions in our sense that the Amish have started are their schools — and his, by our standards, for a strange reason: to keep the responsibility for educating their children and so, in consequence to keep their children. . . .

Third, the Amish are the truest geniuses of technology, for they understand the necessity of limiting it. . . . Whereas our society tends to conceive of the community as a loose political-economic mechanism of mutually competing producers, suppliers, and consumers, the Amish think of “the community as a whole” — that is, as all of the people, or perhaps, considering the excellence both of their neighborliness and their husbandry, as all the people and their land together. If the community is whole, then it is healthy, at once earthly and holy. The wholeness or healht of the community is their standard. And by this standard they have been required to limit their technology.

Berry goes on even to violate Old Life standards by applying the word Christian to a secular enterprise — as in Christian agriculture, which is “formed upon the understanding that is is sinful for people to misuse or destroy what they did not make.”

As side from the irony from H. Richard Niebuhr categories of Christ and culture that Anabaptists may have done more to create a Christian culture than Niebuhr’s (and Kuyper’s) Calvinist transformationalists, the example of the Amish (as Berry understands them) may also be instructive for those wanting to transform out culture. Instead of infiltrating the city to redeem it, the Amish have fled the dominant culture to cultivate a Christian culture (as they understand it). In so doing, they have avoided the problem that generally afflicts the infiltrators — that they become like the culture they inhabit, that is, in the case of city transformers, they become as urban and hip as they are Christian. The Amish are also apparently free from the self-delusion that often infects the transformationalists, then one where to justify redeeming the culture the cult loses what makes it distinct (the salt is no longer salt).

This is not, by the way, an endorsement of either the Amish (whom I admire) or the project of Christian culture. I am more and more persuaded that the longing for a Christian culture is illegitimate and whets the soul’s appetite for something we cannot have in this world. But if you are going to look for examples of Christian culture, the Amish may have unwittingly outscored the neo-Calvinists. Think Free University.

33 thoughts on “When Transformation Transforms the Transformers

  1. The other thing that’s important to note about the Amish is a high rate of intergenerational retention. Lots of Christian communities have come and gone that aren’t able to attract and retain their young: Amish claim about 90% retention while, government statistics put it at around 85%; in either case a number above almost any other Christian sect, Mormons being one that is close.

    The question really is whether the Amish could survive if they were more than a tiny fringe group. America is very supportive of its Amish population and works to support its structures which I think is different than what a mass Christian community movement would face. For example: the Amish have way above average levels of drug abuse, how tolerant would the government be if they started to be major players in the drug trade and not bit players? Could they move up to major players at all? Or for another example, “Bed courtship” (unmarried sex between teens) is how lots of Amish girls get stuck in the Amish community. If Amish were a substantial portion would society have better single motherhood service for Amish teenage girls.

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  2. Hi again, Guys, I thought I was finished at Old Life. Maybe I am… Looks like maybe I killed 12/6 post re. Neo-Calvs having too much time to kill. Only 11 comments! Evidence here? More than usual # from elder (former Elder) and none from most of you guys in recent hours. Really a strange record of number of comments since 11/27: There is 12/5 (Broccoli) 35 comments, 12/4 (Open or close Communion?) better, 66 comments. A wall here between OPC and critcs? Sounded like a high one was most popular with commentators! Skipping on to 11/30 (Blame Reformation Part Two) Only 9 comments? “Wow”, as I often say. 11/28 (Blessings of Protestant Christianity) brought only FOUR comments??? “Wow again! Comments on comments will do that. Maybe topic sounded too happy for OLT:) And THEN, 11/27 (Blame Reformation Part ONE) aroused 416 comments— and still counting! Lots of heat there (and only a little light for this Alexian elder). “Wow” for the 3rd time! Finally, I must say that the ONE new Pearl Harbor Day post comment is very hard on that tiny group, Amish, and larger group, Mormons. Continues the opportunities for broadcasting OLT IRE! (CD-Host must not have exhausted all of his ire on earlier comments). Guys, How about some feedback for this Old elder Bob and his great suggestions for kinder OLT topics? Various “walls” in life on our planet. How about using that oft-used Biblical command (not suggestion) of our Creator: “Examine YOURSELVES!” Don’t you think that our beloved OPC, and similar enthusiasts, may be toying with sin here? I was this kind of sinner for TOO long! Maybe it is not so bad to reach 85 summers? Love, Alexian elder, former OPC Elder, Bob

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  3. “Lots of Christian communities have come and gone that aren’t able to attract and retain their young”

    The Shakers (no sex) and the Oneida Community (free love) were notoriously bad at this. 1 generation for the Shakers, 1 1/2 for Oneida.

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  4. I don’t comment much here, but in this case I just have to say what a great treat it is to read what sweet Old Bob has to say on a daily basis. His stream-of-consciousness blogging style, sans logical paragraph breaks, along with capitalized emphasis on words of questionable importance rivals anything Faulkner ever wrote. The only thing lacking are the run-of-the-mill texting abbreviations that the youngest generation is so fond of, a truncation that would embarrass even a 19th Century telegraph operator.

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  5. CD-host: Or for another example, “Bed courtship” (unmarried sex between teens) is how lots of Amish girls get stuck in the Amish community. If Amish were a substantial portion would society have better single motherhood service for Amish teenage girls.

    Better to be “stuck” in the Amish community rather than in the State’s social service web!

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  6. Except the Amish don’t embrace Creation as it is unfolding in culture. Not really Reformed. Not really transformational. The so-called Dutch ghettos that you all refer to are only superficially similar to the Amish. We embrace modernity/culture and seek to implement them in a Christian way. Hard to imagine such an admiration of the Amish denial of God’s good gifts coming from one of the editors of the Nicotine Theological Journal. I guess automobiles and iPads are the targets of the new otherworldly temperance movement.

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  7. Alexian elder Bob is really hurting—He made 4 out of 20 comments on the newest two posts. Now I see scads of comments, ‘WAY above 400 and counting fast, going back to old, 11/27, “Blame… Reformation, Part One”! My good friend, Erik Charter leads the pack, here, with a few fewer hot replies by Doug Sowers. All this compared to FOUR comments on the sweet topic: “The Blessings of Protestant Christianity” 11/28! My charges about OLTs love for worn out, negative posts seem justified.:) What is going on? Almost made me avoid, just now, what my Elaine calls my major sin—- going to OLT! Please guys, go back to the present and say a few kind words about elder Bob. Like George did! I still think I made some good suggestions. And I still think that there a lot of low walls on many binary issues where high walls are plugged by most OLT folks. Oh me! Love Alexian elder, Bob

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  8. Old Alexian elder Bob wrong again! I got up earlier than usual this AM, thinking guys would have grown weary of 11/27 stale battles, “Blame it on the Reformation #1”. But NO! After the weekend we see , now, over 500 comments and counting! No activity on my Pearl Harbor Day, Three Transforms, comments. Good stuff there! Oh well, I was right about one thing: my rare:) complaints about scrappy stuff on OLT. I guess y’all don’t believe those Scriptures hammering home: “Examine YOURSELVES!” (Others later, if at all) as you persue God’s Word. Love, Elder (elder— 84—- entitles me.) But no longer Elder Bob.

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  9. Bob; “Examine YOURSELVES!” (Others later, if at all) as you persue God’s Word”

    Me: Better gird up Bob you just jumped right into the middle of it, Richard will be on you in moments questioning your entire life of faith(you mere confessor type), and faithlessness to the word of God in not using the Edwardsian E-Meter to ferret out yours and others true affections.

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  10. Wow, reading your alls’ posts would never make an outsider desire Christianity. George, you’re just a jerk to poor old Bob and I know you’d never say those words to his face.

    Sarcasm. Snark. Condescension. Snootiness hiding behind purported intellectualism.

    What a sad testimony.

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  11. Jon,

    It’s all this guy, Zrim’s fault. He is forever with the ‘yea but’, and ‘I’m jus sayin’. He’s a midwestern yankee type, so not a lot is expected… but still, and once you corner him, he’s gonna blame the dutch and Rob Bell for his cynicism. I personally think it’s that cat-dog he has that’s all about being dander and allergy free. It’s kinda a weenie dog type. He probably blogs with an inhaler in his pocket and a dehumidifier in the room, and then Darryl has two cats and wears bow-ties……….’nough said.

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  12. sean: Bob; “Examine YOURSELVES!” (Others later, if at all) as you persue God’s Word”

    Me: Better gird up Bob you just jumped right into the middle of it, Richard will be on you in moments questioning your entire life of faith(you mere confessor type), and faithlessness to the word of God in not using the Edwardsian E-Meter to ferret out yours and others true affections.

    RS: Bob is right. People should examine themselves. Sean, on the other hand, has yet to get it.

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  13. Erik Charter: Bob needs his own reality show. Something like “Real Retirees of the Alexian Village”.

    RS: If it turned out to be reality, that is, something the mirrored what happens at OldLife, it would be an elderly man with a lot of wisdom and some good ideas being bashed by those with less wisdom. It reminds me of dogs. One dog can be rather nice, but then another comes around and it can get less friendly. A few more and it becomes a pack mentality. Erik, you should be ashamed of yourself. I really mean that. As Jon pointed out, this type of thing does not make Christianity or OldLife appear in such a good light. In fact, it makes one wonder about the light at all.

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  14. Oh sure, Sean, you’re one to talk, what with your “truculent” thunderbolt. I mean, I have no idea what it means, but clearly it’s the worst adjective ever to appear on Old Life.

    Jon, you might want to stick to devotionals. Hallmark cards are nice, too.

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  15. “I still think that there a lot of low walls on many binary issues where high walls are plugged by most OLT folks.”

    Old Bob, if you have an email newsletter, sign me up!

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  16. Jon –

    First of all, my comments were aimed at “form,” not “content.” I’m not sure I can comment accurately about Old Bob’s content since I can barely make sense of his often lengthy, disjoined missives. If OB really taught all those years at college level then one should be able to expect better of him.

    Unless, of course, OB isn’t really old at all and is just hiding behind a blog moniker. Speaking of anonymity, you yourself are doing a fair job of that.

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  17. Richard,

    I got it years ago, when I was 19 and a pentecostal type came up to me and said she had a word from God for me. Apparently the scientologists do something similar with their E-Meter, so there’s that as well.

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  18. MM,

    Don’t be yealous. Plus, I beat that one with the whole gender exam word that I threw out there months ago that I speculated the Bayly bros. administer at their church. I can’t remember it now, but I was proud of it.

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  19. “Hallmark cards are nice, too.”

    Especially ones with puppies and flowers.

    No one needs to defend Old Bob. He can defend himself and likes it here. Why do you think he keeps coming back? He can dish it out as well as take it.

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  20. Doug, what do I get for being banned at the Bayly Blog for something I said on my own blog though? But boy you culturalists are touchy.

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  21. “Jon, you might want to stick to devotionals. Hallmark cards are nice, too.”

    MM, you are such a tough guy. On a blog that is. Keep it up dude; sounds like you are getting a kick out of yourself. And if insulting people from 1000’s of miles away with no hope of any consequences makes you feel tough, then by all means. . .. .type away!

    (PS. Careful, the world might just be watching.)

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  22. Jon,

    Relax. MM is the last guy I’d consider an internet bully. Zrim on the other hand, yikes, check yo’self.
    Different blogs have different atmospheres. This group by and large likes Mencken and O’Rourke and satire. Even Richard and Old Bob give it back. So rather than be offended, pull up a sharp rock and give and receive as the spirit moves ya. -see that Richard, I’m certain I’ve swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all.

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