5 Points from Donald Kraybill’s “Amish Riddle” Talk

How do the Amish thrive in a hypermodern society? What life lessons has Donald Kraybill learned from them?

Yesterday, Kraybill addressed these and other questions in his last major address before retirement.

Photo by Suzette Wenger, Lancaster Online

The talk, the keynote speech for Elizabethtown College’s “Scholarship and Creative Arts Days” (described here), was about “unpacking” Amish riddles both large and small.

Lancaster Online’s Tim Stuhldreher was in attendance. Below are five points he picked up from the talk (you can read his report in full here):

  1. They’re not “technologically impaired” – this references a famous line in Weird Al Yankovic’s 1990s parody song “Amish Paradise.” Rather, Amish adapt and select technology to fit specific needs.
  2. Amish lack hierarchy – Over 2,200 Amish churches in 30 states & Canada, but no elaborate hierarchy over everything. Yet it still somehow works.
  3. We’re not all Amish…and that’s good – We’d be missing many things of great value from the worlds of science and art.
  4. Yet Amish life is highly attractive – Outsiders admire the importance of family, stability, and pace of life. Too much choice creates anxiety.
  5. Lessons for life –  Kraybill described things he personally had gained from studying the Amish. These include greater caution over technology, and “a genuine sense of humility.”

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    1. Al in Ky

      I enjoyed this post, and through reading Stuhldreher’s full report, learned a phrase from Kraybill I will remember: “They (the Amish) negotiate with modernity”. This will be helpful when trying to explain certain aspects of Amish life to non-Amish who think Amish have totally rejected modern culture.

      1. On that note you probably caught this bit in the article:

        “After playing an extended clip from Weird Al Yankovic’s video “Amish Paradise,” Kraybill quipped that the only correct statement in it was the one about early morning milkings.”

        That song was released in 1996. The comedy is based on a lot of the stereotypes and myths that revolve around the Amish. Made me wonder if in the 20 years since then we (the public) have a better or worse understanding of the Amish.

        I first started to think “better” due to all the info available online, then realized that the internet can spread misinformation as well (sometimes more effectively) as it spreads good info. Anyway, nice to see DBK’s sense of humor in sharing this video to illustrate his point.

    2. Terry from Wisc

      Progress is taking place

      Guten tag,

      After having had Amish friends for 50+ years I’ve seen many changes take place from when they first moved into my hometown area in the early 60’s. One big one was the phone. In the early years if they needed to make a call they used their English neighbors. After while some English were annoyed with all the traffic and would put a phone in a shed or garage for them to use and pay for. Then came the hassle of trying to collect for the phone bill. This went on for several years until after much prodding from the neighbors who had the phones, the church had to bend and let the community have their own phone.

      While in the home town area and on my way to visit some Amish friends, I saw what looked like an outhouse along side the road. I said to myself, that’s odd, that was never there before. So, when I was visiting with friend Henry Mast, I asked about the “new building”, and it was the community phone booth! And I said, wow!

      Henry said, if you needed to call 911, the vet, feed mill, the local driver, or other “business, not personal ” calls, they no longer needed to bother the English neighbors. It only took about forty years for the “event” to happen, so things were progressing!

      When I saw Amish using cell phones, I wondered, “what next?”

      A couple friends and myself were having a visit with our friends Phoebe and Chester, and they had just added another grand baby to the family. Their daughter who lived next door now had three kids in diapers. Phoebe commented that her daughter was using Pampers instead of cloth diapers! Phoebe called it the “Three P generation”. Pizza. pop, and Pampers! Phoebe said when she had two or three in diapers you washed every day! We enjoyed a good laugh and decided the younger generation didn’t want to work as hard as their parents did.

      Again we ask, what next?

      AS Maudie says in the Budget; Make it a good day.

      1. Terry it must be fascinating to watch change unfold in one community over 50+ years. If we pay close enough attention it’s clear that Amish don’t stay the same forever. For example if you look at old photos of Amish from the 60s you can even see differences in clothing styles, such as the glasses women wore. Thanks for sharing this interesting info. And I guess 3P generation could become 4P if you include those Phones!

    3. Debbie H

      I think the modern perception of the Amish has gotten worse with all the shows on TV like Amish Mafia, Breaking Amish, etc. People choose to watch and believe these type of shows instead of watching fact based shows about the Amish on PBS. My mother still believes that Amish women are oppressed, abused and have no rights along with other misinformation yet won’t watch or read any fact based shows or information. Such is our technological world.

      1. You might be right Debbie considering the popularity of those shows. I was mostly thinking online but of course people still watch a lot of TV, and those shows have had a lot of viewers and sustained coverage–for 3,4 years now?–certainly more than a realistic one-off documentary like the PBS “The Amish” film.

    4. Tom A Geist

      Like it or not...

      In my mind it seems many, if not most, of the population do not care about the Amish beyond a little curiosity. They do not watch the Amish shows as an educational tool but for the entertainment value. Yes, that can lead to mis- education, but again, they don’t care. There are so many subjects in the world that are interesting, but people don’t care about many of them not out of meanness but rather just because they are of little interest to them.

      In the last three years of going out to meet Amish (I met 124 scribes alone in the last year) I found out that I know just a little more than when i started. I started in Kolona Iowa and a store there had children’s dolls that had faces on them. I thought, these cannot be the REAL Amish because of that. I’ve learned that Amish folks differ on many things, yet are still Amish where it counts.

      Your mileage may vary.

      Tom in Lincoln

      1. Wow, Tom, I had no idea you’d met that many scribes, and in just one year. I like your comment about the “REAL” Amish. You have no doubt seen many version of “real” Amish in your travels.

        Speaking of which I have another post from one of your trips to share soon.

    5. Kevin L.

      Thanks for posting this. I wish him a wonderful retirement. What interested me was what life lessons he had learned from them after his years of study. Humility, wariness of technology, and being nonjudgemental. Almost the last line in the online article was “The important thing for them isn’t the sect another person belongs to, but whether that person is trying to live a good life. They leave judgments to God.” Those are great lessons!