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Beverly Lewis: The Plain Truth
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A former schoolteacher and musician, New York Times bestselling novelist Beverly Lewis probably never dreamed that she would end up writing over 80 books for children, youth and adults. Her Amish fiction, in particular, has touched a nerve within our culture, as evidenced by the thousands of letters Beverly receives each year from readers. Gloria recently spoke with the popular author about this phenomenon and what we can learn from the Amish.

GLORIA: Hey, Beverly!

BEVERLY: Hi, Gloria! How are you today?

GLORIA: I’m fine! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us; I appreciate it. Our theme this issue is “Christmas—Pure and Simple.” I can’t remember—have you ever written an Amish Christmas book?

BEVERLY: I have Christmas settings and situations in a lot of my novels, but no, not just a Christmas story.

GLORIA: How do most of the Amish celebrate Christmas?

BEVERLY: Probably the most common Christmas trappings that they would have would be strings of Christmas cards — homemade ones that their grandkids have made — across their doorways, especially across the kitchen into the sitting room. Sometimes you’ll see paper snowflakes that the kids make, hanging on the kitchen windows. There’s no Christmas tree and no wreaths; occasionally there will be a Christmas poinsettia in the house. But as far as exchanging gifts and things like that, the children might receive a set of pencils or little pads of paper, washable markers — very simple gifts. I don’t know of any adults who exchange presents at all. But again, I’m talking about Lancaster County Amish; I can’t really speak to the other communities.

There’s one other thing that your readers may find interesting — the Christmas Eve school play is a really big deal in the Amish community. The children from first through eighth grade write poetry and tell stories, and they take fruit baskets and little remembrances for their teachers. Sometimes parents also bring something like a ham or something special for the teacher that the children present to her at the end.

It is interesting too, because they have so many children who then marry and have children. They end up having Christmas feasts clear through ’til February, just to accommodate all the meals that they want to share in the company of friends or married children. So the season is extended— it’s really fun.

GLORIA: And is the play itself about the birth of Christ?

BEVERLY: Oh, yes!

GLORIA: So the poetry and everything would be mainly Christ-centered.

BEVERLY: Yes, nothing secular. No Santa Claus, no elves, nothing at all. They are so “others”-oriented that it would always be about Christ being sent—this amazing gift of Christ for us.

GLORIA: That’s wonderful. Moving on to another topic … your books have been on the bestseller list for years now, and many of them have been made into movies, yet they are about a relatively small segment of the population — a very closed and disciplined religious community with a simple lifestyle. They say that if you want to write a big bestseller, a lot of people have to identify with the story. So why do you think so many people have identified with this small segment of the population and their lifestyle?

BEVERLY: Well, I have thousands of letters that answer that question, and I can tell you that the top answers are that we’re all so fragmented, that we long for community. Who sits around the table for three squares a day with their family? The Amish do. Someone recently recounted a conversation with an Amish lady who said, “We view our kitchen table as a very special piece of furniture. It is the most important location in our house.” Because that is where they sit to pray, discuss issues with their families, teach their children to pray the Lord’s Prayer in German; they do homework there, they eat there, fellowship and pray there. It’s remarkable. A lot of my readers have lost the ability to connect with their families in such an intimate way around the table. People are usually grabbing their food and going off to watch TV or play Xbox — we’re all going in different directions.

Another thing is a sense of a longing for simplicity in this chaotic life; that’s a huge hallmark for a lot of people who like to read Amish fiction. It’s like going back to visit Grandma and Grandpa.

GLORIA: Yes, and the strange thing is so many of this generation who read your books don’t even have grandparents to go back to — they’ve never experienced this. So it’s not exactly nostalgic for real … it is a nostalgia for a life they never had.

BEVERLY: That is so true, because in our society, we move away. I have friends whose grandkids are in four or five different states, so they never really get to mentor them and pass the faith. You can do that, but it’s not as good as face-to-face.

GLORIA: While you were talking, I was thinking that in our house, we have this giant oak table that seats 10 people. That is, absolutely, the most important piece of furniture in our house. And we sit there forever after meals. Our kids were all home recently and it rained the whole weekend, so we basically did puzzles and talked to each other. We sat a long time and had this big discussion about politics and everything. But unfortunately, in our culture, we are on our second and third generation of unparented kids.

BEVERLY: That’s for sure. Another thing I’ve found is that people feel that we’ve lost a reverence for God and His sovereignty. A lot of readers don’t even understand the sovereignty of God; they can’t understand why the Amish aren’t absolutely blown away when there’s a car that kills a family of five in a buggy. The Amish grieve, but they accept it as God’s will, and when He allows certain things to happen, it’s not for one to ask why. They don’t ask why; their response is, “How can we minister — how can we bless others through this? What good things can come from this?” The whole world watched their reaction to the Nickel Mines shooting. People were stunned! Well, why were Christians stunned? People were so surprised that they offered forgiveness to the widow and the family. More Amish went to the burial for the shooter than non-Amish. Of course, Matthew 6:14 is a hallmark of their belief in forgiveness — if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will forgive you.

Another thing that impacts my readers is the peace and tranquility that we crave, because our modern world is so high-tech. People don’t know how to talk face-to-face anymore, and the Amish are incredibly versed at that. They continue to see each other every other Sunday; they have church twice a month, and on the alternate Sundays, they visit and fellowship, sitting around the table.

GLORIA: There’s a recent article by a popular novelist who was discussing the low sales in modern fiction, and cited your fiction and Amish novels in general as being the exception to the decline in readership. Do you think this phenomenon is related to the criteria for an effective story? In other words, when the mores of society collapse, when there are not clear boundaries of right and wrong — what happens to the tension it takes to make a drama or story?

BEVERLY: Well, I’ve thought a lot about that question. The Amish don’t necessarily have a monopoly on a clear definition between right and wrong. You know, there are many churches, denominations and believers who embrace the scriptures, just as the Amish do. But the plain community does seem to have a corner on simplistic living, with an aversion to modern technology — cars, TVs, CD players, iPads, Facebook — things like that. So I think the more technologically oriented we non-Amish become, the more we seem to be ensnared by that particular technology. And who of us is ever content with what we have? We want the next smarter smartphone, the next higher definition TV and so on. But to answer your question about story, I think it really comes down to our yearning and longing … for some of us who never had a connection with a grandma and grandpa who may not have had running water or modern contraptions, but who could sit down and give us time. Time is a valuable resource and we’ve lost it.

GLORIA: I’d like to hear you speak a little bit more to the literary side, because there’s also been a revival in things like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters … those times and places where the whole society sort of agreed on the morals. And we’ve lost that in our culture.

BEVERLY: Well, I don’t think that a general market reader cares about absolute truth. I would say that the people who read my books are mainly Christian or Jewish. Occasionally I’ll get a letter from someone who says they’re an agnostic or an atheist, and they never refer to the right versus wrong aspects. They’re intrigued by how a people group like the Amish can continue to carry on and live like they’re in the 1800s when they’re surrounded completely by the 21st century.

I think as our modern society becomes more technologically advanced, there’s even greater demand from readers for the kind of story with a human touch. For one thing, when the author’s willing to put his or her heart out there, beating on the page, and there is a strong connection and empathy for the character as well as a clear-cut demonstration of absolute truth as found in God’s word, I think all that is woven in there.

GLORIA: In order for story to happen at all, there has to be a tension and conflict of some kind. There has to be some sort of agreed-upon framework. With the Amish novels, you get it all … you get a “frozen in time” sort of thing and you get the Christian morals. You also get family involvement, where there are unified expectations of the young people. Now I’d like to ask you about this … many of your stories involve the breaking away from strict expectations and the resulting discipline from a tight community — like shunning, which is a very strange concept to the general public. But there is, I think, more importantly, a strong theme in your books of reconciliation. Do you think that is also maybe a big piece of why people are drawn to your books?

BEVERLY: Well, I think anytime an author has passion for something, that it transfers to the page. People ask me why I keep writing. It’s a calling. This is who I am; it’s embedded. But I do know that we all crave acceptance and forgiveness. Restoration is huge. So many have told me, “I’ve been shunned and I’m not Amish!” Shunned by family, shunned by church — it’s phenomenal. We beat up our brothers and sisters in Christ — that’s not right.

GLORIA: And forgiveness is such a theme in psychology right now, because nobody can get well. It’s toxic, it truly is toxic. Anger and hatred and grudges are a big impetus of people’s behavior, but they are toxic.

BEVERLY: Well, Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said we must forgive others to be forgiven. You’re not just forgiving that person, but you are freeing and liberating yourself.

GLORIA: What do you think Americans in general and Christians in particular could do to simplify our lives and regain a sense of community?

BEVERLY: Well, for one thing, the old catchphrase, “having a quiet time.” Find some time to be alone and start with prayer, ask God to open your heart, read scripture, and then close in prayer. It’s not just talking — if we’re silent for a period to listen to Him, that is so healing.

I think another thing is just to reach out to our families and connect with them in meaningful ways. There are so many things we can do to simplify and bring peace into our hearts. But I think if we start with family and faith, those two are so huge. From there, it’s getting to know neighbors. We used to sit out on the front porch in the old days and watch people walk by and wave and go out and find out how they were doing … we’d help each other. We’re lost without that community aspect. If we can do just a little of that, to “share the faith through friendship.” I heard that, growing up, from the pulpit, because my dad was the best preacher in the world.

GLORIA: I had a pretty good one too!

BEVERLY: Yeah, I bet you did!

GLORIA: You know, I think you’ve really hit something here — hospitality is lost. No wonder we can’t keep friendships if we never invite anybody over for dinner, or if we can’t say, “I’ve got the coffeepot on and I have some boiled eggs. Come on over, and we’ll have a talk.” I can’t imagine how we have lost hospitality in general.

BEVERLY: It’s a gift, I believe.

GLORIA: But in the Amish community, it’s a way of life.

BEVERLY: It’s a given, yes.

GLORIA: And the common meals are often on Sunday. I know the Amish have church a long time on Sunday, because they eat together.

BEVERLY: And of course, that’s reminiscent of the New Testament church!

GLORIA: It is, and I think we’ve lost the idea that what we call communion was not a piece of bread and a little splash of grape juice. Communion was a meal! When Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me,” He meant the shared meal that had meaning.

BEVERLY: And they were relaxed. Aren’t people more open to share intimately when they’re eating?

GLORIA: Absolutely.

BEVERLY: I ate there at your place, Gaither Family Resources, and I loved it! It was beautiful.

GLORIA: That was our objective. One of them was solitude — a place where you can go and hide, read a book in a corner and be quiet. But the other objective was community, for which you have to have food.

BEVERLY: Absolutely!

GLORIA: But I think you’ve hit a real nerve here. I think another nerve you hit, in what you see in society—is stability.

BEVERLY: One aspect of stability and predictability in the Amish community is that the seasons predict their behavior. They rest when the soil rests. They rest when their horse has to rest at night. They can’t go, go, go all day.

GLORIA: If I read the Old Testament correctly, Jesus basically said that the Sabbath is all the time now, rather than a time for the Sabbath. So we are in the dispensation of rest, supposedly, and here we are more scattered and crazy than ever. Remember when God got so upset because people broke the Sabbath? It was because it was His rest, and they were disturbing His rest.

BEVERLY: That is true. In the Amish community, Sunday is the Lord’s day, to honor the Lord’s rest. The children can play quiet games, or they can play outside, but not rambunctiously or noisily. You could ride up and down the back roads on a Sunday after they all get back from church and you’re not going to hear much going on — it’s pretty quiet. They know the importance of their rest, because they work hard, from dawn to dusk.

GLORIA: And that’s another thing — the really hard physical and mental work that takes place in the Amish community.

BEVERLY: Oh, yes, the work ethic puts us all to shame.

GLORIA: Yes, and with all this political stuff going on right now—how they take care of each other and don’t expect the government to do it.

BEVERLY: That’s for sure. My readers are so intrigued because there are no nursing homes. They just build another dawdi haus on — a little grandfather house for older or infirm relatives. It’s an addition to the main farmhouse that usually can be accessed from an alcove within the main farmhouse, but definitely has its own entrance as well.

GLORIA: That keeps them in that circle of family the whole time. The wisdom of it! Before we’re done, I wanted to ask you about your children’s books. Tell me about the response you’ve had to those.

BEVERLY: Well, I’ve written one series for older teen girls, set in Amish country, and it’s called Summerhill Secrets. The rest of my almost 60 books for kids are non- Amish stories. And I wrote nearly all of those back before ’97, when I wrote The Shunning, which was my first adult novel.

GLORIA: Now tell me the response to the teenage ones …

BEVERLY: Oh, they’re screaming for more! I can’t do everything. These girls love these books because they say, “It’s like you’re writing directly to me. It’s like reading a letter from my best friend. How do you know how 12-year-olds or 14-yearolds think?” I just got that recently on Facebook. So, it hits a nerve. The Holly’s Heart series, for preteens, is very popular. I’m looking out through their eyes and feeling the feelings.

GLORIA: What is your newest project?

BEVERLY: I’m finishing The Guardian, the last book in the Home to Hickory Hollow series. It comes out in April next year. The earlier titles in the series are The Bridesmaid and The Fiddler.

GLORIA: Is there any talk of movies connected with those?

BEVERLY: Not for these books, as of yet. Actually, The Confession, the sequel to The Shunning, is coming out on the Hallmark Movie Channel the weekend of Mother’s Day, 2013. And of course, the musical is so popular—The Confession Musical.

GLORIA: Yes, I want to talk to you about that! Right here in our own backyard, in Shipshewana, Ind., your theater piece has been very successful.

BEVERLY: I know; I’m just so thrilled! But the music’s incredible, don’t you think?

GLORIA: Yes, and I hope everyone who is reading this article will get the chance to go see it, and I hope you’ll come see us again at Gaither Family Resources if you’re doing a book tour.

BEVERLY: Oh, I’d love to come back!

GLORIA: We would love to have you, because it’s such a fun time and we will have food and fellowship, and let you talk about your writing. Thank you so much, Beverly — it’s great to talk to you again!

BEVERLY: You too — God bless you!