PAUL W. NISLY, God’s Guidance: A Kansas Amish Boy Reflects on Being Led to Places He Had Not Intended to Go. Grantham, PA: privately published, 2021. Pp. 343.
This book joins a popular and lengthy tradition of memoir and autobiographical writing. The tradition dates back to the ancient world, to Augustine’s Confessions and earlier. Such writing is especially popular in our modern period, including among the Brethren in Christ, as illustrated in publications by Paul McBeth, Albert Engle, E. J. Swalm, Kenneth Hoover, Donald Shafer (to name only a few.1
The case for writing in this genre is easy to make. Human nature is revealed “up close.” Identification with an individual is more easily made than with a larger group, and identification may lead to lessons learned. For some readers, the stories and life of an individual may be more interesting than general accounts of a larger society.
However, the genre has its hazards. The uncertainty about the reliability of memory, the potential for bias, the temptation to omit negative aspects of one’s life are all “red flags” that should be recognized by all would-be writers of a memoir or autobiography.
The author of God’s Guidance is fully aware of these and other hazards. He says in his foreword: “My intent in this memoir has been to be forthright while respecting privacy, to be candid without being hurtful, to include both failures and successes, always recognizing that both my memory and my assessments are fallible and limited. . . . Always I need to recognize that my angle of vision is limited and my interpretations . . . necessarily embody my bias.” The evidence suggests that Nisly fulfills his intention.
The overall theme of God’s Guidance is the way in which God led the author to experiences and places that as a child he could not have imagined. (More implicitly than explicitly stated is the author’s willingness to go through the doors that God opened for him.) An Amish boy destined to be a farmer, he became interested in books and education, moved through college and university to eventually become a college professor, then later in life a Mennonite minister and bishop. A remarkable journey, for which the author repeatedly credits the grace of God.
Within this major theme run several subthemes, one of which is the progress of the author’s academic life. He was the first in his Amish family to attend a public school (unusual for Amish everywhere). Although he did not attend high school; he took some correspondence courses with
Hesston College, then attended and graduated from junior college there. He finished his undergraduate studies at Eastern Mennonite College (now University), taught high school in Goshen, Indiana, for a couple of years, then, encouraged by liberal financial aid, attended Kansas University from which he earned a PhD. A professorship at Messiah College (now University) followed, as well as appointment as chair of the college’s Department of Language, Literature and Fine Arts. He served in strategic college roles, including as a member of search committees for college administrators.
From the author’s depiction of his career in education, several impressions emerge: his willingness to work hard and to take risks; his gratitude to his wife Laura for her moral and financial support; his need to juggle school, family, and church (often, as he admits, at the expense of family).
Love of family is an equally strong subtheme. As the youngest child in a relatively large Amish family, born when his mother was in her mid-forties, he was surrounded by love. This atmosphere carried over to his marriage with Laura and to their children Janelle, Lamar, and Randal. The depths of this love is caught in a passage that describes the author carrying the newly born Janelle into their home for the first time:
When I received the gift of little Janelle as Laura handed the tiny bundle to me, and as I prepared to bring her inside to our house and her little crib, I suddenly felt the overwhelming weight of caring for this special person, this little member of our family, this girl from God. And in that moment . . . I had a sudden epiphany about all the care I had received from my parents and family, all the hundreds of changes of diapers, all the feeding, all the responsibility. How would I ever be adequate as a twenty-five-year-old young father to cherish and nourish and protect this wonderful—and vulnerable—little life? (132-133)
Such love helps to explain the overwhelming grief the author and his wife suffered when Janelle, very intelligent and on the cusp of a promising medical career, was killed in a highway accident caused by an inattentive truck driver. The author’s grief was compounded by the lengthy physical suffering and eventual death of his wife.
Nisly’s expressions of grief are among the most emotionally moving, the most compelling I have read. His emotions are so deep that at several places he cries, “Where is God?” At first thought, this seems like a shocking statement for a Christian to make, especially by a minister and bishop. But surely it is one that many Christians have also made, inwardly if not outwardly. One of the values of this book is this open admission of the author’s inward thoughts in times of crisis.
But the author is a Christian of deep faith, prayer and devotion. He will not forever despair, even though he continues to grieve. He recognizes that life brings us various experiences: “Light and dark, life and death, great joy and deep suffering—all are part of this tapestry of life which we only see in part, know in part” (294).
This book excels in capturing the thought and emotions of one who is spiritually and morally sensitive. It excels in other ways: in clarity of style (as one may expect of an English professor); in the pleasant layout and font of its pages; in the numerous photographs that enhance the text; in the respect shown for his Amish heritage; in the sprinklings of humor that help to relieve the tension of grief.
There is little to fault in this book. Some readers may find passages that contain more information than they need to know, although such readers should recall the author’s statement that he has written less for the general public and more for family and friends who may be more interested in the details of his story. Other readers may regret the absence of an index. Still others may wish the author had written more about his classroom experiences, since his career was in education and he is known to be an excellent teacher. But these are more wishes than criticisms.
In short, this is a splendid book, a book that will appeal to the hearts and minds of all who choose to read it.
- Various distinctions have been made between a memoir and an autobiography which are frequently used interchangeably. One claims that an autobiography is written by someone late in life, another that autobiography focuses on the individual while a memoir may also comment on wider circumstances and events. Another distinction sometimes made is that autobiography deals mainly with facts, while a memoir also reflects emotionally on those facts. In this last sense, the author of God’s Guidance may rightly claim his book as a memoir. To inquire about obtaining a copy of this book, contact the author at [email protected]. [↩]