Amish & Evangelicals in the City

How does the Christian relate to the world? If fundamentalists erred on the side of withdrawal and combat, some are now saying evangelicals are erring on the side of assimilation. The Amish are an interesting study in Christians as community. They have a zero divorce rate, intact families and have preserved their traditions for a few hundred years now. These are just a few reasons I was interested in UPN’s new reality show “Amish in the City.”

The show features five “Amish” allegedly in the process of deciding whether or not to be baptized and remain in the Amish community. This period of time is called rumspringa, which means literally, “to run around,” and traditionally takes place at 16 when dating leads to marriage or independence leads to breaking out of the community. Amish expert Donald Kraybill argues that the five who appear on this show are already “ex-Amish” or they would never have appeared on the show.

Despite their “iffy” status as Amish the show was revelatory. I like the way the Chicago Tribune reviewer put it. “The Reality of `Amish’ is that the ¢â‚¬Ëœregulars’ look like the rubes. And after the first two hours, it’s not the Amish kids you feel sorry for. Brought up to be restrained and have a solid sense of themselves, they mostly maintain their dignity even as the cameras are sure to note all their marveling at escalators, beaches, sushi, art, etc. Most of the “regular” American kids put in a fancy hillside home with them, however, come off like rubes and worse. Watching their smugness, their dismissiveness and their mockery of the unusual, a phrase comes to mind: “What were you, raised in a barn?”

It was frightening to witness the shallowness of the “normal” Americans when compared to these Amish, who generally came across as more grounded, serious-minded and individuated. It turns out that their “separation from the world,” while unreasonably severe to our way of thinking, is actually producing some interesting human beings. It appears that the conformist Amish culture is producing individuals and the tolerant American society is producing some highly judgmental conformists. If we had time I would argue it has to do with acknowledging God as the center of things and valuing family & community over individuality, a practice which, it turns out, counter intuitively produces more well-adjusted, tolerant individuals

The priority of family and faith community over the broader culture seems to be an important element in the development of young people. This is an important observation of evangelicals, because we have somehow bought the notion that immersion in the world is important and without it our kids will be naƒ¯ve and unprepared for the real world. The Philadelphia Inquirer observes the Amish and concludes, “The Amish, young and old, aren’t hapless innocents but in fact know a great deal about the real world… which is why they choose to keep a distance from it. (The Amish themselves dress simply, live quietly, often reject technology and automobiles and work in rural communities.)”

Please don’t get me wrong. I think the legalistic rejection of technology, the uniformity of dress, the hierarchical roles of men and women, the strict cordoning off from society are inconsistent with newness in Jesus Christ, who was a presence in society and rejected the withdrawal of the Essenes in his day. But I do think we need to take seriously the contrasts exposed in “Amish in America” between the Amish kids who were raised by parents in a God-centered community and American kids who are generally being raised by the entertainment culture, a religion-free zone called public school with minimal input from the faith community and slightly more from overly busy parents.

Somehow we need to carve out territory between cocooning from culture and immersion in culture. Somehow we need to rediscover how to build a robust counter-cultural family and faith community that co-creates culture while simultaneously maintaining our alien and exile status within it.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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