As the editorial team for Christian History & Biography was preparing our issue on the Anabaptists in America (Amish, Mennonites, Brethren), a bizarre new reality show hit TV screens. The show, which threw a group of Amish teenagers into a west coast “party house,” had an interesting squirm factor:
“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “The Amish.”
UPN’s “Amish In the City” shows us our modern selves in a mirror that is positively medieval.
It began last night like a tasteless joke: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Oh &*%^$%&! It’s the Amish! There goes the party.”
The first encounter between the six city kids and the six Amish kids thrown together in the new UPN reality show “Amish in the City” revealed much more about “us” than about “them”: Though there are winsome characters among the city kids, the first and lasting impression they leave is one of superficiality, fixation on sex and appearance, and deep-rooted self-centeredness. Next to these traits, even the ambivalent residue of communal spirit and Godly anchoring evident in the Amish young people has a tremendously appealing gravitas and sweetness.
It is a shame this show won’t take us into the community that nurtured these refreshingly “centered” young people.
Those who keep watching this show can expect a far more interesting dynamic than the “let’s-see-if-we-can-make-the-innocents-sin” project. That is, we’ll continue, as we did in the premiere episode, to see the “city kids” squirm. And we, if we’re honest, will likely do a little squirming ourselves. We are challenged by the very presence of the “plain people’s” way of life, even in the diluted, transplanted form of searching, conflicted Amish young adults trying to come to grips with what being Amish means and whether they want to “own” that identity.
In the Amish, in other words, we have a highly visible witness of a different way of living.
As a historian watching this show’s premiere, having recently traveled to Lancaster County in preparation for our Fall 2004 issue: Strangers and Pilgrims: the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren in the American Landscape, what struck me most is that these “plain people,” whose origins may be found in the 16th-century “radical reformation,” actually represent an even older way of being Christian. What we see in these groups is, in significant part, the incursion of the Medieval into the modern.
The Amish help us to see that, as the World War-era visionaries J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis saw and taught us to see, the dismantling of the medieval world by Enlightened, capitalist, and eventually industrializing hands was by no means “all good.” Our time is primed to hear this message again. What else was the runaway success, a decade or so ago, of Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk about except our nagging sense that we have as much to learn as to teach when we encounter the ascetic, conservative, practical, devotional ethos of our “picturesque” medieval forebears.
This is a small (fewer than 80,000 Old Order Amish adult members, though there are many times this number of Amish children) group whose members have turned their backs on the world in order to save their souls.
Lest you think my Amish-as-monastics image is overdrawn, consider the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania. Though not Amish, but rather an outgrowth from a related German-speaking group, this religious commune embodied a modern (though no longer active) “Protestant monasticism,” right down to sleeping on hard beds, eating a limited diet, practicing celibacy, praying at set intervals, sharing goods, and hand-lettering beautiful religious manuscripts.
Though Ephrata is an extreme example, including practices that are by no means shared by the various Anabaptist groups still active in America (Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, and Brethren), it is a reminder that at its core, the Anabaptist ethos confronts us with a modern heresy—which was a medieval truism: If you want to live as a true disciple of Christ, you have to do without some of the comforts and conveniences others around you take for granted.
And that’s not all. Consider the list of core values of these groups’ “Old Order” branches given by scholar Don Kraybill and Carl Desportes Bowman in their acclaimed book On the Backroad to Heaven (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001):
Kraybill and Bowman teach us that whatever odd things we may see on the surface of their culture, whatever riddles of inconsistency they seem to present, Christians in the Old Order branches of the Anabaptist groups mentioned are above all (1) relational, (2) practical, (3) constant, and (4) gentle. All of these values, I’d argue, are distinctly medieval.
(1) For the Old Orders, love is not an individual, subjective, personal feeling, but a matter of “bonds of intimacy in community.” Members in these groups use the term “brethren” to refer to their coreligionists. The texture of their life together is one of “spiritual kinship, close relations, and a transparent lack of privacy.” This more closely mirrors the loyalty-based social and church order of medieval society than it does the atomized society and individualistic churches of the modern West.
(2) As in medieval faith, the Old Orders live the truth taught in the Book of James, that “faith without works is dead.” For these practical Christians, “one’s manner of living outweighs concerns about proper belief. …One is not saved by grace alone but also and especially by responding to grace through daily acts of obedience.” Thus, for example, “religious education occurs through observation and apprenticeship rather than through books and formal instruction,” a method that “only works, however, when children live in an extended family ensconced in a stable community.”
This is one of the hardest aspects of the Older Order ethos for highly educated, word-centered Protestant Moderns to “get”: “Old Order faith is in many ways more a matter of habit than of systematic inquiry or theological reflection.” One might say, in a jargon currently popular among academic theologians, that Amish faith is embodied, both in each “member” and in the larger “body” of the faith community.
(3) The Old Orders value constancy above innovation or novelty. They take pleasure in repeated patterns of life, greetings, and rituals: “Dress is old-fashioned, worship patterns are ancient, and songs are old.” Compare this to “moderns, who are fascinated by novelty.” To the Old Orders, as Kraybill says in another context (The Riddle of Amish Culture, revised ed., Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), “faster looks frenetic, bigger seems burdensome, and novel often appears naïve or unnecessary.” This distrust of innovation is another hallmark shared with medieval Christendom.
(4) Finally, the Old Orders discipline themselves in a gentle way of life: As for the medieval monastics, pride is the worst of the deadly sins. Against it, the Amish cultivate a quiet and humble spirit. The loud, emotive displays of modern charismatic worship, for example, would be “unthinkable” among these plain and serious folk. “Elated praises and testimonies of personal religious experience fail to impress them.” What does impress them is “gentleness, steadfastness, and devout living.”
Comparing the Old Orders to other ethnic-religious communities, Kraybill and Bowman sum up: “Most ethnic groups tend to embrace core American values—individual rights, moral autonomy, competition, success, participation in government, national defense, and the yearning for progress and material improvement. Old Orders, on the other hand, reject the cultural core, calling it ‘carnal.'”
In place of that modern ethos, the Old Orders espouse a church-centered way of life so diametrically opposite to modern sensibilities that the fact they are able to sustain it is nearly miraculous: “In their most sweeping departure from modern life, Old Orders do not consider the individual the supreme agent of moral authority. They refuse to entrust matters of eternal significance to the whims and deceptions of individual conscience. They rarely talk of individual rights, preferring to speak of duty or submission.”
If you know a bit about how the church dictated every area of life during the Middle Ages, compare that to Kraybill’s statement about the place of the church among the Old Orders:
“In so many ways, the church stands between the powers of heaven and the individual heart. As an external mediator, it guides individuals along the paths of righteousness. A communal priest of sorts, the congregation—and especially its leaders—embody and articulate the will of God on earth.”
Of course, all of these values clash with modern Western values, in a big way. Says Kraybill, “The Amish struggle has focused on issues prompted by modernity—individualism, formal education, industrialization, and mass media.”
Specifically, the Amish and similar groups critique three aspects of the modern gospel of progress:
“First, they question the power of human reason as a basis for knowledge. The claims of tradition and the Bible ring truer to them than those of science and higher education.
“Second, they doubt that personal autonomy brings greater freedom or happiness. Rather, they argue that only within the web of stable communities will individuals find security and satisfaction.
“Finally, they dispute the claim of the multicultural canon that all values and beliefs are equally valid. Such tolerance, they believe, denies the very possibility of truth.”
And it is here that I see this new TV series doing the most injustice to the Amish way. The producers of “Amish In the City” are correct in their instincts: the city kids and the Amish young people do represent two different worlds, and sparks will fly in the meeting. Sadly, I can see the show heading already, not to the corruption of the Amish kids—sinful indulgence and unbelief don’t need a West-coast mansion to run rampant in; just ask any monk or nun. Rather, more unfortunately, the denouement and “moral” here may end up being the postmodern piety that “your way and my way are just two different routes to the same goal” and “we can all be friends” as we travel our different roads. Or in the relativist language of the young: “It’s all good.”
Meanwhile, I think all sensitive Americans have been troubled by the dark side of modernity. So it will be salutary if this TV series—whatever it does or does not reveal in its limited format—leads us to look in the “mirror of the Amish” and question ourselves. Will it do this? Just enough, I’ll wager, to send seekers to Lancaster County and other enclaves to see whether maybe, just maybe, they can find the Really Real by joining the ranks (fewer than 100 strong) of “converts” to the Amish.
And those of us who won’t go so far as making that trip can still take the opportunity to question our own unquestioned assumptions—always a good thing in an age marked, if by nothing else, by amazing hubris.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor for Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church’s past, is available at ChristianHistory.net.