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Amish Community

September 29, 2012


Liberation is a peculiarly American love. And these days it seems particularly beloved when the liberation is one from the tyranny of faith.

Mainstream culture prizes those who convert to secularism, the side of the thoughtful and the free. We read of their escapes—books in recent years include “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance,” by Elna Baker, and “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” by Deborah Feldman. And we watch their oppression by religion on movie screens and television—”Jesus Camp,” “Sister Wives,” “Big Love—and are relieved by the distance between their lives and our own.

And now we have TLC’s new series “Breaking Amish,” a reality show that follows the lives of five young Amish and Mennonite men and women as they “forgo horses and buggies for New York City’s taxis and subways.” The Hollywood Reporter lauded TLC for acting “not only as documentarian but as liberator.”

The show’s drama is certainly intended to come from watching people who were formerly locked away in a small, insular sect as they try to find their way in the “real” world—unshackled, free to sink to the level of “Jersey Shore” if they’re so inclined. But the grand irony here is that the Amish and Mennonite communities that the “cast” has left behind don’t want to be on camera. And thus, even from the outset, the show omits the possibility of ever truly entering these religious lives.

Twenty-year-old Rebecca, whom the show tells us “grew up on Hillbilly Lane in Punxsutawney, PA” but is now “looking for love”—tries to visit the grandparents she loves but has their door closed in her face. Yet the qualities of these grandparents are utterly absent here—their response is presented as cruel, final and unexplained. They have, in a sense, no past, and seemingly no love.

The words of the show’s protagonists as they leave their hometowns—”I just lost my family” or “If I sacrifice everything I have, and it doesn’t work out, I’ll have nothing”—aren’t comprehensible to the viewer, for we don’t see the families or get an understanding of the nature of their faith and home life. Yes, we think, leave. Why would you want to stay?

I am an ex-fundamentalist myself, but this loaded presentation leaves me rather uneasy. My own church—a stringent, Finnish Lutheran one—would have been less interesting, dramatically speaking, to a television producer. We attended public schools and dressed normally (if modestly). But still, it was a fundamentalism that meant I would be the mother of as many children as God gave, never color my hair or nails or face, and keep my children away from Halloween festivities, popular movies and music deemed “too rhythmic.”

But my childhood, as a believer, was happy. I adored my large family, the constant reading (we had no television), the ritual of worship services. I found comfort in seeing the same families on Sundays, found beauty in the minor-key hymns of the Finns. Most of all, I felt unshakably tied to these people. For it was true then, as it is now, that the believers didn’t always agree, but when they argued they ended the discussion always in forgiveness, in a reminder of the greater hold they had on each other.

In leaving the church when I was in college, I soon saw I had not stepped into anything else. My admittance into a dubious form of atheism merited no special membership. Atheism seemed, if anything, a community that eschewed community, that strove to preserve the strength of the individual. Thus I clung to anything that might provide stability—a boyfriend, school friends, professors. But these relationships, good as some were, were largely transient—friendships that swelled and faded in response to the changing mileage between us.

This isn’t to say the world has not been kind to me in its own fashion, that I have not found my own freedoms valuable—but it is a lonely place, bound to nothing but what I bind myself to. And I find myself worrying, always, that these ties will not be lasting enough.

And thus I am saddened to see these five young people of “Breaking Amish,” these wayfaring strangers, made to dance for us in the most public way possible. And I fear that as viewers and supposed liberators, we will only harm them the more in the watching.

Instead of cheering uncritically for their independence, take a moment to mourn with them what they are losing—and how long it may be until the freedom feels like a gain.


This article is very interesting to me because I, of course, come form a Mennonite background, and therefore feel some attachment to the Amish.  I was not brought up conservative at all, but I did grow up with appreciation for some Amish values, such as the value of community and of some suspicion towards the ‘worldly’ way of life.  

It greatly saddens me to see a reality show openly mocking the Amish way of life without knowing very much about it.  Here’s a shout out: for anyone seeking a much more respectful and thorough look at the Amish, I recommend “Amish: A Secret Life” by the BBC.  At the very least the documentary crew don’t go in assuming all Amish are stupid and oppressed. 

Something I like about this article is that the author has taken the time to look at the other perspective, to see what there is of value in an Amish upbringing.   The biggest thing I see her bringing up is the importance of community.  This is a concept we have discussed on the blog before, and one I feel very strongly about, both from my upbringing and from my focus on community development.  Faun and I had an interesting discussion about community only this morning, about its merits and shortcomings (in terms of individuality).  Faun, if you feel like responding to this article I would be very interested in that!  

So these are my thoughts this Saturday afternoon. What are your feelings about the communities you have made for yourselves, religious or otherwise?  

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