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Christian History Home > News > 2004 > "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "The Amish."

"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.
Chris Armstrong | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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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.

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