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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 ...

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The Amish Come Knocking
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