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Modern Times: Meet the Amish

Idiosyncratic, quixotic, or just plain sinister? the Amish community has been, almost since its inception, the butt of jokes and the subject of fascination tinged with hostility from the mainstream. And yet, considering the giant spiritual malaise afflicting the west of the twenty first century, doesn't the frequent smugness towards the Amish seem rather misplaced? A recent Channel 4 programme makes Corin Faife consider what the Amish philosophy of life can teach us about the modern world, and ourselves.

Columns, Modern Times - Posted on Tuesday, August 10, 2010 13:39 - 10 Comments

By Corin Faife

Forgive me for being a little off the zeitgeist, but I rarely catch television programmes when they’re live on TV. So, it was through the fluid schedule of the internet TV consumer that I came to watch the most stimulating piece of television I have seen for a long while, a full two weeks after its initial airing. Channel 4’s Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers is pop-anthropology at its absolute best, and despite the tabloid subtitle managed to provide a sensitive portrait of the Amish community, a sturdy critique of the modern world and a great deal of emotional and sociological food for thought.

The show is made possible by the practice of Rumspringa, in which Amish on the cusp of adulthood are given the chance to experience the modern world before making the choice about whether to adopt their traditional values for good. Through the magic of television, five Amish teens have been persuaded to fly to the UK and stay with a different group of British teens each week, and footage of the resulting culture clash forms the basis of the show.

The cutaway scenes filmed in rural Pennsylvania made the Amish life look positively idyllic, and I’m surely not the only one who felt a pang of jealousy at seeing how successful the Amish are in their rejection of materialism, how fulfilled in their practise of self-sufficiency, how solid in their devotion to community and family. But also apparent were the sacrifices made in order to preserve their ascetic and spiritual idyll: the denial of creative self-expression.

Witnessing an Amish girl who had never danced before be overwhelmed by the experience of moving her body to music was poignant and beautiful; watching the group experiment with painting, also for the first time since it is forbidden in their communities, felt like a privilege for the viewer. And listening as the guitarist of a rock band taught one of the teens – who earlier had explained that rock was the Devil’s music – to play the chords to Amazing Grace demonstrated the ability of music to transcend the most pronounced cultural differences. All of these scenes affirmed the importance of a culture which values, and validates, such forms of expression.

But clearly, given that around 90 percent of Amish youth become baptized members of the faith even after Rumspringa, and that collectively they have managed the astonishing feat of resisting mainstream culture for more than three hundred years, they must judge conclusively that this is a sacrifice worth making, and that to live in harmony with God, nature and one another requires nothing less than total renunciation of the modern world.

Aside from being a fairly damning indictment of our way of life, it highlights the fact that one of the central tenets of the Amish way is something almost absent from Western secular culture: the avoidance of temptation. Here in the Global North, having played host to both the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, we seem to place little stock on self-denial, following instead the doctrine that we should be free to live as we choose and do what we enjoy, as long as it does not harm others. Yet this same individualism has eroded the bonds of community, just as our happiness and self-esteem are being eroded by a culture which is over-saturated with temptations; and without religion, many of us have no clear rationale for eschewing them.

Maybe without the continual rituals of socialisation and identity-formation which permeate Amish life, more of their youth would be seduced by the ways of the West. But as I sat in front of my computer watching the Amish, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, they’re onto something.

Corin Faife is a writer and activist. His ‘Modern Times’ column appears every Tuesday.


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Aug 11, 2010 10:55

A community founded on self-denial may appear attractive from afar but I imagine it would be fairly horrific to live in.

I suspect that you have fallen foul of a false dichotomy here, based on the particularities of the society in question. You oppose materialism/individual self-expression/satisfaction of desire to spirituality/self-sufficiency/frustration of desire. I think it’s important to separate the individuality/group-think dimension from the materialist/spiritual one. You can have societies in which both the alienation of materialism and the alienation of self-denial are absent.

Corin Faife
Aug 11, 2010 14:46

A fair response. Amish life is certainly not as one-dimensionally blissful as the programme suggests – literature on the Amish shows them to be a complex and often conflicted community with their fair share of problems – but by all accounts, as a whole they are exceptionally happy by our standards.

For me, of central interest is the fact that the Amish are utterly convinced of the validity of the above-mentioned dichotomy, and consider that achieving happiness, community cohesion and spiritual wellbeing demands a near-total sacrifice of individual autonomy. Although I would not choose to live as the Amish do, I have great respect for the trade-off which they are prepared to make.

Aug 11, 2010 23:44

I shared a similar feeling of being, to an extent, enamoured with their lifestyles. But I was put off by the fundamentalist doctrine of abiding by scripture as if it were literal. It’s not surprising their society works if they follow the scripture word for word, and don’t twist that for personal means. I’m also not sure if ‘the doctrine that we should be free to live as we choose and do what we enjoy, as long as it does not harm others’ is actually practised at all, as we(most) often indirectly harm others via chains of production by simply even buying particular consumer goods from particular retailers.

American of Brit decent
Aug 14, 2010 10:01

Amish are living examples of old Western culture. What you see and like in the Amish culture is pretty much what your average American, German, Brit, etc, would have lived 100 or more years ago. Our modern culture is completely against everything rational and social that helps keep societies and cultures together.

We accept multiculturalism as this universal good. And, while it may be good that the world is multicultural – which helps give us new ideas, new taste, and experience different cultures.

On the other hand, however – it is bad for individual countries to force all this multicultural, diversity into such small countries like Britain. We have allowed our own culture to deteriorate while the cultures of others thrive in the UK. Our reluctance to assert our own identity, culture, lifestyle and promote to it, allows for our people to be consumed by materialism and greed, instead of consuming themselves with their family and their social responsibilities.

We don’t need to look at the Amish (maybe as a reminder of what we can achieve). What Brits need to do is look at home and how Brits themselves can better protect and promote their culture. Brits, and for the most all European societies have to re-introduce their culture to their young, and it can be done even in a modern society.

I’m in American, multiculturalism in America is a false, what exist is the same that exist in Britain different races, cultures squabbling over the resources and attention of politicians, creating tension, conflict, hate, misery, and confusion. Multiculturalism is good when you experience it from a far, like I’d love to visit Mexico and enjoy it’s cuisine, or Indonesia, China, Iran, Pakistan, or India, but bringing those cultures over to our countries is just not the same as experiencing it over there. Europeans need a barrier, a positive influence, a birth rate and social booster, and the solution is to revive our once strong and beautiful cultures that once influenced the entire world.

Today’s culture is not European culture, it’s globalism, multiculturalism, it’s poison, and un-healthy for Europe, and sadly it’s the obscure Amish which have shown us how far we have strayed.

Aug 18, 2010 23:04

Amazing, insightful TV if you liked watching this program you should watch the file ‘The Enigma of Kasper Hauser by Werner Herzog. To experience so much in life for the first time as an adult is a rare thing in the western world where experiences are pumped in to our homes by the internet, TV, and radio from such a young age. I only wish that they had stayed in Britain longer and been taken to see more of the western society. Think of the stunning architecture, historical sites, art galleries, animals in the zoos and much more they could have experienced.

Aug 19, 2010 10:39

American of Brit descent: You’re quite a case, aren’t you! So evil multiculturalism is stealing the white man’s way of life and the answer is to continue to become more like the Amish! Good luck convincing your brethren of that one.

You seem to have fallen into the illusion, illustrated quite ably by a Kurdish friend the other day, that eating in a foreign restaurant makes you multicultural. It doesn’t. Read the books and explore the ideas of other cultures and then you might get somewhere. Or just live in the woods where the darkies can’t get you if you prefer 🙂

Aug 24, 2010 22:42

the Amish are also really really sexist

the Rhino
Aug 26, 2010 16:58

so you think the Amish way of life can survive in the modern world?

May 22, 2011 16:04

Corin, I really like this show, and I also like your article. You have clearly expressed my sentiments exactly.
Mik, I didn’t read the same tone into the comments of American of Brit descent that you seem to have. I don’t agree that they don’t understand real multiculturalism, nor that they have confused multiculturalism and racism. They seem to be someone who believes all cultures have merit, no matter what colour their skin is, and there was no indication that they weren’t sophisticated or experienced in the manner you suggest. It is unreasonable to extrapolate their expressed desire to maintain their own distinct culture, rather than being subsumed, into racism – that’s an illogical jump. I think American-of-Brit descent’s trying to tie the Amish thread into their argument was stretching it a little, though.
Sofia, all religions have gender biases.
the Rhino – they have so far, so I can’t see a reason for them not to continue to survive in the modern world.

Sep 27, 2011 5:50

One of the Amish girls was very sad after talking to the British teenagers because she knew for a fact that these Brits would go to hell, and yet she found them nice people. And even her prayers wouldn’t have helped. She knew that, because God would enforce his law.

These Amish live in constant fear of hell. Throughout the ages belief in hell and the devil was useful. Church elders agreed that when it came to keep the masses on the straight and narrow, fear of the devil was a stronger force than the love of God.

Shackled by their superstitions, kept dumb by their education system, these Amish trudge through their monotonous life, not knowing that there once existed an Egyptian, Greek, Roman civilization, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, Einstein, not even knowing that there has been a first and second world war and a man called Hitler.

Empty minds, only geared to farming, eating, reproductive sex and praying to an imaginary friend in the sky, still believing that the sun revolves around the earth, not aware that the Milky Way is but one of a hundred billion galaxies.

But when they are ill, they do take antibiotics, a product of science not mentioned in their Bible.

Being Amish equals child abuse, not in the physical sense, but mental child abuse. These kids are denied the wonders of our human progress.

And since Amish men only marry Amish girls, inbreeding is rampant. They have been stricken with some very nasty genetic diseases (see under Health in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amish)

The Amish reject Darwin, but evolution works, it shows itself in their diseases !

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