Judge Alice Nelson knows all too well what it feels like to live the Amish way; she once went a full 24-hours without her smart phone.
You have to admit, those little buggies with the orange safety triangles are pretty cute.
Fascinating is the word used to describe the PBS documentary The Amish, an up close and personal look at members of this very private community. Although interviews are permitted, none are allowed to be done on-camera. The Amish don't allow pictures of any kind to be taken and will only allow cameras to shoot footage of them from a distance. They believe this breaks the second of God's Commandments which state, "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Uh…this is a stretch, but I won't get into a theological debate here; I guess to the Amish, God doesn't consider it idolatry if the subjects are far enough away. This manipulation of scripture to fit their view of the world is what bothers me most; it's one thing to refuse to have your picture taken for worldly purposes, and a far different matter to misuse scripture to justify that decision.
Director David Belton paints a picture of a community that lives life by a set of very strict and unwritten rules called "The Ordnung," which regulates everything from clothing to technology. Every church community, which is made up of 25 to 35 families, establishes its own Ordnung and the rules can vary widely. One community deems bicycles are fine, while another (just a mile up the road) bans them. It's these inconsistencies which cause some to question whether or not this is the life for them. The Amish frown upon these kinds of doubts, and don't discourage questioning of the rules. They place great importance on the group, deeming the church family as more important than the biological family. In itself, this is a kind of an idol worship, because it places the community above all else…even God.
The Amish provides both sides of this complicated coin. One story recounts a young girl ecstatic about her baptism, her voice getting all squishy when she speaks about her father's pride in her decision. (Baptisms are highly regarded in the Amish world; it means you are now an official member of the church.) Then the film tells us the story of a woman who left her Amish family in her twenties, still heartbroken talking about how no one from the community would attend her wedding. Complete opposite experiences, handled with a fairness that doesn't advocate for one view over the other.
The most disturbing story is of an Amish wife who, after being repeatedly abused by her husband, goes to the elders for help. Instead of getting support from her church family, the elder asks her what it was she did to cause her husband to treat her so. She was shocked, I was shocked, and yet she continues to cling to the church even though sorely disappointed by the elder's response. The importance placed on the church family makes a person desperate at the threat of it being taken away. Like a junkie going cold turkey, the shunned individual will do whatever it takes to feed the fix. Which is exactly what this woman did. In order to be able to take communion with the flock, she admits to the failings in the elders' accusation. This alone is a giant red flag. What recourse does an abused individual have in such a closed society, one that sets its own rules to suit its own purposes?
There is a lighter side to life in The Amish. When a boy or girl becomes a teenager, they enter a period called Rumspringa, which means "to run around." Here the teens can go out with friends and act like their "English" peers, a word used to describe non-Amish people. Rumspringa continues until the teen marries, and it's during this time young people develop friendships which last their entire lives. But the call of community is stronger than the taste of freedom, because 90% of teens decide to be baptized in the faith and remain living the Amish life.
What's interesting about The Amish is the belief that extracting oneself from this world somehow protects them from the evil that exists within. They don't understand (let alone admit to) their own dysfunctions and sin, masking these thoughts and behaviors in rules designed to control the flock. Belton and company do a wonderful job of taking the lives and the customs of the Amish—some of which even hard core Christians would question—and show them in an empathetic light. Though this community appears to be a well-intentioned group of people, is such a sheltered existence really what God wants? Commanding us to go into the world and make disciples is hard to do from a farm in rural Pennsylvania.
Presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full frame, the visuals effectively convey the beautiful country the Amish call home. The Dolby 5.1 audio mix carries more importance in a documentary where we don't see the interviewees but only hear their disembodied voices played over scenes of people going about their daily lives. There are no bonus features.
Though we often long to slow down in this crazy busy world, I hope it doesn't eventually lead to cutting off all contact from it.
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