Last night, I watched the PBS special, The Amish, which appeared earlier in the year on the American Experience series, and is now available to view online.
Like the lifestyle of the Amish themselves, the special clocks in at just under two hours, which forces you slow down to a different pace. The information could have been presented in about 20 minutes; but the filmmaker obviously saw some advantage to helping the audience “get it” by taking his time. In fact, some of the most informative nuggets in the film appear as onscreen captions, so looking away — as I often do when watching content online — is not an option.
The film is divided into nine chapters, and also traces through a year of Amish community life, dividing the film into four sections, from summer to spring. It looks at both life within the community, and how the community is perceived by the rest of us, including the tour buses that crisscross Lancaster County and sometimes get to ask Amish elders questions:
Tourist: What’s the main difference between you and us?
Amish Man: Well… how many of you have television?
[everyone raises their hands]
Amish Man: How many of you think your lives would be better off without television?
[everyone raises their hands]
Amish Man: And how many of you are going to go home today and throw out your television sets?
[nobody raises their hands]
Amish Man: That’s the difference between you and the Amish.
The two-hour documentary clarifies the real difference a society where the community is the center of life and the ethics of work and play that surround that focus; and the rest of western society where the focus is on the individual; “in direct opposition to the key values of Amish life.”
It also shows that from its inception, Amish society followed a parallel path to society at large. They were farmers, their neighbors were farmers. They drove a horse and buggy, their neighbors drove horses and buggies. But then, as the industrial revolution ushered in both electricity, home telephones, horseless carriages, assembly-line jobs, it “troubled the Amish mind and trouble the Amish soul.”
“If you have a phone and you can call, why visit; why go in person and see the person?”
The splitting of the parallel track also limited the distances that the Amish could travel from home; it kept their world small. “If you give people keys to the car, they will go off to the city and get jobs… The car will fragment our community, it will splinter our community, it will pull us apart.”
And as to labor-saving devices to make the time spent on labor shorter, they felt that if there was an issue between spending time in labor and spending time in leisure, better to err on the side of labor. For one woman interviewed, that involves waking daily at a quarter-to-five. Her husband gets up at 5:30, and breakfast is at 6:15. After breakfast there is a time of Bible reading, singing and prayer. “The day wouldn’t seem right to start without it.”
Is this what God requires? Certainty must also erode somewhat when the Ordnung — the official standard of behavior — varies between church communities. In one it’s permissible to own a bicycle, in another, just a few miles down the road, bicycles are banned. How does one interpret the doctrine of salvation when God’s absolute standards seem to be subjective?
There were a few moments — one at the beginning of the film and one later on — where it was not apparent that some of the Amish interviewed had assurance of salvation. There was a hope that after “doing their best” their religious ethic would cause them as individuals to find final approval and final acceptance from God; to be found “worthy of salvation.” It seems almost a graceless faith.
In contrast, a lawyer for the man who shot female students in a one-room Amish school house in Lancaster County, describes the situation where several from the community showed up at the home of the man’s family by saying that when they arrived, “Grace walked in the door.”
Still, it’s possible to mete out grace and yet not understand the dynamics of being a recipient of grace.
Even within Evangelical Christianity, we don’t hear as much about the assurance of salvation as we did in previous generations. If that’s you, I reblogged an excellent article on this at C201.
For everyone else, grab a snack, and kick back and enjoy The Amish on American Experience.