Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

It's Hip to Be Plain

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

It's Hip to Be Plain

Article excerpt

Who knew the Amish would become such a center of pop-cultural attention?

ONE SUNDAY EVENING during high school, friends from my Mennonite church and I drove around Lancaster County, Pa., stealing mattresses. Bored by too many evenings of roller skating and Truth or Dare, we, like teenagers everywhere, landed on thievery as the solution to adolescent ennui. Having found out which of our friends were away from home, we showed up at their houses, told their parents about our prank, and swore them to secrecy. Then we clomped up narrow staircases to their sons' and daughters' bedrooms and wrestled mattresses back downstairs and onto the bed of a pickup truck. Just before our getaways, we left notes on our friends' dress- ers, signed with what we thought was a most clever alias: "The Mennonite Mafia."

We had no idea that 25 years later, Amish Mafia would be a blockbuster real- ity show, its first episode attracting 10 times more viewers than there are Amish people. Had you told us then that a bunch of Amish and Mennonite kids growing up a few miles away would someday parlay boredom-induced shenanigans into a hit cable TV series, I don't know whether we would have been flattered or jealous. Kate Stoltzfus? Rebecca Byler? Lebanon Levi? People with names like these-our "plain-dressing" Amish neighbors and the more conservative Mennonite kids we went to school with-were the butt of our jokes, not the cynosures of popular culture.

Only a few decades after we and our fam- ilies exited the conspicuous conservatism of plain Anabaptism, mass culture is flocking toward it. From Amish-themed reality TV shows to Christian romance novels with Amish characters and settings, the media have finally landed the lucrative Amish account, although the furniture industry and "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Amish Paradise" got there first. Americans' enthrallment with the Amish-and schadenfreude about their sometimes wayward youth-has rarely been more intense.

Amish Mafia wasn't the first reality show to expose our Anabaptist peers, of course. The massive success of TLC's Breaking Amish last fall, with nine of the 10 epi- sodes attracting 3 million viewers each, and National Geographic Channel's Amish: Out of Order began the most recent wave of televised overexposure. As in an earlier wave-Amish in the City, the 2004 reality show that documented five Amish young adults' relocation to Hollywood-Breaking Amish moved five plain young adults (four Amish and one Mennonite) to the city to sample the seductions of "English" life.

But compared to Breaking Amish, Amish in the City looks like a PBS kids' show. The kids in Amish in the City took dips in the ocean, gawked at parking meters, and tasted sushi. Eight years later, during the first season of Breaking Amish, you could watch Amish young people get wasted, get tattoos, talk about bestiality, pole dance at a strip club, and tour a sex museum. Oh, and try to decide whether to stay Amish. As became apparent when news of cast mem- bers' prior divorces, children out of wedlock, and DUIs trickled out, these Anabaptist young people were hardly being exposed to the ways of the world for the first time. But most viewers didn't care. Apparently it doesn't matter that the cast members aren't actually babes in the woods-as long as they are babes.

An Amish Mafia, complete with tattooed Amish fixers who are "unafraid to crack some skulls," exists only insofar as it inhabits the imagination of some Anabaptist-raised young people trolling for fame. It is what happens when a few disaffected Amish- and Mennonite-raised youth join themselves not to the church but to Hollywood and its hunger for access to a private subculture. By parlaying their faith heritage into a titillating hour of tire-slashing and machismo myths of redemptive violence, they make their alle- giances clear.

TRAVELING A VERY different but parallel vector of the Amishizing trend is Christian fiction. Eighty-five new Amish-themed inspirational romance novels were published in 2012. …

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