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'City' leaves Amish squeamish

The sect's leaders and scholars worry that the new hit reality show on UPN presents a distorted picture of its beliefs and practices.

August 02, 2004|Rich Preheim | Religion News Service

If you were among the 5.4 million viewers who made the premiere of "Amish in the City" a smashing success, supporters of the widely misunderstood Christian group want you to know you did not watch educational programming.

"This is entertainment and not a PBS documentary," said Amish scholar David Weaver-Zercher.

"Amish in the City," UPN's latest reality TV entry, first aired on Wednesday and was the evening's second-highest-rated show nationally and the top show in major markets such as Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.

The show follows five people in their late teens or early 20s who grew up in Amish homes but have been set up in a Hollywood house with six non-Amish young people.

The Amish are in "rumspringa," a traditional time for contemplating whether to join the church. During that time, the young people, because they are not yet bound by church teaching, often drive cars, dress in "worldly" fashions and party.

Controversy has surrounded "Amish in the City" since plans for it were announced earlier this year, as critics believed it exploitative. The first show -- titled "This Is My First Time on an Escalator" -- did little to mitigate their concerns.

While it may be possible that Mose, the Amish participant taking the escalator ride, had never been on such a contraption before, his claim has prompted some head-scratching. Speaking of the youth and young adults in his community, Leroy Hochstetler, an Amish minister near Nappanee, Ind., asked rhetorically, "How many of these kids haven't been in a mall and been on an elevator or escalator?"

The show also noted other firsts for the five Amish, such as first sauna, parking meter, sushi and plane ride. Such an approach casts the participants as emerging from "a cultural medieval cave," said sociologist Donald B. Kraybill, author of a number of books on the Amish and professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Weaver-Zercher, religion professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., described the show's direction as "when people shed their weirdness and become cool."

As a result, Amish are stereotyped as backward people who dress funny and don't use modern conveniences, when in fact many use telephones, computers and sophisticated manufacturing equipment powered by generators.

"My concern is that [the show] will breed more distortion than education," Kraybill said.

While tackling the superficialities, the premiere dealt poorly with issues of beliefs and practices, said Diane Zimmerman Umble, who teaches communication at Pennsylvania's Millersville University. She cited Mose's experience after his first visit to the beach: He got too far into the ocean and had to be rescued. The prospect of drowning struck fear into him, as he has been led to believe that those outside the Amish church are doomed to hell. That night, a sleepless Mose reads his German-language Bible and prays, his spiritual difficulties recorded by the cameras.

"I'm sad because I think we really abuse another faith when we treat their search for commitment as entertainment," said Umble, who with Weaver-Zercher is editing a book on the Amish and the media. "At some level, the producers don't realize how they are trifling with what is deadly serious in the Amish community."

Added Weaver-Zercher, "You don't get a meaningful portrait of what it's like to be Amish."

He lamented the overly simplistic "cultural chasm" created by the show. The Amish participants' housemates include a "party girl" fashion stylist, a gay club promoter and a vegan who states that cows are extraterrestrial beings. "I believe their DNA comes from, like, somewhere else," she said.

But those striking contrasts might have made the Amish look better rather than worse. The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Center for Rural Strategies, which spearheaded a campaign to keep the show off the air, received some 60 e-mails the morning after the show's first episode aired. "They tended to agree ... that the kids of Amish heritage were the smarter, more likable ones," said center Vice President Marty Newell.

Of course, most Amish didn't see the show. "We don't like it, that's for sure," said Hochstetler, the Amish minister. "But you can't do anything about it. The media and show people, they do what they want to do."

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