Saturday, October 20, 2007

Our Amish Cousins

Recently (October 7, 2007) the CBS drama Cold Case aired an episode investigating the (fictional) death of an Amish teenaged girl in Philadelphia during her "Rumspringa." The episode, in my opinion, was formulaic in its treatment of the Amish. Popular media portrayal of the Amish generally goes along the lines of "They're really odd at first glance, but when you get to know them, there's a lot in Amish life to respect or even envy" (with some exceptions). Contrast this with the usual media treatment of Southern Baptists or other evangelical groups. The same tension of surface perception vs. fuller understanding prevails, but in the opposite direction. At first glance, the evangelical appears to be respectable (even holier-than-thou), but deeper investigation always reveals a drug-using pedophile whose anger-management issues have led him to murder somebody to keep his secrets buried. So I'm wondering not so much why groups like Southern Baptists get such rough treatment, but why the Amish generally get such a free pass. The Amish are Anabaptists, our close theological cousins. They share with Baptists a belief that only the regenerate will go to Heaven. Their moral codes are stricter than ours. Just for good measure, they stir in an eccentric aversion to all things modern. They are the epitome of the "obscurantism" that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberals warned would lead to the demise of Christianity. Certainly Amish belief and practice is no friendlier to modern American life than is evangelicalism—quite the contrary. Maybe the "quite the contrary" is the answer to my question. I think that our culture, when it looks at most of Evangelicalism, sees people desperate to be accepted by the culture as cool. When the culture confronts something like the Amish, it encounters something truly interesting—a group of people (seemingly) entirely satisfied apart from any of the things that Americans think we need to have to find satisfaction. Thus the irony: I think that the desperation among some Evangelicals to "reach" the culture may be precisely the thing that provokes revulsion in some influential segments of the culture. It smacks of Madison Avenue dishonesty. Of course, the Amish are no example for us to follow evangelistically. They are so isolationist as to make very little substantial effort to present the gospel outside their environs. They are not "of" the culture, but neither are they "in" it. What Southern Baptists need is to learn from the Amish a biblical antidote to materialism without succumbing to their technophobia. We need to learn a confidence in the virtues of a Christian subculture (which isn't perfect, but which is better than non-Christian culture) without mimicking the Amish communalism that prevents them from significant interaction with people lost in secular culture. Perhaps Roger Williams is a good example for us to consider. No obscurantist, he nonetheless asserted that there ought to be a strong "hedge of separation" between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world (a phrase often misinterpreted to refer exclusively to church-state relations). Although he was quite strict—even persnickety—in his ecclesiology, Williams was nonetheless a powerful political figure and a thinker prepared to engage every facet of his contemporary culture. I plan to keep my iPhone, my pilot's license, and my t-shirts, but I think that the Amish have some things to teach us.

15 comments:

Geoff Baggett said...

Bart,

I don't think that trying to reach people where they are within the culture has anything to do with it. That is simply biblical. Nor do I think there is any particular disdain toward Christians for somehow trying to be "cool." Somehow, I don't think the "world" even sees that, much less recognizes it.

What I DO think affects the world's perception of evangelical Christians (i.e. Southern Baptists) is our inconsistency. Not in our appearance, but in our actions and behaviors. The world looks at us and sees a group of people "doing" the same things that they do, making many of the same (bad) choices that they make, using their "language," indulging in the same vices ... all the while claiming some type of higher moral ground and Christ message.

And it just doesn't compute for them. As well it shouldn't.

So, no, I don't think it has anything to do with "relevance," per se. But it has everything to do with inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Just my thoughts ...

Geoff

geoffbaggett.com
sbc IMPACT!

A Simple Student @ SWBTS said...

i think that part of the reason why the amish can be adored in the media is because they are not known push their beliefs on other people. in addition to what geoff said about the perception of sbc'ers, i think that we are not going to have the same positive media attention because we are outspoken on a certain divisive issues. this does not mean that we should stop talking about these issues (or any other issues for that matter) just so we can get a positive media spin.

interestingly, over the last few years, i have read several people who have compared the amish and evangelicalism (and some even more specifically the sbc). their assessment is that evangelicalism (and the sbc) risks becoming the amish of the 20th century where people will go drive out into the Southern countryside to go see the quaint "Evangelicals." bart, thank you for reminding us to not become isolationists like the amish.

a simple student @ swbts

Bart Barber said...

Geoff,

The idea that we ought to reach people is really presumed in the post. If we were not trying to reach people, why would we care whether we are cherished or reviled in the culture? As you have suggested in your comment, I would only argue that authenticity is more important than relevance. To the degree that a church is both indigenous and authentic, it will achieve relevance without conscious effort and without compromising anything important.

I agree with your language about "a group of people 'doing' the same things that they do." I believe that you have illustrated precisely what I think—that we have no problem at all connecting with American culture (of which we are, after all, a native part). Our problem, and what the Amish do quite well (in spite of their other issues), is to demonstrate that they are anything at all other than connected with American culture.

volfan007 said...

i once asked an amish man how i could join thier group. he looked me up and down, and said, "you'd never make it." :)


so, i was rejected by the amish.

david

Debbie Kaufman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bart Barber said...

Simple Student,

I considered the explanation that you have advanced; however, there are a great many less-than-evangelistic denominations (most of the mainlines would fall into this camp) that arouse nothing more than a passing yawn in media treatment.

Bart Barber said...

David,

Grow a good beard and go back. :-)

Debbie Kaufman said...

Bart: I agree with Geoff. Being more strict or legalistic is not the answer. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the things of this world that do not conflict with our Christianity nor scripture. God gave us good things to enjoy and it's not about more rules, but Christ and what he accomplished through the cross. It's about who we are in Christ and our freedom because of that, not accepting Christ and then looking to be more like the Amish. In fact what the Amish teach us is who we are not any longer. Even our good deeds are tainted with sin according to the Bible. When God sees us He sees Christ, our works are a result of that not the cause.

As for our descendants being Anabaptist, that would depend on who you talk to wouldn't it?

Bart Barber said...

Debbie,

I was just looking back for the spot where I said that the Anabaptists were our descendants (or ancestors, or whatever). Never found it. Can you help me?

Bart Barber said...

I was also looking for the spot where I suggested that we ought to be more legalistic. While you're at it...

cameron coyle said...

I knew you would get an iPhone...

Debbie Kaufman said...

Bart: I'm then wondering why you think the Amish are our theological "cousins"? Do you not have to be related to have such a title?

Bart Barber said...

Debbie,

Both Anabaptists and Baptists are a part of the radical reformation. Both Baptists and Anabaptists affirm believer's baptism, congregationalism, the priesthood of all believers, the regenerate church, etc. John Smythe was in contact with Anabaptists in 1609, eventually becoming one. The first Particular Baptist congregation was in contact with Anabaptists in 1641 when they embarked upon the practice of immersion.

If these two groups had sprung up a half a world apart without ever having any contact with one another, we would still have to acknowledge their ideological kinship—that they are very close to one another in what they believe. But even more than that, they were in contact with one another.

"Cousins" (except perhaps in OK??? ;-) ) generally are not ancestors or descendants of one another. Rather, they are peers who share a common ancestry. Thus, all I have asserted about Baptists and Anabaptists is that they both emerge from the radical reformation and that they are very similar theologically. Perhaps more could be asserted, but I have been deliberately conservative in my writing on this point.

Bart Barber said...

Cameron,

Wanna see it?

Gary L said...

Speaking of inconsistency, on our first visit to the Indiana Amish country, we watched a family baling hay. They were using big dray horses to pull two wagons. On the first wagon was a diesel engine and a hay baler. Granpa was throwing hay into the baler with a fork and Dad was bucking the bales onto the second wagon where Mom and the kids stacked it. A strange mix of separation and accomodation.

I don't think we are scorned in the media so much because we're inconsistent (everyone is) but because we profess something in the public square. They may use perceived hypocrisy to flay us but the real offense is our message.

People view the Amish as benign and quaint. They don't offend because their piety is under a bushel.