Amish in Pop Culture
The misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Amish in popular culture
From the romantic literature know as bonnet fiction to television shows such as “Breaking Amish” and “Amish Mafia” there is no shortage of portrayals of the Amish in mainstream culture. But there is a shortage of truth in those portrayals. Author Saloma Miller Furlong dispelled some of the myths surrounding the Amish during a Bluffton University Forum held Oct. 11. She offered authentic insight into a people who are time and again misrepresented and misinterpreted in popular culture.
“It has taken me more than 30 years of living outside my Amish community to gain insights that I hope neither romanticizes nor demonizes my original culture,” said Furlong.
Furlong grew up in an Old-Order Amish family in Geauga County, Ohio, and has written two memoirs “Why I left the Amish” and “Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds” about living inside and outside of her Amish community.
She says the most common misconception surrounds the term rumspringa. Many in the outside world consider rumspringa as the time when young Amish sow their wild oats and then decide if they want to remain Amish or if they want to become a part of the “English” world.
Furlong says in some Amish communities, rumspringa is a time to drink, dance and drive fast cars before settling down and getting married. However, “From the time children can understand the concept, they are taught that because they were born Amish, God wants them to stay Amish, and if they leave, all hope of their salvation will be lost,” said Furlong. “This is completely antithetical to the concept of a conscious choice.”
She says the reason Americans like thinking that Amish have a conscious choice in staying or leaving is because the outside world loves choice. “It is the very bedrock of the freedom we value above all else.” She continued, “These are our values, not theirs. Amish life is not about people choosing their own way – it’s about taking the path set out by their forbearers.”
Furlong says authors of bonnet fiction often focus on real aspects of Amish culture and community such as barn-raisings and weddings. However, they miss just how important community is for the Amish. Everyone in an Amish community knows each other from birth to death, and they come together in times of need.
“I remember this so well when I returned to the community for my father’s funeral and a year later for my mother’s. Everyone knew their place, and everyone played their part. It was like watching a well-conducted symphony.”
And because the bonnet-fiction authors are rarely Amish, they often impose ideas of Protestant individualism on the main characters so “individualism and personal salvation win out over the Amish monastic-like humility in the daily practice of their religion, their traditions and in their community.”
Miller Furlong says these distortions of the Amish have led to, in her view, the most flagrant distortions of Amish culture put out by Shannon and Eric Evangelista, the creators of the television shows “Breaking Amish,” “Amish Mafia” and “Amish Haunting.” Their company, Hot Snakes Media, has sold over $50 million worth of content, according to their website.
“They take a kernel of truth, and dramatize it, so that it becomes impossible for viewers to know where truth ends and fiction begins.”
Furlong says by dramatizing the experiences of the young people featured on the shows, the Evangelista’s are externalizing their struggles. However, she argues that “the inner struggle is so much more intense for us who have left.”
Amish tourism also perpetuates myths. When tourists take buggy rides, eat in Amish-style restaurants and drive around farms and see plain clothes flapping on clotheslines, they are only seeing the “good face” of the Amish.
“The mainstream culture has been eager to accept this public face by romanticizing the Amish culture. Perhaps that is because in a world riddled with hyper-materialism, hyper-individualism and hyper-capitalism, we want a model of a simpler society,” said Furlong. “In reality, greed, arrogance and selfishness exist in their culture, just as it does in ours. But at least their values do not support these vices.”
Furlong says even Amish researchers, because they have not grown up with the Amish mindset, sometimes make inaccurate interpretations.
“Recently, an Amish man told me that those who were not raised Amish – even the scholars who study the culture – ‘still haven’t got the Amish way of thinking,’” said Miller.
For example, she shared insights into the 2011 news stories about a group of Amish from Bergholz, Ohio, led by Bishop Sam Mullet. Some were eventually tried for hate crimes for their beard-cutting attacks and Mullet’s abuses of power.
“At the trial, a prominent researcher testified on behalf of the victims. He claimed that the group in Bergholz was ‘not really Amish.’
The group was often referred to as cult members, renegade Amish and breakaway Amish. However, Furlong contends that “Sam Mullet and all his followers grew up Amish, which begs the questions, when did they cease being Amish?”
“I believe this interpretation that the community in Bergholz was ‘not really Amish’ may help to preserve the reputation of the ‘real Amish.’ To me it is more important to ask what other Amish communities learned from this. Do they see what happened in Bergholz as a cautionary tale, or do they believe their communities are exempt?”
While, Miller Furlong dispelled myths perpetuated about the Amish, she also shared some truths. The main truth is that there are very few things that you can say about the Amish culture in general.
“Each bishop has his own style of leading his district. One bishop in Holmes County might allow bicycles, while another will not. One bishop in Geauga County might allow his members to own a phone shanty on their property, while another will not.”
However, the Amish have a shared heritage. Their ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs in Europe. Starting in the 1500s and to this day, the Amish consider themselves separate from the world by dressing plain and living what they consider a Godly life, and the Amish pretty universally adhere to the traditions of their ancestors.
“Because they Amish way of thinking is so different, they literally are a culture unto themselves. This is why they can say hoche leit (non-Amish) don’t get the Amish way of thinking. I have a feeling they like it that way.”
It has taken me more than 30 years of living outside my Amish community to gain insights that I hope neither romanticizes nor demonizes my original culture."