Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behavior

Over the next year, I will be co-directing the sociology of religion movie night along with Pop Theology contributor Wendy Arce under the supervision of Jerome Baggett, Dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.  A monthly film screening that started over a year ago, the series features documentaries about religious subject matter, as Jerome argues that, and I agree, we are experiencing a heyday of religious documentaries.  This year, while we have convinced Jerome to include narrative films, we began with another documentary, The Devil’s Playground (2002).

Directed by Lucy Walker, this documentary focuses on the Amish tradition of rumspringa.  At the age of 16, Amish teenagers have the freedom to leave or remain in the church.  During their rumspringa, they can engage in all forms of prohibited behavior like drinking, taking drugs, dressing “English” (non-Amish), driving a car, living on their own, etc.  They will engage in this behavior for any length of time ranging from a few months to a few years until they make their final decision.  Amish elders claim that this is a source of accountability for Amish teenagers:  how can they choose to follow Christ–to remain in the church–if they have no experience of the alternatives?  While some teenagers choose to remain outside the church, most (around 90%) return–signalling an incredibly high retention rate.  However, a small number of those who choose to be baptized will later leave the church.  They will be forever shunned by their family and the community, what the elders regard as their final act of love toward that person.

Walker’s film is a fascinating study of the tension between religious communities and the broader culture.  It reveals a religious community that, surprisingly, does not hold to a series of counter-cultural absolutes, as might be expected, but rather finds itself engaged in a process of negotiation.  While they abstain from most “modern fruits,” they do not absolutely reject technology.  Walker shows images of Amish on ten-speed bikes, using mechanical lawn equipment, and working at factories with machinery.  In two places during the film, an elder says that this negotiation takes into account the effect a “material decision” will have on the family.  What negative effects would a gas-powered lawn mower have on the family?  A car?  A television?

In the film, Walker follows Faron Yoder and Velda Bontrager, two Amish teenagers who have decided to remain outside the church.  Faron leaps into rumspringa with both feet, drinking and doing drugs every night, even developing an addiction to meth.  Velda’s experience, while not nearly as wild as Faron’s, temporarily takes her back to the church.  However, after a short time, she realizes church is not for her:  she leaves and is shunned.

Walker also gives occasional glances to other Amish teenagers whose experiences and responses vary from wild partying to quick returns to the church.  During their rumspringa, many teenagers often experience a crisis of faith, because of their belief that salvation cannot be found outside the Amish faith.  As they plunge ever further into the evils of this world, their assurance of salvation begins to erode.  As I watched the film, I was mindful of my conservative Southern Baptist upbringing and how similar its views of the world were to the Amish.  We were consistently told to be in the world, but not of the world.  Like the Amish, drinking was forbidden as was drug use and pre-marital sex.  Yet unlike the Amish, we had televisions, new clothes, cars, and tickets to movies and concerts.  Yet I am mindful that the Amish would have, in a way, looked down on such an existence, even if we could have claimed some level of spiritual devotion or purity or deep abiding faith.  The fact of the matter is that our “elders” would have never justified such behavior, let alone institutionalized it.  Living so closely to the world as people of faith, we did make choices every day regarding our faith.  Whether these choices were “good” or “bad” is certainly open for discussion.  In the end, I found it hard to admire the Amish decision to abstain from the wider culture, because, for any length of time for teenagers, they institutionalize and justify the very “evil” from which they choose to abstain.

After the screening, we had a time for open discussion.  For a film like this, all we had to do was open the floor to an audience eager to react.  One of the thoughts that Jerome raised struck me as rather interesting.  Given the Amish teenagers’ choices to dress and act “English” (non-Amish) during rumspringa what does it say about us as a wider culture if this is what being “English” looks like to them?  One teenager talked about her wild lifestyle:  “I drank, partied, went to a Baptist church” (emphasis mine).  Do they see anything redeeming about the outside world or is it simply a party every night, flashy clothes, and 200 television stations?  Are our communities of faith bankrupt because we drive cars and watch The Office?

As the film progressed, I felt sad for some of the teenagers represented in the film.  It seems as if the deck is stacked against them throughout their rumspringa.  The “English” life that many of them encounter in the film is the furthest thing from real life that I have experienced.  I thought of these kids having to navigate health insurance, employment, tax returns, and the list goes on.  I was mindful of the film Juno, and the title character’s response to her child’s future adoptive parents, “Dude…I’m ill equipped.”  Compound this with the threat that if they leave the church they can never have contact with their families again, and you have an unfair situation at best.

Walker’s film is a good, initial look into an interesting tradition.  It would have benefited from one or two other Amish teenager responses as well as community reactions to teenagers on rumspringa.  What do members of the community think about the massive parties?  How do law enforcement react?  What is the Amish community’s relationship to other communities of faith?  Nevertheless, The Devil’s Playground is a great film to start conversation and dialogue about the relationship between religion and culture and how we negotiate our morality throughout various life experiences.

The Devil’s Playground (77 mins.) is available on DVD and is not rated.  It does contain adult language and scenes of drug and alcohol use.