This weekend I finally rented “The Devil’s Playground,” which I’d been meaning to see for several months. The film is a documentary about Amish teenagers going through “rumspringa.” For those who don’t know (I didn’t), “rumspringa” is a rite of passage all Amish youth pass through once they turn 16, when they are allowed to opt out of the rules and restrictions of Amish life and “go English.” In short, they are allowed to experience the joys of television, MTV, automobiles, drugs, sex and porn. The phase lasts from several months to several years, as the young people contemplate whether they want to devote themselves to Christ, get baptized, commit to the Amish lifestyle, and re-join the community–or instead leave the community permanently and remain “in the world,” so to speak. (Like good Mormons, they talk about the “age of accountability,” except they don’t view the magic number as “8″.)
The movie follows several Amish teenagers through this fascinating period of their lives, as they experiment with the amenities of modern life, as well as its many vices. The real star of the film is Faron, an 18-year old crystal meth addict who idolizes Tupac Shakur and revels in his freedoms, while simultaneously claiming to want to return to the Amish community (but not quite yet) and become a preacher like his father.
The film was so interesting to me for so many reasons. My previous impression of the Amish had been limited to one of butter-churning, barn-raising, fashion victims, who deplored modern conveniences as evil, and for whom the only excitement in life was Harrison Ford beating the crap out of the occasional tourist. :) The film helped me better appreciate the purpose behind the restrictions of Amish life (“boundary maintenance” from the world). And although I have no desire to become Amish myself, I think I understand better the appeal of a community that is so dead set on eliminating outside, worldly influences for the sake of maintaining community, family and tradition.
However, there was one aspect of the film that was by far the most fascinating and disturbing. To put it bluntly, the Amish appear to have institutionalized sin. “Rumspringa” isn’t just a time when it’s O.K. to drive cars and wear jeans, but Oh-we-hope-Peter-and-Molly-choose-to-remember-who-they-are-and-obey-the-Law-of-Chastity. On the contrary, it is expected that Amish teens will experiment with alcohol, throw huge parties and “fool around.” There is actually a scene where Faron spends the night with his girlfriend. An adult member of the community then explains that spending the night in the same bed with one’s significant other is encouraged (just once, I believe), and that some intimate interaction is expected. It wasn’t completely clear from the film exactly which sinful activities were encouraged vs. expected vs. reluctantly tolerated, but it was clear that Amish parents knew what was going on and rationalized it as a necessary stage–the same stage they had gone through themselves years earlier.
What to make of this? As members of the Church, we also believe in living standards that set us apart from the world. We are all subject to the same temptations as everyone, and if we succumb to these temptations, we believe we can repent of our sins and recommit to being a part of God’s community and living His standards. But we certainly don’t view the sinful phases of our lives as “good experiences” designed to help us solidify our commitments to living the Gospel. Rather, we see them as extremely risky to our eternal salvation; after all, sin can be addicting and why play with fire and run the risk that you’ll find it so enticing that you never return to the fold? Granted, many look back on their sinful pasts and decide that their experiences taught them something important, and until the recent tightening of mission standards, lots of LDS prospective elders had their own, unofficial, pre-mission “rumspringa,” if you know what I mean, but we clearly don’t institutionalize this sort of thing in the Church. The Amish have, however, and there is a certain logic to their thinking. Let the young people really know what they’re missing, and once they experience everything first-hand, they can really make informed choices as to the kind of lifestyle they want to lead, and the types of commitments they want to take on.
Finally, one of the “deleted scenes” on the DVD answered a pressing question for me: Given the austerity and restriction of Amish life, and given that “rumspringa” exposes the youth to everything “fun” under the sun, how successful are the Amish in retaining their young people as Church members? Answer: The rate of return to the community after “rumspringa” is over 90%. Pretty impressive.
So what’s the moral of the story here? By experiencing sin in all its splendor and despair, are we more likely to become committed Church members? Or does this work only for the Amish? If so, why? Is there something about being Amish that is so enticing that even exposure to the world won’t drive the youth away? The Amish youth I saw sure seemed to be enjoying their respite from Amish-ness. Do we just need to figure out what the Amish are doing right, and co-opt it? (Maybe make 100% abstinence from television a part of the new and improved Word of Wisdom?). Is there something about the Amish way of life that is more powerful than the long-term temptation of sin, even when it is intentionally indulged? If so, might it be useful to find out what it is?