Dancing with the Devil

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?

Aaron B


  1. “Rumspringa” strikes me as a particularly good band name.

    You know, it strikes me as a formalization of the too-lamentable practice many young men and women have of sinning, then repenting (or attempting to) just prior to leaving on missions. Our belief structure soundly condemns such practice, but I wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of ‘sowing one’s oats.’ Probably not — it strikes me as a horrible, horrible thing to excuse sin for a season, albeit an hormonal one.

  2. “The rate of return to the community after “rumspringa” is over 90%. Pretty impressive.”: It doesn’t seem that impressive when you consider the alternative that these kids face. They aren’t allowed to stay in school past the 8th grade, so if they don’t return to the community after rumspringa, most are relegated to menial jobs and poor living conditions for the rest of their lives (the documentary did talk about one girl who got her GED and went back to college, but that is pretty tough for most kids to do on their own). Especially for men, the prospects of finding a spouse and being able to support a family aren’t great. At least if they go back, they will probably be able to marry a nice girl, enjoy the support of the community, and live a lifestyle that is accepted and respected by those around them. I think the retention rate would be much lower if the kids were allowed to stay in school until they are 16 (when rumspringa begins), because they would have so many more options outside of the Amish community.

  3. Aaron, go clean up your hotmail account again. It’s bouncing messages…

  4. Aaron, nice to find someone else who likes to go into the uncharted territory of special features/deleted scenes. I have my own issues with the way Mormon culture handles these kind of issues, but I also agree with Kaimi’s bread vs. chocolate cake analogy. I’m not sure if there’s a middle ground that would be better for all. It’s just so hard to explain to someone the feeling you have after eating fifty pieces of chocolate cake. No matter how much you talk about it, he/she may not understand until he/she has the fifty pieces for his/herself. But on the flipside, the Mormon mentality of not only never eating chocolate cake but also never talking about it… That can’t be the best way either. What is one supposed to do?

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    Bob, email me at my gmail account now.

  6. Hey I think that this entry gives a real portrayal of the Amish community. I’ve always known what its really like considering that I was raised in a Amish family until age 3. Most of my relatives are still Amish. All people see is the easy part of the Amish life. In this documentary it show the true side. In fact one of my distant relatives was in the movie. I really appreciate you giving an accurate account of Amish life. Thank you

  7. I don’t know. It seems to me like a little bit of a false choice. “Do you want to stay with your family, your traditions, your friends, or do you want to go to a life of total debauchery?” Debauchery may be fun, but it seems like they are encouraging kids to really go overboard, which accentuates the false choice.

    It’s like raising a kid on bread and jam, and then one day allowing him to eat chocolate cake. And encouraging him, until he’s eaten fifteen pieces of chocolate cake, and is feeling nauseous. And then saying, “now do you want to go back to bread and jam, or do you want to continue to eat chocolate cake?” It’s asking “would you rather be a drunkard out on the street, or a teetotaller?” while ignoring the third option of having a glass of wine occasionally.

    Of course, the results are nice. And maybe we could use more of that in the church. (One of the better elders on my mission, who left just before I arrived (but who I heard about), was someone with a major sinful past whose bishop apparently told him that he would go straight to hell, unless he did _everything_ right on his mission. Now that’s motivation). But the whole thing seems a little intellectually dishonest to me.

  8. I liked the film, too.

    I got the impression that there was a serious double standard going on, with much more extensive rumspringing tolerated for boys than for girls.

    I also got the impression that, although a couple might spend the night together, intercourse wasn’t approved. Maybe it is more like the “bundling” practiced by our puritan forebearers.

  9. Rhonda T says:

    I think that some of these comments are bull shit. You don’t know the real Amish. You only see the bad and judge the rest of them according to how bad the rest of them are. Some of you people need to open your eyes to both the good and bad. Thats the whole reason for rumspringa but some of you wouldn’t know, cause you’ve got your head too far up your ass to realize that you’re being so naive to the Amish culture. I’ve been around it all my life and the thing that I hate the most is when people talk about it not really knowing what its truely about. I think that main artcle was well written but you people that commented need to reevaluate your knowledge on the Amish religion. And no its not a cult.

  10. I think that this is really interesting! I’m no anthropologist, but it does seem like a lot of cultures have ritualized sin. Eliade talked about these sorts of festivals in various religions where chaos reigned. They served as an outlet for all sorts of repression in strict societies. Obvious correlaries are Mardi Gras and Spring break, where substance abuse and sexuality are rampant. It seems that the problem that many people face today is that they don’t see these as yearly rituals (or in the amish case, once in a lifetime rituals), but as lifestyles.

    I also wonder about “retention” rates for societies with no such outlets. Are they less successful in keeping people in the community who no doubt with have the urge to sin? For example, do we lose young Mormons because there is never any opportunity to “experiment” with sin. Is there so much repression that when they sin, they feel like they can’t remain?

  11. LDS have a tendency to awfulize normal human behavior. Premarital sex isn’t a mistake – it’s “the sin next to murder.”

    The Amish tradition, which I’d not really heard about before reading it here, seems to set up the opportunity for an informed choice.

    If you’re going to sacrifice automobiles, television, and higher education to live a totally different lifestyle from the rest of the world, better to know what it is you’re leaving behind than to always wonder.

    We don’t really ask our young people to give up anything. We just place all kinds of restrictions around worldly behavior.

  12. Not sure how much it happens these days, but there are plenty of the rural adult generation in Utah that still complain of that awful day when dad took them out behind the barn and made them smoke an entire pack of cigarettes.

    It is interesting to me (or should I say it “strikes me. . .”) to note that for a church that speaks constantly about the need to know the bad in order to know the good, we flat-out reject that notion when it comes to sin and righteousness.

  13. p.s. three ‘strikes me’ in one comment — I’m out.

  14. mardell says:

    The choice is not whether to live in the real world or be amish. The choice is to never see your family and friends again and live in the real world, or be amish. That is a pretty hard choice. I think some people would rather be in a weird religon than never see their families again.

  15. Kristine says:

    Then again, there are those who would join any religion, no matter how weird, if it could prevent us from seeing our families again :)

  16. Wow. I thought I learned everything I needed to know about the Amish from Witness. Maybe I just missed the “Rumspringa” scene.

    Perhaps the moral of the story is that sin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Or perhaps two months isn’t long enough for sin-deprived Amish kids to really get a taste for it. Nenety percent seems like a pretty good retention rate. They must be doing something right.