January 30, 2012

Devil's Playground

Devil's Playground is a 2002 documentary about a rite-of-passage called "Rumspringa" that Amish teens go through before deciding whether they will join the Amish church and embrace the culture in they were raised or leave it all behind for the modern world. I had heard of the film but never got around to seeing it until it aired on the National Geographic Channel recently.

One of the things that stood out to me from the film was how much pressure these Amish teens must feel in making a decision that will impact the rest of their lives. Raised without modern technology until age 16, they are suddenly released into the modern world to experience all it has to offer. Joining the church means that they promise to give up all the technology and modern conveniences they have experienced and devote their lives to their religion and to having as many children as possible. Deciding not to join the church means leaving their families and all they have known behind and striking out on their own.

It sounds like some of the teens go a bit wild during Rumspringa, experimenting with alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. I found it difficult to imagine that their sheltered upbringing has adequately prepared them for these experiences. Then again, I suspect we all knew Christian kids who were extremely sheltered and then went a bit crazy the moment they had a taste of freedom.

The idea behind Rumspringa seems involve a conviction on the part of the Amish community that teens should experience what the modern world has to offer before deciding whether to reject it. And the choice as to whether to join the Amish church truly seems to belong to the individual teen. This struck me as a contrast from how I see many evangelical fundamentalist Christians denying their children the freedom to choose. In some of these households, parents seem devoted to making sure their children never have the chance to experience the secular world.

The film did an outstanding job of not romanticizing the Amish. As a result, it seemed fairly balanced in how it presented the struggle of the teens depicted. For some, I found myself thinking that joining the church might be the best thing for them. For others, I was happy to see them get away.