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The Amish are often perceived of as "frozen in time." The modern day embodiment of the Little House on the Prairie story where Pa and Ma run their small family in isolation, struggling with nature in a strange and foreign world. A sub-culture that is insulated and isolated from any connections to modernity. Many visitors to Amish country discover, when they really become acquainted with an Amish person or family that the Amish are very much in touch with the realities of our world today.
Misconceptions about anyone are furthered when we do not understand their culture, history and place in the modern world. The Amish care deeply that people outside their world work at understanding them. Their wonderful furniture and crafts, good food, and beautiful houses and farmsteads are important and valuable contributions to our world. But they have an even greater contribution to offer if we are willing to hear their story. The misconceptions about the Amish are primarily perpetuated by two "voices" that one must understand to understand the Amish.
The first such voice is the modern media's attempts at sensationalism in their portrayal of the Amish. From romance novels (there are some good ones) to reality shows, the Amish are often portrayed in ways that in no way reflect their present world and beliefs. Amish life and culture is susceptible to this for two primary reasons; first, they do not engage with modern media or have access to the end result of that and therefore corrections to their portrayal is often post production. The second is that sensationalism sells ratings. Any subculture within a larger culture, because they are "different," is susceptible to these kind of misconceptions.
The second factor, or voice, is the way the Amish make decisions as a sub-culture. Their teaching that humility and piety are the most important personal traits to foster, and that individuals bow to the group voice, is much opposed to the individualism and independence in that is prominent in the western world. They are taught, and most Amish feel deeply, that in yielding to the collective memories, beliefs, and ideals of the community is where strength is found. Therefore, discernment about how to live in the present world is found in the community. Their goal is not some form of technological "purity," rather it is the preservation of what is most important in community; faith and family. In an increasingly secularized western world, this mindset will set them apart as different.
Myths and misconceptions are best defeated by a willingness to hear and understand someone. Many of the Amish are open to simple and basic questions that often arise. The intent of this column is to help bring some of those questions to the surface. Another way to discover the truth about the Amish is to visit the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The Center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.