In Balm of Gilead, the third book in my Healing Grace series, Henry Byler, one of the main characters, struggles with a lucrative offer to appear on a reality show. I based the fictional show, Shunning Amish, loosely on several popular “Amish reality shows” such as Amish Mafia, Breaking Amish, and Return to Amish. Even though Henry never joined church and in fact left home at nineteen to live an Englisch life, he is torn about participating in such a show. The money the network is offering him would make a huge difference in his life with his Englisch bride-to-be. But what of the cost to the Amish community in which he lives and works?
I have to wonder if the producers of these shows ever ask themselves this question. Last year a movement started in Lancaster County as a reaction to what people view as exploitation of a culture that will never strike back, never file a lawsuit, and never participate in any way in such a show. The Respect Amish movement gained support all the way to state government, showing just how locals feel about their peace-loving Amish neighbors and friends.
Dr. Donald Kraybill, a respected scholar of the Amish culture, has gone on record saying that these shows have no basis in reality. In an article for the Huffington Post, he says,
“The Amish Mafia of reality TV fame is a fabrication of the producers. Some of the actors were raised in the Amish community but never joined it. Their knowledge of Amish practices enables them to help stage what appear to be authentic scenarios.”
Anyone familiar with Amish fiction knows that they are a pacifist people who would turn the other cheek, not hunt someone down to right a supposed wrong. The Amish Mafia show somehow twists the Amish support system used for medical care—where every household contributes a certain dollar amount every month to a church fund, to be used where there is a need—to a “support system” involving trucks and guns and vengeance, all of which are antithetical to Amish culture. Return to Amish features characters who are supposed to be practicing the Amish religion, who seem to have no embarrassment about appearing on camera, something explicitly forbidden by any district’s Ordnung. And I won’t even get into the craziness that is a show called Amish Haunting …
The Amish, of course, don’t watch television (or have the electricity in their homes to power one). But at the same time, they must deal with people who fall for these storylines and are put in the position of fielding awkward questions about their religion from the tourists who flock to Amish districts. Some Amish elders have even expressed their distress about such shows, which make them “look like garbage.”
I’m so glad that the majority of authors of Amish fiction approach the culture they write about with humility and respect. We pour as much research into our stories as we can in order to portray our fictional communities as accurately and lovingly as possible. Because in the end, our goal is to bring the reader into a community where they can escape the violence and selfishness of the outside world, and see God at work in farm and field, kitchen and church, so that together we might rejoice in being a part of His creation despite our differences.
Find Balm of Gilead, the third novel in Adina’s Healing Grace series, at your favorite retailer!
Adina Senft grew up in a plain house church, where she was often asked by outsiders if she was Amish (the answer was no), she made her own clothes, and she perfected the art of the French braid. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches as adjunct faculty.
Writing as Shelley Bates, she was the winner of RWA’s RITA Award for Best Inspirational Novel in 2005, a finalist for that award in 2006, and, writing as Shelley Adina, was a Christy Award finalist in 2009.
A transplanted Canadian, Adina returns there annually to have her accent calibrated. Between books, she enjoys traveling with her husband, playing the piano and Celtic harp, and spoiling her flock of rescued chickens.
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