“Sarcasm that entertains for a moment…”

John Landis Ruth is an author, historian, and filmmaker who has made significant contributions to the understanding of Mennonite history. This is his commentary about Meet the Hutterites, a controversial new series on the National Geographic Channel. (via the Hutterite Brethren

Last week, alerted by both Mennonite and Hutterite friends, I viewed two episodes of National Geographic’s currently running television series on the Hutterites.  While finding it humorously entertaining, I didn’t know whether to laugh or scoff.

I understand this is in the recently evolved mode of  “reality TV,” a genre of entertainment.  But what kind of “reality” can be expected from producers choosing a dysfunctional colony by which to present what they call “the very first glimpse inside” Hutterite life?

Actually, an hour-long documentary, “The Hutterites: To Care and Not to Care,” produced by Burton Buller and myself with the counsel of scholar John A. Hostetler, ran on the PBS network in the United States thirty years ago, and has since been repeatedly screened on the Discovery Channel.

In the two National Geographic episodes I watched there was almost nothing of the deep-rooted spiritual dream alive in the twenty Hutterite colonies I’ve visited.  While they weren’t perfect, and they did have serious issues, none of them would have countenanced much of the behavior presented in this series.  In fact, if that behavior were typical of the Hutterite fellowship in general, it would be coming apart at the seams.

Turning the life of an unrepresentative colony into entertainment for a secular audience betrays the larger and historic reality of the group’s life.  Rather, National Geographic’s “success” here is in making the subject entertaining.   Their producers deploy the same “reality” genre in depicting rebellious members of the Amish.  For me, a search for colorfully edgy margins of minority groups who work hard to maintain a countercultural spirituality is no promising sign of  balanced insight.   I expected something with more integrity from policy-makers at the prestigious National Geographic.  To use a group’s soul-issues to boost TV ratings is a commentary on what’s at the heart of commercial television.

I’m not opposed to documentarians doing insightful exposes.  There are dysfunctional colonies and Amish and Mennonite communities with colorful behavior that embarrasses their parent bodies.  In a sense they are fair game to secular documentarians and their audience.  But this tightly edited series is something else.  Characters obviously quote teleprompter-type lines written for them, which are then edited in between takes when they are speaking  extemporaneously.  Scripted scenes are juiced with a music track.  Obviously imposed plots that would be laughed out of court by most Hutterites include episodes such as a “jerky contest,” girls riding off while the colony boss can’t stop them, or a waitress taking a scripted pratfall, etc., etc.  Some interchanges make even the rehearsed “actors” smile wryly.  If only the quality of the camera work were matched with subtlety of spiritual insight.

One more thought.  Years ago I was surprised to hear a wise Amish preacher say of a book his people deeply resented, “Well, even in any book there can be something good.” So while it surely brings a community pain to have its difficulties used to titillate an audience, there is another interesting reality here.  Even through the distorting lens of the producers will gleam genuine motifs of the Hutterite faith tradition.  Thus the wounding media event could ironically cut two ways.  Some of the viewers whose attention is so cheaply snagged may well become curious enough to pursue the subject beyond entertainment.  If they do, they could be genuinely touched by the noble testimony of Christian community, as bits of it appear on the YouTube of the Internet.  For serious people, unpopular spiritual truth becomes more interesting and enduring than the sarcasm that entertains for a moment.

– John L. Ruth, June 30, 2012

For a short biography of John Ruth, please see this.


Any thoughts, John Fahey?

John Fahey National Geographic


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