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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: free will, moral relativism, the afterlife

CHARACTERS: Faron (drug dealer), Sara (Faron’s first girlfriend), Emma (Faron’s second girlfriend), Gerald (boy who lives in trailer), Velda (young woman who was shunned), Joann (girl who later joins Amish Church)

SYNOPSIS: Devil’s Playground is a documentary film by Lucy Walker which explores the Amish adolescent rite of passage called “rumspringa” (pronounced ROOM-shpring-a). Upon their sixteenth birthdays, Amish youth, both male and female, are released from Amish restrictions and can explore secular life – the devil’s playground – outside of the Amish community. The period may last from a few months to several years. By experiencing the outside world, they work temptations out of their systems and prepare themselves for making their most important life decision: to reject the secular world and be baptized into the Amish church. The film weaves together interviews with several Amish youths who, to varying degrees, embrace popular youth culture, including smoking, drinking and drug use. Some return to their Amish tradition and are baptized. Others decide against returning, and still others waffle between the options.


1. A caption in the film states the following: “The Amish allow a rumspringa tradition known as ‘bed courtship’. At the end of a date, an Amish boy is allowed to share the Amish girl’s bed for the night.” Parents just assume that the young couple will become intimate, and many girls in fact become pregnant. Is there anything religiously contradictory about “bed courtship”, and is this a practice that the rest of society might benefit from?

2. A caption in the film states the following: “Currently almost 90% of Amish young people will join the Amish church. This retention rate is the highest ever since the founding of the Amish church in 1693.” In the director’s commentary Lucy Walker states that the success rate may be partly due to the courtship ritual. Girls want to join the church at around age 18, but can date in the mean time. “They kind of acted as bait because the guys would fall for them. You can bed courtship, you can hang out, and you can date on the weekends, but you can’t really do anything else during the week. If you wanted to really take the relationship to the next level, you’ve got to get married, and in order to get married you’ve got to join the church.” Mahayana Buddhism has the notion of “useful means,” that is, concerned believers can do anything necessary in order to bring people to salvation. Is there anything wrong with the Amish using their young women as bait – or a useful means – to get their young men to join the church?

3. In the director’s commentary, Walker states “The wild thing about these kids is that, even though they’re high on crystal methamphetamine and doing all these other worldly things, they don’t for a second doubt the existence of heaven and hell. Heaven and hell are as real as New York and Los Angeles. ... To not question that was so strange to me. I didn’t know any teenagers that wouldn’t question that.” Is it good for any believer to feel that a literal heaven and hell are as real as New York and Los Angeles?

4. An Amish expert in the film states, “The Amish people in general would not believe that a person is saved who is not baptized. An Amish teenager would be considered lost if they would die or be killed during that time.” One Amish girl states, “During the time when I was rumspringing, I did worry about what if I don’t go to heaven just because I left? ... There was always just that fear.” An Amish boy going through rumspringa states, “It’s in the back of my mind almost every day that if I don’t change my ways I might not get to heaven. But I cope with it I guess.” If the fear is that genuine (as it appears to be), why wouldn’t all Amish youth cut short their rumspringa experience and join the Amish church as fast as they could?

5. In the director’s commentary, Walker reports that Emma and Faron once had a conversation in which they asked each other “What if God didn’t dictate the Bible?” Walker states, “I thought, wow, these questions aren’t in the culture and so everything is taken at face value. Any kind of questioning or independent thought is beaten out of you.” Is it a good or bad thing to exercise independent thinking about fundamental religious issues, such as the existence of God and the authority of scripture?

6. In the director’s commentary, Walker notes the inconsistencies in many of the Amish rules – for example a rule that permits tractors for bailing, but not for plowing. “They change so few rules so slowly that sometimes things drift in different directions at once. There’s never a kind of yearly meeting to say these rules don’t make much sense and the line we’re drawing is very wiggly, let’s straighten it out. They don’t do that. One innovation at a time is slowly allowed in.” Does this parallel the development of religious rules in non-Amish culture denominations?

7. Several of the youth who returned to their Amish tradition were asked what things they missed the most from their Rumspringa experience. Some of the answers were motor vehicles, clothes, running, music, concerts. Why would these be such great losses?

8. In the director’s commentary, Walker states that all of the young men going through rumspringa adopted the same secular fashions in clothing, music, lingo and hairstyle. Why might that be?

9. After her rumspringa experience, Velda was baptized into the Amish church, but was shunned after she later decided to leave it. She states that “the shunning is for them their last way of showing you that they love you. They think that you’re breaking a promise that you made to the Amish Church. They’re afraid for your soul. I lost the support of my family. Nobody would talk to me. It was like I wasn’t even there.” Other religious traditions around the world have a similar practice of shunning family members who leave the faith or commit some grave moral offense. What’s so bad about the practice of shunning if it helps maintain conformity to tradition?

10. In the director’s commentary, Walker notes that Faron idolized gangster rapper Tupac Shakur, yet at the same time wanted to be an Amish preacher. “He’s going to get torn in two different directions; there’s no comfortable compromise between those.” Are there examples of non-Amish religious believers embracing two fundamentally contradictory value systems?

11. In the director’s commentary, Walker notes that the boys going through rumspringa were embarrassed about their Amish culture and it was difficult getting any of them to drive in a horse and buggy for the camera. Why might this be so embarrassing?

12. In the director’s commentary, Walker states that “Within weeks you could see them sucking up MTV, the clothes at Walmart, and so on, so quickly they became expert in the latest pop culture trends. It was amazing to watch how fast they drank it in.” With all of the secular sub-cultures available for them to sample, why would popular youth culture be so much of an attraction?

13. Throughout the film several Amish youth struggle with choosing to either accept or reject their Amish tradition. Do their choices seem free or determined?

14. A caption in the film states the following: “Believing that education leads to pride, the Amish require their children to drop out after 8th grade and begin working.” The formal education they do receive is from one-room Amish schoolhouses. Because of this, the Amish typically work in manual trades, and those who leave the Amish church are ill-equipped to obtain much better than factory jobs. Should the U.S. government step in and force the Amish to better educate their children?

15. In the director’s commentary, Walker states that a mobile home manufacturing company set up a factory in Indiana specifically to draw from the local pool of honest, hardworking Amish. She contrasted the impersonal assembly line environment there to the warm Amish community barn raising, as depicted in the movie Witness. Have the Amish prostituted their labor (as Marx would word it) by taking their skills into the non-Amish community?


Devil’s Playground was an extremely eye-opening film that was nothing short of "Amish gone wild." The film’s chief value is anthropological as it informs the audience about the Old Order Amish culture and lifestyle. I found the theological content to be very intriguing. While many religious groups endorse some sort of "age of accountability" doctrine, the Old Order Amish have a specific age, sixteen, which seems to be a high estimate for when human beings begin to consciously sin. Rumspringa is when an Amish adolescent, age sixteen, goes to experience the "English" world and, consequently, becomes lost. A part of the rumspringa experience is enjoying the luxuries of technology, but just as important, at least to the adolescents, is enjoying the freedom of copulation and consumption of alcohol. Beyond the theological motifs, the movie raises pertinent ethical questions. For instance, if many of the Amish adolescents will not choose to join the Amish church, and thus be destined to heal, is it morally justifiable to release them out into the world? It seems that the sixteen-years-old Amish would benefit from being thoroughly proselytized and catechized at this age, rather than sent into an English world replete with distractions. A less "religious" but equally troubling ethical question consists in the moral culpability of the Amish parents for the condition of their children. One of the movie’s subjects, Faron, becomes extremely addicted to drugs and even begins to deal narcotics. If the Amish did not continue this tradition, then adolescents like Faron would not be pushed into such dangerous situations. As shocking as it was to see an American subculture so detached from the larger culture, it was more shocking to see the film’s final fact. The Old Order Amish church has a greater retention rate now than it did throughout much of the twentieth century. For anyone interested in religious studies, Devil’s Playground is a must-see. -- Shifty

In this film, you visit the lives of several different Amish teenagers who are released from the Amish laws to experience the outside or secular world in an Amish tradition called “Rumspinga.” Most of the teenagers will experience the secular life and make the choice to go back to the Amish life and get baptized into the Amish church. Some, however, will decide not to lead an Amish life. The film deals mostly with free will and the afterlife. It takes you through the lives of these teenagers while they experience everything from drugs to driving a vehicle during their Rumspringa. It seems as though several of the teenagers have a hard time deciding whether they want to be baptized into the Amish church or keep their new freedoms in the secular life. Throughout their Rumspringa, these Amish youths gain the freedom to do anything they want, including a tradition known as “bed courtship,” where the Amish girl is allowed to share her bed with the Amish boy that she is dating. In the director’s commentary, Lucy Walker points out that even though the Amish youth are doing drugs and so many other things against their religion, they never deny the existence of heaven or hell. Several of the youths in the film claim to be afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t get baptized into the Amish church. They are taught that they won’t go to heaven unless they are baptized. One girl was afraid that if she died during her Rumspringa, she would not go to heaven. This would make you think there is a lot of pressure on the youths to return to their home and get baptized into the church as soon as possible, yet that is not the case for many. I believe this is because they have so many newfound freedoms that they can’t just turn them away. By ending their Rumspringa and returning to be baptized into the Amish church, they learn to phase out temptation and sin and it prepares them for a life under the Amish laws. I thought the film did a great job of depicting the free will and afterlife issues that the Amish teens dealt with throughout their Rumspringa. -- Yee Haw

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