“Reality” television shows are so numerous on cable channels that you can probably watch reruns continually, twenty-four/seven.  Three of these focus on life among the folk known as the Amish: “Amish in the City” (2004, 9 episodes on UPN),  “Breaking Amish” (2012-13, 24 episodes on TLC), and, believe it or not, “Amish Mafia” (2012-14, 26 episodes on Discovery).  They all have this in common: (1) they are phoney “reality” shows, using actors and contrived situations, and (2) they are insulting to a group of people who are sincere in their faith and desire to live for God.

A quick review of history will show that the Amish have roots in the Anabaptist movement which was a strong current in the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries.  These folk believed that the Lutherans and the Calvinists didn’t go far enough in questioning traditions in the Roman Catholic Church which distorted the Christian faith.  They tried to return to New Testament Christianity by stripping away misleading teachings and enslaving practices.  They focused on the primal gospel  proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ, emphasizing personal conversion and believer’s (in contrast to infant) baptism.  Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Presbyterians considered them to be dangerous radicals.  Other groups that owe their origin to the Anabaptist movement are the Mennonites, the Brethren and the Baptists.  Yes, in spite of the fact that we don’t drive buggies and wear funny clothes, we Baptists are kissin’ cousins of the Amish.

Because the Amish have chosen a different way to live out their faith, they have become objects of curiosity and, sometimes, ridicule.  The current television series’ take cheap shots at an easy target.  They make a caricature out of Amish distinctives.

I got to thinking of how easy it is to do this.  I thought of the cartoon Jewish person whose image was formed in Medieval anti-semitism and ultimately helped “justify” the Holocaust.  Some of the best qualities of the faith and culture of Judaism were twisted into a grotesque, menacing threat, especially during the economic hard times in Europe.

Coming out of a fundamentalist background, as a young minister, I embraced the word “Evangelical” as a descriptive term for the positive Christianity I wanted to be part of.  Billy Graham seemed to epitomize what the word meant, with a loving, arms-wide-open invitation to Jesus that crossed racial and denominational lines.   Ironically, fifty years later, his son Franklin Graham has, for me, given the word a narrow, judgmental meaning that has caused me to question whether I want to be seen as an Evangelical by the people around me to whom I’m trying to communicate the gospel.  What he and other Christian conservatives are projecting to the outside world are, in my view, a caricature of the faith I’m called to preach and teach.

So, that brings me to Islam.  I’m not very attracted to that faith, with its “Five Pillars” way toward salvation, which seems to be a step backward into legalism from the salvation by grace proclaimed six centuries earlier than Muhammad, by Jesus Christ.  I’m also not very impressed with the social effects of Islam on the  lives of the one-fifth of the world’s population who are under its influence.  But I want to be fair, and I know I have a lot to learn.

The current international political atmosphere definitely complicates things.  When Al Kaeda leaders take credit for a bomb attack and call it part of a jihad (holy war), they are claiming to be acting out of their Islamic faith.  When the Taliban of Afghanistan shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for blogging about women’s rights, they shouted “Allah Hu Akbar!” (“Allah is the Greatest!”), implying that they were acting as God’s representatives.

Yesterday, John Swanson posted this on Facebook:  “To say Islamic terrorists represent the Muslim religion is like saying the Ku Klux Klan represents the Christian religion.”  That really made me think.  Maybe we’re letting ourselves be totally influenced by a caricature of Islam, just as we’ve allowed opportunistic television producers sell us a caricature of the Amish.

Personally, I’ve decided to broaden my understanding of Muslims and what makes them tick.  I’ve begun to reach out to the people who gather every Friday afternoon for prayers at Masjid Al-Taqwa, on Lake Avenue, right around the corner from ABC.  Also, I’m intrigued with Jalal Sudan, for the past several years the President of the Altadena NAACP chapter.  He’s a person I really respect.  I want to learn more about what his Islamic faith means to him and how it motivates him in his work in the community.

In their quiet, stubborn way, the Amish are helping me on my journey.

— Pastor George Van Alstine