Response from John L. Ruth, a leading historian and author.

Written by: Paul Wipf on Sunday, July 1st, 2012

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

Biography http://www.mhep.org/index.php?id_pag=58

Narrator and producer of two Documentary Films

Amish : The Amish; A People of Preservation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXmrxWmbHCU

Hutterites: To Care or Not to Care.

 

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Showing 105 comments

Mike said:reply
On: 27th Jul, 2012 at 08:27

Thank you for your blog post. I came across the “American Colony” show tonight while waiting to be sleepy and prepare for bed. (I use the TV as background sound sometimes, as I live alone, but am selective about content.) The show caught my attention, wondering who these semi-Amish-like folks were. I was surprised at the level of dysfunction shown and the lack of repentance, on camera. The show struck me as using the “drama,” scripted or otherwise, to smear Christ’s name. Most of the secular audience who might see this would know such groups to be Christian. It struck me as a vehicle for someone to peddle a “see how irrelevant Jesus is” idea. Usually that’s not the central agenda in producing a show, but the worldly take delight in focusing on the worst failings of a believer’s life. Tonight’s curiosity about Hutterites led me to your page and others. I was relieved to see that there are communities still with faith as their core and that this off-shoot of the anabaptists hadn’t become a merely moralistic, legalistic, Christ-less systematic group. Your blog entry was enlightening, among other pages. Good night.

Little Joe of Oyate said:reply
On: 28th Jul, 2012 at 06:36

Respected Elders,

I am not of your faith but I prefer to think of us as different orders of a same faith, and our traditions have certain things in common: our traditions are very old and conservative. My heart after seeing a couple of these shows was simply to say STOP THIS IMMEDIATELY to the people involved. And I don’t presume to teach to you but what I see are graven images in these TV shows. And it’s hard not to read an intent in the basisity, the degradation, the lowest-common-denominator that these shows seem to want to portray us people of faith in. These shows all say that we’re all the same in degradation but we know this to be untrue: we are the same in forgiveness and light, not in dark.

I say this to encourage you and to affirm you.

Leslie Driver said:reply
On: 28th Jul, 2012 at 15:31

Having just watched a few minutes of the above mentioned program I am saddened to hear the truth. I had hoped that it would be an accurate portrayal of the Hutterian way of life. I have an enormous amount of respect for the Hutterites and all that they represent.

In these troubling times for the United States and my own personal life, I wish so much that I had been blessed to have been born a Hutterite.

I am so sorry and feel extremely embarrassed for the Program that was obviously created to add to the many so called “reality” tv shows.

God bless you,
Leslie Ann Driver

Vicki Deland said:reply
On: 28th Jul, 2012 at 16:16

Years ago I read National Geographic article about the Hutterites and was very taken by the lifestyle. I find the way these folks live is amazing. I enjoy this series that has been on. I do wish it went into more depth about their faith

Lisa Christian said:reply
On: 29th Jul, 2012 at 02:16

I quite agree with your comments about NG portrayal of the Hutterites on their network. I have watched it, but with a knowing that a lot of it was scripted and “done for the audience and ratings.”

Me, being me, I’m skeptical of all TV, know and appreciate that the Hutterites, like other religious people probably are embarrassed by this show. But, also, I think it can open minds of some people who, ordinarily, would be closed off from knowing anything about these people and will, hopefully, look deeper (like me) and explore more.

I have learned loads of information from your website. So, thank you and National Geographic, for sharing. I’ve enjoyed every bit of what I’ve learned and have all due respect for each and every person making the decision to follow Hutterite traditions and lifestyle.
Thank you.
Lisa Christian

debbie maddle said:reply
On: 31st Jul, 2012 at 23:17

i really admire all of you that help each other out in your colony. i only have one comment. i have been raised in the church which now i”m of the pentecostal faith. i have always been taught that saying swear words are sinful. i’m not judging u all. i just got finish watching the national geographic special about your religion. alot of cussing goes on on this show. is this normal with all the men in your colonies? does your relogion condone this or not? just asking,no comdenation?

Bonita Rankey said:reply
On: 1st Aug, 2012 at 19:43

I loved the program and became so envious of the Hutterite lifestyle I have had to google them and find out more.
Mr Hutter and his wife Katherina lived a hard life but stuck by their belief until captured, tortured for their faith and killed. I can’t understand why any would want out of their lovely lifestyle for what the “world” has to offer, but pray that those who do find what their looking for.

theresa.heinze said:reply
On: 2nd Aug, 2012 at 20:07

I wanted you to know, as an outsider, I too was so disappointed in the Nat/geo show called American Hutterites. Almost right away, I could see something was not quite right, a bit staged. And sadly, Nat/geo missed a chance to show us outsiders how your deeply held religious beliefs support you in your day to day life. Example: Bertha lost her husband to suicide (I too lost a friend this way); how did the community help her cope? How did her faith sustain her and her family? The only mention of faith was from Claudia :” we are a group of people who love God” (sorry if I misquoted, but it was close). So I am sad we will not learn more from your group. I live near the Amish, and saw the beauty of their faith, which to this day humbles and moves me deeply, during and after the Nickle Mines School tragedy. I was hoping to learn more of the Anabaptist faith through this show. But, fear not, I believe most people will feel as I do, a chance missed by Nat/geo and not in anyway a true portrait of your lives and faith. I applaud your decision to not do a second season. Be well and stay true.

Tammy Winch said:reply
On: 2nd Aug, 2012 at 22:04

I understood as I watched that it was scripted, but with that said. I would have never known anything about the Hutterites without this “reality” show. And I have come to love the families, I hope they were not punished. I can only believe they agreed to this to reach a larger audience to educate about their lifestyle. I can’t imagine they had any understanding of how the producers would twist it around.
Even with it being scripted, I enjoyed the families and I will miss not being able to watch them any longer. I adore them all.

Tammy Winch said:reply
On: 2nd Aug, 2012 at 22:08

I also wanted to add that I did not “see” treatment of the women badly, not sure what she means by that. I love the values and I also understand that even if most of the things were created with the younger members, it seems to me that in any part of society, young adults have to figure out what they want and can be confused about many things.

Jeri B said:reply
On: 5th Aug, 2012 at 00:00

I actually thought the series was good and thought-provoking. I think many people who don’t understand different religious groups look at them as “cults” and I think this show depicted normal conflicts within families and there is nothing odd or cult-ish about them. I particularly am amazed at how much the women hold everything together on the colony, from all the cooking and chores, to the keeping the families together. I thought 2 things really showed through all the different crises that came up….1. Family Love and 2. A deep commitment to religion. There was much discussion on most of the shows of the deep commitment of Baptism and many who feared not being able to be baptized. I come from very secular world and found myself very much looking forward to the weekly show and feeling like these people are family. I never have felt like that about any show ever. I think it says a lot about the show. Consider that. I pray they do a second season.

Maria Teresa Santos said:reply
On: 8th Aug, 2012 at 05:48

I think even if there is some dysfunction in any society wether it be a structured or unstructured one, there will always be individuality of personalities.
I have seen hutterites before .. but never understood until now with the TLC reality show just how wonderful and God loving these people are. I am thankful to have gotten to see that Kids get into mischeif everywhere even in structured lives like a Colony. I know that there are strict rules for a reason….but all I see in this series is a group of people that work together for the common good of one another because they love God. This show has inspired me to be a better Person, Mom, Sister and Daughter.
It might be frowned upon by the strict elders or older members of these communities but hey!
We are not perfect …no one is…God gave us all free will what we do with it will be for God and only God to bring Judge upon us!
Thank you for reading my comment.
Maria, High Point, North Carolina.

Colin Steele said:reply
On: 8th Aug, 2012 at 19:29

I noticed from the onset that the programs being aired seemed to be scripted. So I felt that the series was not a true documentary. As a fellow Christian (Roman Catholic) and fellow Montanan, I have nothing but respect for the Hutterite people. If National Geographic were as compassionate for the people and places they write and film about as they would have us believe, they would truly have no problem “pulling the plug” on this project that has gone awry

Kevin M. Passer, M.D. said:reply
On: 9th Aug, 2012 at 17:47

Hello-
I am writing this to express my respect and admiration for the Hutterites. As a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, I am very interested in families and the dynamics of different family systems. While in training at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I had many patients come to see me from Amish Descent who lived in Pennsylvania. I even remember one nice lady bringing me a SHOO-FLY-PIE. I must admit, I did not understand the Amish way of life as much as I do now having viewed every episode of Meet the Hutterites on Nat Geo. I do understand that their are important differences between the Amish and the Hutterites.
For most folks who just grow up in main stream culture, it is difficult at times to appreciate those who are different. As a Psychiatrist, it is very important to not judge others and I work hard to only try and help people with their problems.
I can see that the Hutterites are actually much more similar than different compared to most other people. Of course, they have a deeply ingrained spiritual belief in G-d which carries over into much of their everyday lives. But they also have problems with finances, with headstrong children, with boundries and with traditions.
I was impressed about the good hearted spirit and love of life of the Hutterites. I also very much liked to see the openness relative to how the members communicated with one another and felt comfortable (for the most part) to express their feelings. I appreciate the pride each of the members of the colony has with their jobs, which they keep for life.
I understand the difficulties in maintaining the structure of the Colony in the modern world in which the Hutterites find themselves. While they would like to be self sufficient, it is really not possible to be completely isolated from outside society as they must interact with others to buy and sell certain items essential for their existence.
I was sorry to learn that certain members of the Colony took exception to how they were treated by the Nat Geo people. I have no way of knowing if what I saw on TV was scripted or contrived and how accurately the show depicted these people in general.
I can only say that from what I saw, I was quite impressed of the Hutterites and their excellent work ethic. I only wish the best for the Colony.

Warm Regards,
Kevin M. Passer, M.D.

Judy said:reply
On: 10th Aug, 2012 at 01:44

I have been watching the show because I am very interested in different beliefs in our country and find it fascinating that people survive with good morals and values without all the technology or social issues that clutters our lives. However, I am disappointed with how NG decided to depicted the Hutterites. I am thankful I stumbled onto an article explaining what really happened and I found this site. Thank you for your honesty and opening my eyes to the real Hutterites.

Suzanne Tarkington said:reply
On: 16th Aug, 2012 at 16:21

While I absolutely adored the show, I knew that a lot of it was contrived for *ratings*. What it did do for me was to awaken a yearning in my heart to join and convert to the Hutterite faith. As of today, I can’t get a foot in the door, so to speak.

Judith Kaufmann said:reply
On: 17th Aug, 2012 at 17:35

Realizing there is much controversy regarding the NGC Hutterite depiction, I just wanted to state how much I appreciated the show and getting to know a little about the Hutterite colony. I have much respect for your way of life and rather than be offended or “amused” by the depictions .. it made me wish to have such a life. Thank you.

Linda V. said:reply
On: 23rd Aug, 2012 at 00:11

I will miss this series. Even thought it was obvious that many of the scenes were staged…..I respect their heritage ( not so different from my own……my father was 1 year old, when my German from Russia grandparents immigrated to the US in 1908). We lived next door (0ne township over) from a Hutterite colony that my dad would often go to to grind hay and my sisterin-law was the teacher’s aide. They most recently made our t-shirts for our family reunion and the buns for the reunion pork loin lunch. An interesting culture that I would enjoy seeing more of……….they have my respect……..despite National Geo’s presentation.

Ann Broadhurst said:reply
On: 28th Aug, 2012 at 19:52

I watched the Hutterite series and agree it was quite obvious when the participants and the issues were scripted, when individual behaviors were outside the general scope of Hutterite culture. I was unaware of the controversy until, wanting to understand more about the community, I came to this website. I hope the colony’s willingness to share with the outside world results in more positive than negative outcomes.

Karen said:reply
On: 10th Sep, 2012 at 19:08

I just wanted to say that seeing the series has sparked my interest far enough to consider a tour of the King Colony some weekend when I have a chance to get up there. Being from North Dakota and have been living in Montana for 6 years now I had no idea these colonies were so close to me. I admire their way of life and give them much respect . I have enjoyed reading about their way of life here on this site and exploring others. I just hope that what I have read has not been misconstrued as the show on National Geographic has been.

Charlann Shyiak said:reply
On: 11th Sep, 2012 at 04:02

Although I would be counted as an “english” I have been around Hutterite and Mennonite colonies most of my life. I have never been more confused in a long time, I have always counted on National Geographic for information that would bring truth to my world after veiwing the tv show on the Hutterite colony I was shocked. To National Geographic I say SHAME SHAME they have obviously bowed to the world of ratings by scripting and lying. I totally agree with Mr. Ruth if this was indeed reality the colony would be ripped apart at the seams. It is obvious parts are scripted and edited in order to present a false face. They do indeed owe all colonies everywhere an apology.
Charlann Shyiak Alberta Canada

Bill K said:reply
On: 12th Sep, 2012 at 03:34

I watched an episode or so of this program the other night. While I cringed at the way the producers played up certain things to manufacture a sense of drama (a common reality-show motif), I could still see (and was touched by) the dedication and closeness in that community.

For example, I really admired the determination of the “money boss”, who worked and worked to ensure the community was able to pay its (huge stack of) bills. I could tell the pressure he was under, trying to ensure the community’s needs were met by making money any way he could (building log bed frames, raising quail (!), etc.) Leading by example, working selflessly and tirelessly for the good of all.

The show could do a *much* better job at showing these aspects of the Hutterite community, though; especially with the members whose personalities are more subtle. A person’s sacrifice and dedication isn’t always exemplified as outwardly as chopping down trees, hauling cattle, etc.

I also wish they went into the Hutterites’ religious beliefs to a greater extent than “they can’t ______” or “their way of live includes _______” because “the bible says so”. That leaves a whole lot unexamined! The producers do a decent job of capturing viewer attention, but then end up primarily focusing on *how* they live and highlighting the tensions/problems – without exploring the motivating factors. Without that, this program is really nothing more than the average “reality show”; which is a shame, because I think it has potential.

Also, it’s a shame that almost all of my understanding of their history is through looking things up on my phone in during commercial breaks. (What I mean is, they didn’t cover any of it in history class when I was in school). This community has endured a whole lot since their arrival in North America (not to mention over the hundreds of years prior to that). Focusing on the drama that surrounds things like the appearance of “non-traditional clothing” seems kind of ridiculous without any real context.

Even though my only exposure to the Hutterites has been through this show, it has captured my interest enough that I certainly plan to do some research to learn about them further.

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