Even by reality tv's bizarre standards, UPN's Amish in the City was something of a milestone. The show featured five Amish teenagers in the midst of rumspringa, the period when young people decide whether they will join the community as adults. Amish in the City placed its adventuresome subjects in the oh-so-realistic environs of a Beverly Hills mansion, along with five city kids straight out of MTV central casting.
Long before it aired, Amish in the City was decried for exploiting a religious community mortified at the thought of owning a television, let alone appearing on one. But as the episodes went by, one thing became clear: The Amish kids were awfully sympathetic characters. Sure, they lacked style, street smarts, and experience with parking meters and sushi. But their upbringing in a rural, Christian culture had equipped them with qualities their urban counterparts lacked-such as, say, maturity. Amish in the City didn't do much for the reputation of reality tv, but it did something for the reputation of the Amish.
Non-Beverly-Hills-dwelling Amish are readily identified by their plain clothing and horse-drawn carriages, symbols of their collective decision to step off modernity's technological treadmill. But should this Anabaptist movement survive for another century, they won't just look different from other North Americans. More than ever, they will be different-because our culture will have changed the nature of human being itself.
Based on our growing knowledge of the human genetic code, we are on the threshold of not only curing disease but of redefining "normal." Parents already are pressuring doctors to prescribe human-growth hormones for slightly shorter-than-averagebut perfectly healthychildren. Within a few years athletes will have access to undetectable genetic therapies that boost the production of muscle tissue. By the end of the century, parents may well be able to engineer not only their descendants' height and hair color, but longevity and intelligence as well.
Just as with pharmaceutical blockbusters like Viagra and Botox, the explosive growth (and profits) will be not in healing but in "enhancement." But enhancement based on genetic engineering will be permanent in a way that drugs are not.
Even people of no religious faith are uncomfortable with this prospect. "Genetic tinkering gives me the willies," The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in August. Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel wrote an important essay for The Atlantic titled "The Case Against Perfection." Biotech's "promise of mastery is flawed," he wrote. "It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will." Genetic enhancement will erode our collective sense of humility and responsibility. It will make the world "inhospitable to the unbidden, a gated community writ large."
A Christian might put it even more plainly: If you no longer see life as a gift, you are no longer able to love.
But I suspect that the most eloquent arguments of columnists and philosophers will be fruitless. Name one technology that human beings have developed but not used. If we were willing to use the awesome and awful technology of nuclear weapons, why would we prevent people from "enhancing" their descendants?
So followers of Christ will have to decide whether to join our culture in its quest for mastery. It's hard to see how we can do so and still celebrate Christmas. To grasp the meaning of that event, early Christians turned to the language of fulfillment. Even in the cradle this baby was "fully" God, they said. But he was also fully human. He lacked nothing essential to the good human life, even in that dark night where the best available technology was fire to heat the water for his birth. He lacked nothing, Luke says, as he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man. He lacked nothing when he died in violent pain in that long-ago age before anesthesia. Even now, we believe, he is still fully embodied, fully human, yet more truly embodied and more truly human than ever before. He has the divine life, the perfect human body that our technology feverishly and vainly seeks to achieve.
Do we want his life? Or do we want technology's alluring facsimile? Are we willing for our children to be less than normal, that they may understand something essential about humility, responsibility, and love? We may have something to learn from those awkward, admirable teenagers on Amish in the City. Their choices will be ours all too soon.
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Other Christianity Today articles on genetic engineering include:
The Techno Sapiens Are Coming | When God fashioned man and woman, he called his creation very good. Transhumanists say that, by manipulating our bodies with microscopic tools, we can do better. Are we ready for the great debate? (Dec. 19, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
Defender of Dignity | Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics, hopes to thwart the business-biomedical agenda. (June 07, 2002)
Gen-Etiquette | Scientists may be mapping the genome, but it will be up to us to determine where the map will lead. (Oct. 4, 2001)
The Genome Doctor | The director of the National Human Genome Research Institute answers questions about the morality of his work. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Other Christianity Today articles on Amish in the City include:
Amish in the City: Has Reality TV Gone too Far? | The author of The Amish: Why They Enchant Us discusses why a television show about Amish teens is inherently flawed, and why we're drawn to their 18th-century ways. (Jan. 21, 2004)
The Amish Come Knocking | UPN's Amish In the City shows us our modern selves in a mirror that is positively medieval. (July 30, 2004)
The current issue of our sister publication, Christian History & Biography, features the Amish.
Earlier Andy Crouch columns for Christianity Today include:
Salt-and-Pepper Politics | Choosing between candidates whose consciences are too clean. (Oct. 04, 2004)
'Live More Musically' | The difference between Christian practice and a Starbucks purchase. (July 29, 2004)
The Cruel Edges of the World | There are some places that bring the distant biblical text closer to our lives. (June 07, 2004)
Pilgrims to Nowhere | Freedom isn't much good if you don't have a sense of direction. (March 30, 2004)
Glittering Images | A profound Christian rethinking of power is overdue (Feb. 17, 2004)
Before the Deluge | All of us have a sexual orientation that bends toward the self. (Dec. 03, 2003)
Two Weddings and a Baptism | It's still impossible to predict what will advance the gospel in Hollywood. (Oct. 15, 2003)
Wrinkles in Time | Botox injections as a spiritual discipline. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Rites of Passage | Self-improvement is our culture's most durable religion. (June 6, 2003)
Christian Esperanto | We must learn other cultural tongues. (June 4, 2003)
We're Rich | But why is it so hard to admit? (Feb. 20, 2003)
Blinded by Pop Praise | To see God "high and lifted up," just open your eyes. (Dec. 17, 2002)
The Future Is P.O.D. | Multicultural voices have an edge in reaching a rapidly changing America. (October 12, 2002)
Rekindling Old Fires | We can resist technology's chilling effects on how we spend time together. (August 2, 2002)
Interstate Nation | The national highway system is a lesson in how to transform a nation. (June 21, 2002)
Amplified Versions | Worship wars come down to music and a power plug. (April 17, 2002)
Thou Shalt Be Cool | This enduring American slang leaves plenty out in the cold. (March 18, 2002)
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