Dominican University hosts talk on the Amish and social media
(POSTED: 10/21/11) Known for their simple lifestyles, Amish and Mennonite communities have never been quick to embrace technology. One Mennonite scholar, however, wants to see that changed.
Trevor Bechtel, associate professor of religion at Bluffton University in Ohio and former assistant dean at Loyola University Chicago, argues that technology such as Twitter and online gaming can actually strengthen communities, rather than cause isolation, as many of the conservative tradition believe.
Bechtel, who identifies as a liberal Mennonite, recently spoke at Dominican University in suburban River Forest on “Discernment and Community in the Twitter Age.”
“The reason I can stand up here operating a PowerPoint, giving a talk I’ve written in equal parts on my MacBook Pro and iPad 2, after having driven here this morning in my car without embodying contradiction is the set of schisms that occurred … in the 19th century,” Bechtel said.
The Mennonites and Amish are both Christian Anabaptist denominations, but over the years the groups have divided more, mainly over technology use, and formed various sects, some more traditional than others.
The Amish and Old Order Mennonites, for example, are the most conservative, having created separate communities withdrawn from society in order to live simply in the world as God created it.
They are governed by a local ordinum, an oral collection of rules and regulations.
One rule may declare that the Amish ride a horse and buggy — “a symbol of moral restraint” – because cars isolate passengers and take people away from the community, according to Bechtel. Tractors may be forbidden because they are similar to cars, though tractors with steel wheels might be permissible because they cannot drive on roads.
Things that are helpful and benign to the community, such as battery-operated calculators, inline roller-blades or gas barbecues, are accepted, Bechtel said. Technologies that are detrimental to the community are rejected.
“Communication technologies are more carefully screened than any other type of technology because of the connection to the outside world and its corrupting influences,” Bechtel said.
But Bechtel believes social media and other forms of online communication can bring a lot of good.
He defended nonviolent online games, saying they create a virtual environment in which people can practice different modes of interaction and develop imagination. He lauded the way social media can bring people a variety of viewpoints and news, as well as connect individuals with one another.
Stressing the importance of talking about faith, Bechtel also said every Christian should be on Facebook because “we should not have anything to hide. On the contrary, we should want everyone to know and to be converted by our lives.” As such, religious leaders, from the pope to university presidents, should be consistently tweeting both personal and professional information, he said.
Rather than shun this type of technology, Bechtel believes, communities need to look for ways to take advantage of the benefits.
“My point is that the kind of sharing that Facebook encourages could really strengthen the bonds of Christian friendship and accountability in important ways if people committed to using the technology carefully and attentively,” Bechtel said.
By Katie Drews, for ChicagoCatholicNews.com