The standard liberal template for depicting minority religious communities is escape. As typified by the Netflix series Unorthodox, the narrative tracks a young person breaking free of tradition and superstition to discover themselves in a world of expansive liberal self-fulfilment.
A new BBC documentary, Inside the Bruderhof, surprised me by inverting the trope. It follows Hannah, an 18-year-old raised in the Bruderhof community at Darvell in Sussex. Hannah is embarking on a year in London, in order to explore other ways of living and make an informed decision about whether or not to commit to a Bruderhof life.
It’s not a trivial decision. In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher advises Christians in our increasingly post-Christian world to give up seeking political and cultural power and focus on religious life in community. Rooted in the radical Protestant Anabaptist tradition, the Bruderhof are ahead of Dreher by some 100 years.
Members hold everything in common: houses, cars, even the clothes they wear. They have no money of their own. Sex roles are segregated, ambition is constrained by the work available within the community, and members have no choice about where they live in the 23 international Bruderhof communities.
But this is not a cult, or a group smothered by traditionalism. Anabaptists believe religious commitment should be made consciously as an adult, and like the Amish, Bruderhof families encourage their offspring to try life outside the community before committing to adult Bruderhof membership.
This emphasis on free choice makes it difficult to tell a story based on breaking free of unreflecting religiosity. Rather, it becomes a story about the modern world as seen from the viewpoint of someone embedded in a strong community. It’s not a pretty sight: arriving in Peckham, Hannah seems dismayed by London’s empty acquisitiveness and lonely crowds. Accustomed to living surrounded by fields, and to life spent working for and within a wider community, she struggles to fill her time meaningfully, describing activities performed just for herself as ‘a waste of time’. We see her grow visibly more unhappy, and after a month she has decided that at the end of her London year she will return to Darvell.
Watching Inside the Bruderhof, I expected a hatchet job. Certainly the final screen makes a veiled reference to ‘allegations’ from former members, a coda that jars so strangely with a very sympathetic film that I wonder if it’s a vestige of the filmmakers’ original angle, abandoned as the footage failed to support it. Because rather than a sense of rubbernecking at religious oddballs, the feeling the documentary left me with was wistfulness, at a way of life that looks odd to normies but appears in many ways idyllic and is clearly fulfilling and supportive for committed members.
I wonder if the filmmakers went to Darvell in search of the ‘breaking free’ trope but ended up making quite a different film. Because with the economic, political and technological certainties that underpinned modern life crumbling beneath us, it’s far from clear that it’s the radical religious communitarians whose way of life is the oddball one.