Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Jesus Camp": review

I'd heard the buzz about "Jesus Camp" a while back. The trailer debuted on a few months ago, and I remember being both fascinated and repelled by the glimpse we were given of life in America's evangelical heartland. Now, thanks to a coworker, I've had the privilege of seeing "Jesus Camp" for myself.

It's hard to imagine that the movie has been producing cheers throughout the Bible Belt, but part of the still-coalescing spin is that the movie is "free of bias." I disagree. The documentary strikes me as frank about its agenda: it wants to show Joe Citizen the strangeness and looming horror of cultish Christian behavior. While no overt attempts are made to smear anyone who appears on screen, the film's motives are clear.

"Jesus Camp" is a documentary that focuses on four figures: a female pastor and three children. The pastor, Becky Fischer, runs an evangelical camp called "Kids on Fire" in the ironically (appropriately?) named Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The camp is primarily for kids, but other family members are encouraged to attend. Camp events include plenty of singing, dancing, and theater, but unlike your typical summer camp, "Kids on Fire" also features a great deal of prayer, intense weeping, and speaking in tongues.

The three children highlighted in the documentary are Levi (13), Rachel (10), and Tori (11). The chipper Levi, whose garish mullet reinforces certain stereotypes, has the chance to do some preaching, and he does it scarily well. I don't recall being as good a public speaker at that age. All the children at camp shine, buoyed by the energy of their fellows. They shout "Jesus!" as the spirit moves them, weep with guilt over their own sins, and even collapse with grief over the state of today's world.

One issue in particular, abortion, is a special target of the camp, and connected to this is the appointment of Justice Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court. "Jesus Camp" shows events at which Christians-- children included-- fervently pray for Alito's appointment; they see Alito as the man to bring down legal abortion.

Scattered throughout the documentary are asides with Air America radio commentator Mike Papantonio, a self-professed Christian who declares himself disturbed by what he sees as an attempt to ensconce more and more right-wing Christians in positions of power. Near the end of the film, Papantonio has the chance to field a call from Pastor Fischer herself; the exchange is chilling. While the dialogue is fairly civil in tone, Fischer reveals that she has no qualms about "indoctrination." As far as she is concerned, good Christians are at war in a world filled with sin, and our first duty is to prepare the children for this conflict.

Let me step back from this review for a moment to note that the Christian tradition has, in my opinion, long had trouble reconciling two opposing viewpoints: that the world, created by God, is good, and that the world is the dominion of Satan. The first chapter of Genesis (in which the lyrical refrain "and it was good" echoes so warmly) and the writings of St. Paul (who denigrates the things of this world) are a record of the jarring change that occurred in one strain of monotheism-- that which began as Jewish and eventually became Christian.

For many Christians, there is no problem. Their view of cosmic history is that Adam's fall plunged the world into sin, and that it was people-- through Satan's machinations-- who polluted a once-pristine creation. But when we look at Christianity as a whole, both now and throughout history, it is undeniable that a great number of Christians have always believed that this world is a good place, that nature contains evidence of God's great and generous handiwork, and that the cosmos is itself a sort of scripture, pointing the seeker toward God. This form of thinking finds its incarnation in natural theology, but is also found in scripture, post-Genesis: "This is a day the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Ps. 118:24)

The evangelicals in "Jesus Camp" make it abundantly clear that they view creation as a realm of sin. There is no ambiguity for them. We live in an age where some parents refuse to allow their children out on Halloween because they worry about satanic influence on that night. Pastor Fischer tells the children that Harry Potter, heroic though he be, must be shunned. Why? Because he is a warlock, as the pastor calls him.

Warlocks are enemies of God. And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God. And had it [the Harry Potter story] been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!

Get the idea?

"Jesus Camp" is an anthropologist's dream come true. Whoever said that Protestants are anti-ritual must have been nuts. The movie is a cavalcade of ritual after ritual, a glimpse into a beleaguered, bunker mindset, with "war" a recurrent trope at the children's camp. In fact, the movie's opening minutes depict a musical in which children are dressed in military garb, performing vaguely martial dance moves to an uplifting but bellicose beat.

I don't think that "Jesus Camp" amounts to much as a political statement, however. The commentary from Mr. Papantonio reminds us of the ominous political significance of this religious movement, but out in the real world, conservatives are ready with their "What budding theocracy?" arguments. If the film is an attempt to persuade the majority of US citizens that there is a danger in their midst, I would argue that "Jesus Camp" will do little to sway most people: for the most part, Americans already believe that there is a problem, or that there isn't one.

The documentary has moments of unintentional humor. During the ending credits, we see one of the little girls attempt to spread the good word to a group of old men who are sitting around, just enjoying the day. She comes up to one of the men, and without preamble says...

GIRL: Hi! If you were to die right now, where do you think you would go?
OLD GENT: Heaven.
GIRL: Really? Are you sure?
GIRL: M'kay.

The kicker comes as the girl walks away from the old men with her two partners.

"I think they were Muslim," she remarks.

The other bit of unintentional humor comes to us courtesy the now-debased Reverend Ted Haggard, whom we see late in the film, preaching against various sins, including the sin of homosexuality. Haggard, as we now know, has having his organ pipes cleaned by one of those sinners while also doing drugs. I had a good, long chuckle watching Haggard's shtick, especially the moment when he leans into the camera, fixes us viewers with a look of humorous gravity, and intones, "I think I know what you did last night!"

Well, Ted... we all know what you did.

If you have the chance to see "Jesus Camp," I highly recommend it.


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