Friday, October 20, 2006

"Jesus Camp" movie invokes painful ambiguity

A cardboard President recieves prayers
from the children at "Kids on Fire" camp.
Image from "Jesus Camp" (c) 2006

Most Christian commentators seem highly irritated by the movie "Jesus Camp," calling it "hateful" and propagandist. And at least some secular reviewers have, via the movie, decided that brainwashing children is a common evangelical distinctive.

I found the movie, and its message, somewhere between those extremes.

The movie's subtext is undeniably a political one, set up from the first few moments where we watch cars whiz down a typical American highway and listen to a news blurb that Sandra Day O'Connor has stepped down from the Supreme Court. That is followed up by a radio pastor's voice talking about Christians need to be involved in the "culture wars."

The stage is set.

Perhaps many readers already know the basic storyline of Jesus Camp. "Pastor Becky" Fischer started a bible camp called "Kids on Fire" at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Movie footage comes from there but also from various kids' families who attended that camp and also another in Missouri. The first half hour or so of the movie sets up a cultural context of the world some of the kids live in by following their family life, their schooling, and their own church life. The latter parts of the movie take us through "Kids on Fire" and follow a few of the kids to Washington where they protest abortion and do some witnessing.

As we travel through their lives, we encounter the evangelical subculture through its own radio, its own textbooks, its own movies and even video games, all laden with scientific, political, and cultural baggage which might or might not be biblical (or scientific). Yet it is a confusing, ambiguous journey for a Christian to watch. For one thing, just because these children are in a religious subculture does not mean their faith, understanding, and experiencing God are not real. Yes, they often parrot their parents and other authority figures. Don't our own children also parrot our political views?

I am not at all sure that the film was meant to be anything more than a skeptical (verging on cynical) take on evangelicalism. But what the film makers meant it to be and what it actually is -- sorry to go post-modern here -- are two different things. I'm not frankly interested all that much in why the movie was made, or with what motivations. What interests me most is that, whether or not the movie had any malevolent or hidden agendas, most of what we get comes direct from the mouth of Christians, some well-known. As an evangelical, I was most saddened by the movie's unblinking focus upon our idolatrous nationalism, an idolatry draped in piety.

There is a pervasive sense throughout that the movie camera does introduce a stiffness and propriety in the kids that might not otherwise be there. But this isn't a sign their reality is not rooted in something beyond what one secular reviewer of the movie called "brain washing." For me, it is part of the pain of this movie that one cannot delineate between the false idols of rightist politics and the true hearts of children who (Lord willing) will continue to hunger after Christ into their adult lives.

What Jesus Camp does do is inflict pain on the viewer -- a pain caused by ambiguity. Where is the border between belief and action, faith and politics, the Bible and culture? And where is the border between Christianity and America? Over and over again, we see the red, white, and blue American flag behind or in front of the cross. We hear various Christian pundits talking about that mythical "return to Christian values," and urging their flocks to fight for those values.

Ambiguity between God and cultural falsity is reflected in such comments as this one by Pastor Becky: "The devil goes after the young...."

I happen to believe that is true, whether the young are being aborted in America or taught to carry an AK-17 in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

But Pastor Becky then takes the whole conversation into a cultural cul-de-sac. "Harry Potter! Warlocks are enemies of God!... had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!" A child's voice goes "Amen." Yet later on, a few kids left alone around a table start joking with one of them that he looks a bit like Harry Potter (which in fact he does). Their knowledge of Harry indicates things are -- again -- more ambiguous for them even as children than we might imagine.

During a time of prayer and repentance, a child prays a prayer my own heart resonated with:

"It's really hard to do this [he kneels]. To believe in God is really hard because you don't see him... you don't really know him much. Sometimes I don't even believe what the Bible says. It makes me a faker. It makes me feel guilty..." Then he raises his hands in silence, and no one speaks.

Was the above a statement for show, part of child's obedient sort of play-acting? Or was it a statement of real doubt? Or was it a statement mixing child-like play-acting with real doubt and real faith? If the latter, which I think it was, I'll take that kid as a representative for myself, and a faith I hope is also childlike in the best sense.

The political dimensions of what the children at Jesus Camp are taught also create ambiguity in me as a viewer. It troubled me to see kids given a hammer and told to break a glass cup called "government"; violence symbolically could cultivate the idea that the way to gain one's political will (in God's name) is to use force and aggression. Are the kids being taught a sort of Christian version of radical Jihad? But of course, like the Muslim concept of Jihad, spiritual warfare to the Christian is usually about the inner war against one's own darkness and woundedness rather than an outer war against other individuals.

That brought up one area worthy of close and thoughtful discussion among Christians. The language of spiritual warfare, especially among charismatic Christians, can lead down some really odd and even scarey paths. The whole business of "binding and loosing" spiritual powers, mixed with politics, seems a mixture guaranteed to lead bad places. Yet even there, I find myself stuck in ambiguity. I do believe there are spiritual powers in high places -- the idea is very biblical, though the first century writers' meaning is not easily grasped or understood by twenty-first century minds. But Rove and company are smart, and have and will continue to use the language of spiritual warfare to push an agenda which deep-down may even be anti-biblical.

I, however, digress from the movie.

I was disappointed with the movie-makers when they introduced Mike Papantonio, who to my mind was a deficient representative for non-Right wing Christianity. Perhaps it is because I grew up within a washed-out version of Christianity, where Christ may or may not have existed, much less have been the God/Man who died for our sins and historically rose on the third day. The movie's great mistake to me was including Papantonio for a counterpoint rather than someone who overtly held evangelical theology dear, but rejected the incursion of Karl Rove and company. Like me. (Snark, snark, snark.)

I think there's another reason Panantino was a bad idea. His predictable quacking gets in the way of the movie's artistic strength: its raw commitment to let the kids and adult Christians speak for themselves. If the movie makers had clung to that vision and not allowed the lense to waver for an instant from their primary subjects... this would have been a far more powerful movie.

In the midst of the shrill goings-on at "Kids on Fire," along with commentary from Papantonio, we are left with the idea that brainwashing may be going on here. Mr. Papantonio complains that evangelicals are pushing non-scientific theories re seven-day creationism. Yet he then pushes an equally non-scientific theory regarding brainwashing, a concept with no scientific basis. Faith, whether true or false or an admixture of reality and rationalizations, is far deeper and more complex than the idiotic cartoon "brainwashing" creates in a viewer's mind.

Again, what gets lost are the deeper issues beyond politics. Are these children's cries, tears, and emotions simply produced by the Christian adults around them? Is there a real God Whom these children may in fact be in contact with? That's where the movie-makers fail, in my opinion. The movie is too much about politics.

But if the movie is about politics, so is evangelical Christianity these days. And that is where the movie-makers are the most believable as they chronicle the admixture of right-wing politics and Christian piety. In one of the more startling moments at her "Kids on Fire" camp, a cardboard cutout of President Bush is produced by Pastor Becky, and all the children gather around it to pray for him. Some lie on the floor at his feet, a rather creepy moment.

In an interview with the film makers, Pastor Becky makes explicit what is heavily implied in the above scene:

"There is a friendlier atmosphere toward Christianity in the past few years than there has been in my lifetime. And a lot of it has to do -- just in the past few years -- with President Bush. He has really brought some credibility to the Christian faith."

I found that idea astonishingly naive. Sure, the Christian Right may feel more empowered. But power is not warmth and acceptance. In fact, many of us "renegade" evangelicals who refuse the Right's overtures find that their use of power has made our task of winning others' interest and friendship toward Christ all the more difficult.

Though Pastor Becky's rather extreme methods with kids are not the evangelical norm, the spiritual warfare motif and its political ramifications certainly are. The movie's penultimate scenes take place at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a mega-church pastored by Ted Haggard. Pastor Ted is the head of the National Assocation of Evangelicals. And here is what Jesus Camp captures him saying:

"The point I want to get across is that in your home you need to make sure that you have a few core beliefs. And we who are Americans, those of you who are citizens of the United States, need to make sure that our nation has a core belief, and as we settle those philosophies correctly then our freedom is guaranteed."

And he prays:

"Lord let us not waver. Let us not be talked out of it. Let us not be negotiated out of it. It's massive warfare every day. Let the battle begin."

Depending upon what Ted Haggard means by this, those are quite properly frightening statements. I've been frightened and disheartened for a very long time myself. But as I, too, believe in spiritual warfare, the reality of the demonic, the silver-tongued power of the Lord of Lies but the even greater reality of the Lord of Love, Joy, and Suffering, I will continue working and praying both for my own darkness and my Church's darkness. Whatever Jesus Camp means to others, what it means to me is that we have been seduced by the Spirit of the Age, and that Spirit is of Fear, not Love.

Related links:
Ted Haggard's response to Jesus Camp
A thoughtful, if quite negative, pentecostal's response (6,000 Words!) to Jesus Camp

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Lainie Petersen said...

The religious right scares the heck out of me but I think we need to keep a few things in mind:These kids are. . .kids. They may be surprisingly articulate about their fevered evangelicalism now, but there is a good chance that many, if not most of these kids will temper or reject these beliefs as they mature. If and when they do, this will go a long way toward neutralizing the effects of their current activities.

In short: I don't really see the long term damage to these kids. If they were being abused or were unloved or were being somehow denied an education, etc, I might get upset. But that isn't what is happening here. In fact, I fail to see why a child evangelist is somehow less healthy than a child with the typical consumerist obsessions of modern childhood: X-Box, Barbie, etc.

Jon Trott said...

Really great points, Lainie. This is also one of the hilarious things about so-called "brainwashing" as applied to situations like this camp. Are we really to believe that a camp over one weekend can compete with the relentless onslaught of television advertising and programming over the thousands of hours it is consumed by the average American kid (including most of the Christian ones)? Riiiiight.

Reel Fanatic said...

Interesting stuff ... I have no attachment to the religious right, so I would at best be observing this one as a detached outsider, which may be the best perspective anyway ... I quite enjoyed the first film from these two directors, Boys of Baraka, so I will definitely be seeing this one at some point

Corey said...


Great post. Incidently, given your somewhat favorable review, I must conclude that you are some kind of Michael Moore Fanatic.

I'm glad you linked to Haggard's comments. His discourse illustrates to me what's wrong with the leadership within institutionalized evangelicalism. While this movie does appear to be made as a cynical attack on Christianity (your point about intent and accomplishment is well taken; it will be a while before I can see it, Jesus Camp has not found its way to Morgantown, Wv yet) his conclusion that only secularists or Michael Moore freaks will like movie, strikes me as either ignorant or instrumental (and I'm not sure which is worse).


Jon Trott said...

Yes, I also was quite underwhelmed with the "secularists and Michael Moore fans" bit from Mr. Haggard. It seemed terribly broad-brush, doing to the movie-makers what he was accusing them of doing to him. A sort of inverted golden rule, if you will... sigh.

Colin Lamm said...

The most that I have seen regarding this movie is a trailer for it. That was enough to disturb me (not that I haven't already been disturbed for quite a while :)).

I too, although a Canadian, in your words am "saddened by . . . our idolatrous nationalism . . . idolatry draped in piety." The problem is that for many years I was proudly party to a lot of these shenanigans. Even today I must hold under control my righteous republican moral reflexes. Daily I must be "transformed by the renewing of my mind" (not brainwashed).

The only caution I would have to those who see this movie is to guard against swinging to the opposite extreme. Too often, to counter disturbing trends, we take an equally polarizing view which serves to distort the truth with equal vigour. It never ceases to amaze me how Jesus refused to be pigeon-holed by any special interest group, or religious ideology. He simply bore witness to the truth.

Thank you, Jon, for your insightful, and well balanced article.

John Carlyle said...

Has anyone seen the documentary Bob Smith USA? I ask because in this doccie about seven guys named Bob Smith, there's several scenes with an evangelical clown (named Bob Smith, of course) dressed in full garish clown outfit "terrifying" a group of kids. The rest of the movie is thought-provoking and interesting. But the evangelical clown has to be seen to be believed. (the website is

patrick said...

i appreciate that the makers of Jesus Camp let the people interviewed do all the talking; over all, there is some useful truth in this flick as long as it's taken with a grain (or maybe a bucket) of salt