Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jesus Camp

The experience of watching Jesus Camp is not unlike that of looking into a mirror—a magic mirror that shows you your beliefs rather than your visage. It’s a film about too serious children, highly charged sermons, being “Born Again”, and people who just never stop talking about their religion. It’s a film about the eccentricities of the Evangelicals, and the people who fear them. It is documentation of unashamed indoctrination. Your own life experience will determine how the movie plays out for you.
The main player in this real-life drama is Pastor Becky Fischer, a loud and imposing woman who takes her greatest joy in molding the minds of 5 to 15 year olds. In one scene she is able to make an entire congregation of young people cry in shame at the way that they act “one way in church and then another way at school with [their] friends.”  The kids all come forth to be washed clean, which is to say that she pours small amounts of bottled water into their outstretched, pleading hands. An assistant stands by with each new bottle uncapped and ready to dribble. After the scrubbing each child goes back to her pew and wails.
This fodder for Fischer’s church is characterized specifically by two children. One, Levi, is a precocious boy with a disturbing rat tail hair-do who seems willing to climb every mountain in order to spread the word. He wants to save the world, or he wants to impress the adults around him. He engages in high-minded dialog, coached by his mother, about how global-warming and evolution are impossible and how creation is the only explanation for humanity. He is very charming and outspoken, and is given an opportunity to preach to the congregation as a guest pastor at one point in the film. His sermon follows along the same basic lines of what’s been said by the adults. We are a special generation. The world is a big mess. It’s our job to fix it. Amen.
The other child under scrutiny is a girl a bit younger than Levi, maybe 9 or 10, who is even more zealous. She is the one who feels “moved by God” to approach strangers and ask them, “If you died today, do you know where you would go?” If they answer “heaven”, her response is a skeptical, “Really? Are you sure?” She is one of the most gullible and audacious children I’ve ever seen, with absolutely no temptation to stray from her pious lifestyle. She explains that she has no fear of reprisal from other children in the community, because it is God who will judge her. She goes out of her way to put her faith in between herself and anyone who might want to talk to her. She speaks wistfully of martyrdom, and when she bowls, she prays over her ball, commanding it in Jesus’ name to get a strike. The gutter balls don’t challenge her faith, though.
The counterpoint to these three outspoken fundamentalists in the film belongs to Air America radio host Mike Papantonio. He is a Methodist and a lawyer and a critic of the “Religious Right”. The film includes snippets of his radio show every so often to offer a strikingly different view from the others. Papantonio rails against the ambitions of the Evangelicals, criticizing everything from their political ambitions to their designs on their own children. The film ends with an honest and argumentative conversation between Papantonio and Pastor Fischer, the latter of which readily admits to practicing indoctrination. The excuse Fischer uses for her treatment of kids is that if she doesn’t indoctrinate them, someone else will. She believes with the conviction of the paranoid that an evil world of spiritual zombies is hungry for the kids.  It is her job to eat their brains before anyone else can.
The buffoonery of the film is provided by a guest appearance of Ted Haggard. This is Ted Haggard back when he was still uncertain about his sexuality, blowing boys and doing blow on a regular basis while preaching against the sins of drugs and homosexuality. You have to watch out for these white men in power who go further than anyone else in their anti-gay sentiments. They seem to continually fulfill the stereotype of the sexually inverted homophobe. At any rate, knowing the downfall of Haggard while watching this 2006 film gives you a sense of vindication or embarrassment, depending on your politics.
The viewer really is left with his own mind when deciding what he thinks of the movie. Sure, the filmmakers use creepy music while the congregation is “speaking in tongues.” The editing could be seen as making the worst of out Haggard’s comments. The pastor seems vain and egotistical if judged by her fastidious hair treatment and comments like, “I’m ready for the cover of Rolling Stones.” But these are the impressions that I get, and I’m a crazy tax-and-spend pinko liberal. But what about the choir? What do Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular think?
If you dig a little you find out that the film tells every sector of America something they already believe. Moderate Christians cringe at the way these people make them look. Evangelicals see the film as a powerful tool in showing what a kick-ass job their doing. And Ted Haggard sees the film as a direct attack on his own person. Well, can’t blame him for that, as quoting Ted Haggard on anything is, in a way, a direct attack on his own opinions.
I really like the film. As far as a documentary goes, it’s one of the less contrived versions of the genre this side of National Geographic. Without going to the extremes of directors like Michael Moore and whoever made “Michael Moore Hates America”, this movie does the job of maintaining an apparent air of impartiality as it exposes this highly sensitive and charged subject. As we then speak about the film it is impossible to hide our own political opinions and still maintain any sense of humanity. You can’t watch this movie without feeling some spiritual or political stirring, a connection to something therein, and repulsion to its doppelganger.
It would be easy to blame the filmmakers as having a political bias going into this picture. I have read and watched enough post-film media to be convinced that they were staying as neutral as possible, while still letting the movie be edgy. Every character in the documentary is energized and opinionated and loud. There is very little need for the ladies who made the film, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, to put any further drama into the compilation of scenes. The film was just the beginning of the debate, though. Ever since, people have come out to argue about it, each side using it as a touchstone for their own personal belief. Really, this is an example of what documentary film should be.


  1. Was this a remake of Children of the Corn?

  2. No no, Lori. That one was a comedy.

  3. and this is one is a little scary.


So what do you think?