Friday, 6 October 2006

Review: Jesus Camp

Or so the filmmakers hope.

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are following the recent trend of the terror-doc. Films like this summer’s An Inconvenient Truth—which was touted as “the scariest film you’ll see all year”—have perfected the application of thriller conventions and polarizing scare tactics to a medium that in previous eras was happily objective. Today, the “documentary” film is less about documenting something in the journalistic, reporting sense and more about how well real footage can be edited to form a compelling and manipulative narrative argument.

And the argument of Jesus Camp is pretty familiar: Evangelical Christians are radically conservative, gleefully anti-intellectual, flag-waving Dubya lovers who brainwash their WASP spawn in hopes of raising up an army to usher in a theocracy or the apocalypse, whichever comes first. The stereotypes propagated in the film seemed justified, because it is a documentary—simply cameras witnessing the reality of the situation. However, any stereotype can be propagated if you find the right people and know how to edit the footage. But you don’t see many documentaries out there blatantly reinforcing the worst kind of stereotypes about Jews, Hindus and certainly not Muslims, do you?

Christians are really the last major group to be openly, recklessly mocked in the media. For some reason, it is just not seen as politically incorrect to repeatedly portray Christians as bigoted, red-state ignoramuses. And for Christians, that is the most disturbing message of Jesus Camp.

The star of Jesus Camp is one Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s pastor who looks like any other evangelical church lady. Fischer is something of a celebrity for her wildly popular summer camp, “Kids on Fire,” which is ironically held in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, every summer. She is full of all sorts of soundbites such as, “George W. Bush has brought a lot of credibility to evangelical Christianity” and “Warlocks are enemies of God” (in reference to Harry Potter). No doubt Ewing and Grady had a hard time choosing which of Fischer’s golden comments to incorporate.

The majority of the film focuses on what goes on at the “Kids on Fire” camp. The shenanigans include kids dancing to Christian rap, tearfully praying for “righteous judges” and smashing “sinful” porcelain with a hammer. Oh, and there is a lot of crying, confession and hand-raising revival going on as well—more or less innocent if you have been around the Church and know what’s going on, but just-plain-creepy if you don’t.

Footage is also shot at some individual kids’ homes, where we meet homeschooling moms who insist that the class pledge allegiance to a color guard that includes the American, Christian and Israeli flags, as well as the Bible. We see Levi, age 12 (another “star” of the film), playing a creationism videogame and Tory dancing in her bedroom to Christian heavy metal.

There are also scenes at charismatic, megachurch New Life in Colorado Springs, in which pastor Ted Haggard (who heads up the powerful National Association of Evangelicals) is made to look like a cocky, power-mongering goof. And to drive home the “evangelicals as politicos” message, there is a scene of an anti-abortion protest on the steps of the Supreme Court as the young protagonists stand with duct-taped mouths to demonstrate and pray for the nomination of a pro-life judge.

All of this “craziness” is juxtaposed in the film to the “voice of reason,” Mike Papantonio, a liberal “Christian” radio host on the far left Air America station. He offers some really biting and ill-informed commentary that gives voice to the hidden agenda behind Jesus Camp. It would have been fine if Ewing and Grady had just filmed the goings-on of Becky Fischer’s camp; surely people would have understood that this is a small group of evangelicals and not the mainstream. But Papantonio insists that Fischer’s methods of “indoctrination” are the norm in evangelical Christendom, and it is a huge threat to the survival of the separation of church and state. And when Fischer herself calls in to speak with Papantonio (and subsequently digs herself and evangelicalism into a deeper hole), all you can do is cringe—or cry.

For Christians of any measure of moderation, Jesus Camp ends up being embarrassing, degrading and makes you feel like the silenced minority. It’s also maddening because I know we have in large part brought this on ourselves. Shame on us for letting the Pat Robertsons of the world be our cultural representatives. Shame on us for not producing films of worth that can portray our faith in more reasonable lights. Where are the filmmakers who will make a documentary about the many intelligent Christians out there? Or about the vast array of humanitarian causes that Christians are leading around the world? Or at least put into context some things shown in this film?

And yet part of me watches this film and feels solidarity with the Christians in it—sympathizing with the whole “raising up a generation” that will do more than their “fat and lazy” parents did. Part of me is riled up by the polemics of this film—it’s an attack on my religion, after all. I am almost inclined to join the culture wars myself and fight back … and yet I know that this is just what Jesus Camp wants. A war. In this way, the film is above all hypocritical. It chastens Christians for going the way of radical Muslims and brainwashing their young for a future on the battle lines of the cultural trenches; and yet the film is obviously meant to be nothing more than a rallying cry and wake up call for liberal America. How appropriately timed is this film, which was released first in the Midwest, just two months before a huge congressional election?

What we need is a better understanding of one another. The fear Hollywood has of Christians is founded on a basic ignorance of just what it means to be a Christian. And yet the stereotypes that are continually feeding the cycle do nothing to clear this up. Films like Jesus Camp do not promote a conversation or invite an exploration of Christianity. They promote terror and a culture of fear (Michael Moore style) that leaves secular America with one reasonable option: run for the hills; evangelical Christianity is the new jihad.

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