See “Jesus Camp”, but not for the typical reasons

'Jesus Camp' documentary cover
Watched the controversial "Jesus Camp" documentary yesterday. I found it engrossing, and I must say that I find myself somehow disagreeing with everybody (critic as well as supporter) in the media on this.

On the one hand, I find these children infinitely more sympathetic and profound than did the many commentators in the MSM who’ve sounded the alarm of fundamentalist take-over after watching this movie. Nor do I think hysterics about militia training camps are warranted because some kids do a dance in camouflage and fatigues, or because people in this film are fond of war metaphors to describe their spiritual commitment.

On the other hand, I think the documentary’s conservative critics are wrong to accuse it of bias or willful misrepresentation of evagelicalism, as it is a very humanizing (and, I think, uncontrived) portrayal and this community though in some respects atypical undeniably shares most of its core values with broad swaths of the Christian Right. It’s not the filmmakers’ fault that they happened to capture some innocent but incredibly thought-provoking (and, for some secular folks, sinister) scenes guaranteed to generate outcries and debate. (As a Muslim, I say, "Welcome to our world.")

I will grant to critics that the insertion of the liberal Christian radio host was mistaken and sends the wrong message. His commentary is for the most part superfluous, and of little help in showing where the fascinating characters encountered in the film are coming from. My guess is that the filmmakers were, ironically, trying to balance out the film by including another Christian perspective, but it’s ultimately counterproductive since he comes off (perhaps incorrectly–I don’t know him), as just another liberal critic who doesn’t get evangelicalism.

It’s ironic given the theological and cultural differences involved, but I suspect that Muslim Americans can understand these people far better than most other non-evangelicals. Muslims know how it feels for every innocent attempt to harmonize one’s daily life with one’s religious values to be met with mockery, prejudice and paranoia.

Many people in restaurants roll their eyes when they see a party at a neighboring table lower their heads to silent say grace. Most Muslims, I suspect, react very differently–they smile and quietly intone "Masha’Allah".

This is a fascinating and moving documentary whose lessons are far more profound than the political commentary it has inspired. It’s a real shame that it’s been viewed and debated primarily in political terms. Whatever one thinks about these people, this is far more about counter-culture, diversity and religious revival than politics.

It’s worth watching a second time with the directors’ highly articulate and thoughtful commentary on.  And don’t skip the bonus features, either, as they include a number of other fascinating enlightening vignettes.

Netflix zindabad! (Takbir!)

  • Purvis The Muslim

    I saw this in the theater, and my immediate reaction was that of recognition. A lot of people have this warped idea of what Muslims are like and what Islam is about. You can see this when the media, for instance, shows anti-American riots in the middle east and make it look like the entire nation is forming a lynch mob, when in reality it’s a small group of yahoos with the camera focused only on them. Likewise, Jesus Camp focuses on a (IMO) small group of yahoos, and anyone who doesn’t know better will be likely to paint an entire religion–or religion itself–with the same brush. Although I am not as sympathetic toward the evangelicals portrayed in this movie as you are, I agree that it’s been made too easy to mock people for any expression of their faith.

  • svend

    Thanks, Purvis.
    My sympathy is for the people in the movie, as opposed to the movement at large (as vividly illustrated on and off-screen by Haggard). Not that my opinion as a Muslim matters much, but I think evangelicalism like many contemporary Islamic movements is ultimately out of touch with its religious tradition. But that doesn’t change how its adoption by normal people is generally a sincere attempt to bring meaning and clarity to modern life. I just wish they were turning to traditional, more holistic and less ideological understandings of their faith. Evangelicals may have admirable passion, but in my book the wisdom remains with those tired “dead” mainline churches, whose moderation is has been tried and found true.

  • Lawrence of Arabia

    i think it is important to remember that the reasons the evangelicals do not like this movie is that it is not portraying evangelicals. they feel they are getting lumped in with a group, the pentecostals, who do not represent them. for instance, my wife and i had two very different reactions to this movie. my wife, who grew up evangelical and lived in the middle of bob jones country (very conservative baptist) said “who the hell are these wierdos” because there were large parts of the film that were simply foreign to her and her mainstream evangelical background. on the other hand, myself and other friends of mine who grew up in pentecostalism laughed (and shuddered) and said yep, that is what we grew up with. the militant imagery, imagery of armies and warfare has been prominent in pentecostal circles since at least the early 1980s and i suspect well before the then. amongst evangelicals, while there is talk of a culture war, it does not play out quite so literally in church services on a regular basis.
    likewise pentecostalism operates in this odd space where it at once is culturally marginal, its behaviours and beliefs are not typical even of the christian right, while at the same time it is such an insular community that the behaviour comes to be perceived as perfectly normal and it becomes difficult to recognize why people might object. thus objectors are clearly just tools of the devil.
    this is not as true of evangelicals, who, while they do feel embattled culturally, nonetheless are a culturally dominant force in significant areas of the country, and have unified and transcended historical differences within the movement (prebyterians and methodists suddenly able to look past historical doctrinal conflict, etc.) to make that hegemony even more effective. while pentecostals are largely sympathetic to many of the political aims of the evangelicals, they still tend to move in very different circles.
    i will however note one very significant change that has occured since my childhood and highschool days, that the movie captures well and which cuts across both the pentecostal and evangelical movement: the republicanization of christianity. in 1976 a majority of evangelicals who voted voted for jimmy carter. in 1980 it was reagan and it began a tidal change that has gone on for almost 30 years now. it was slow in the early 1980s and many evangelicals and pentecostals were still somewhat ambivalent about politics. recall for instance that the great legacy of the baptist churches in america, prior to fallwell’s organization of the moral majority, was a strong insistence on the separation of church and state. then pat robertson ran for president and did very well in the republican primaries, relatively speaking. and now….well we all know the situation. the christian right holds a powerful place in the republican party and the republican party holds a powerful place in the theology and mentality of the religious right (which includes mainstream evangelicals and the pentecostals).
    btw, i don’t know for sure but i don’t think the radio commentator represented liberalism, even in christianity. i think he represented the voice of an emergent critique within the evangelical movement itself that one sees in very prominent figures such as tony campolo. this critique is more sensitive to broader social issues (the environment is a big one for campolo) while still being socially and theologically rather conservative, and are worried about the easy identification that is taking place between evangelicals and republican politics. i could be wrong, but there are just not many “liberal” christian voices on talk radio. christian radio is the domain of the evangelicals and pentecostals (and even where you find catholics operating their own stations, it is conservatives: e.g., ewtn).
    best wishes,

  • svend

    Thanks so much for the characteristically enlightening and informative comments, Lawrence. Very interesting stuff.
    I have no doubt that there are serious social and cultural differences, but glib philosophical disavowals by mainstream evangelicals ring a little hollow to me. Even if these aren’t proper evangelicals, they’re certainly bedfellows on the Christian Right. It reminds me a bit of the way some arch conservative Muslims today try to paper over the ideas they often share with Wahhabis and other highly ideological movements. It sure wasn’t just Pentecostals who eagerly snapped up the “Left Behind” series, for example. Pentecostals may well be way out there in some respects, but they’re clearly in the same zone of the spectrum. Moreover, one might argue that they’re boiling a number of evangelical ideas down to their essence.
    The radio DJ was Mike Papantonio. Don’t know anything about him, I know his show is on Air America. I just felt that his comments in the documentary were too generic to throw light on the subject matter. I agree with much of what he said, but the problem is that he was talking about a political movement when the documentary was showing a community and a way of life.
    That’s a great point about the erstwhile reluctance of evangelicals to enter politics. Ah, those were the days.
    I watched a documentary a few months ago that had excerpts of interviews with evangelical leaders in the late 1970s as Moral Majority was coming into being. It was absolutely fascinating for me how many parallels there were between their aversion to political involvement (partly due, according to the film, to the trauma of the disastrously unsuccessful foray into politics by their Fundamentalist predecessors at the Scopes Trial half a century earlier that made them the butt of jokes around the country) and the fatalistic emphasis on submitting to God’s in the political sphere, and early Muslim anxieties about democracy and political participation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were all sorts of doctrinal and cultural parallels, just as there are all sorts of parallels between the misunderstood subjects of this documentary and Muslims today.

  • svend

    > while pentecostals are largely sympathetic to many of the political aims of the evangelicals, they still tend to move in very different circles.<
    How much of that do you chalk up to class differences? Religious culture is as deeply imprinted socio-economic circumstances as anything else. Would evangelicals be all that different socially and culturally if they were formed by comparable economic environments?
    Or am I overemphasizing poverty?

  • svend

    Found a very interesting overview of evangelicalism here.

  • ayesha

    glad to hear all these thoughts. we’re waiting for this one to come in the mail (blockbuster, not netflix, tho!)

  • Lawrence of Arabia

    the question about poverty is a good one, and i do not entirely know the answer. you might want to check out some of the work that martin marty has done on the fundamentalism project for a better answer…but here’s my stab anyway…
    i do think that there is probably a correlation between the experience of poverty and the translation of common evangelical and pentecostal themes into an apocalyptic world view where everything is rushing towards a violent and bloody end at the battle of armageddon. to oversimplify, my impression is that the pastor of suburban evangelical politics is rush limbaugh (if not him literally, you get the idea); now evangelicals and especially pentecostals are not going to have a real problem with rush on social matters, but you add to that this belief that they know where history is headed and it is headed there soon and you have added something you would never hear on rush, but is not uncommon on the 700 club (making the training, by regent university, of so many republican lawyers a frightening thing!).
    best wishes,

  • svend

    A terribly belated response. Interesting point about “knowing where history is headed”, Lawrence. One of my complaints about some traditional Islamic interpretations of eschatological traditions is in a somewhat similar vein, even if I think those Islamic interpretations (for all the hysterical commentary in the MSM) impinge less on the real world than those of, say, a John Hagee.
    The 700 Club can indeed be disturbing. I was reading a book the other day on the modern militia movement and it pointed out how much Pat Robertson’s conspiratorial, apocalyptic worldview has with the ravings of far-right wackos.
    Also, reading over this post again, I should note for the record that I realize there are big differences between evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. The interesting question from where I sit is whether there are big differences on the big issues that hold back interfaith dialogue or contribute to a IMO overly fatalistic (or even potentially jingoistic) attitude towards international affairs.