Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp
A Film by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2006
Review by Carl McColman

Vladimir Lenin said, “Give us the child for eight years and it will be a Bolshevik forever.” Yes, it’s a scary thought – and that primal intuitive sense that it’s wrong to brainwash or indoctrinate children lies at the bottom of the emotional power driving this non-fiction reality film about children who attend a charismatic/fundamentalist Christian summer camp deep in America’s heartland. When I saw the trailer for this film, I had the same kind of visceral reaction to it that I have to Lenin’s bold declaration. As someone who learned way too much about manipulative religiosity during my own teen-aged tangle with the charismatic renewal, I was primed to view this film with nail-spitting righteous anger directed at the horrible fundamentalists who are warping an entire generation of vulnerable children into right-wing extremists. At times, my experience watching it flirted on the edge of such an emotional maelström. But I never fully dove into the whirlpool. And I think this speaks as much as anything about how surprisingly balanced this film is, even as it fearlessly takes on an explosive and polarizing constellation of topics.

Jesus Camp looks at several children, especially Levi and Rachael, two attractive, articulate tweens who have been home schooled by their families and have fully internalized the theology, ethics, morality, politics and cosmology of American charismatic fundamentalism circa the year 2005. Levi is a youth preacher, following in the footsteps of his father; Rachael is more of a youth evangelist, cheerfully witnessing to both children and adults whenever the opportunity presents itself to her. They are two of what appears to be a hundred or more children who participate in the “Kids on Fire” camp under the direction of Becky Fischer, a middle-aged Pentecostal youth minister with a Michael Moore physique and a theology that is by turns fascinating and, well, scary. She’s not afraid of going after the issues that religious liberals shrink away from: the depravity of humankind, the need for repentance, a sense that we live in a nation at war with itself and that Christians must enlist in this spiritual army to fight God’s battle. When she preaches, she inspires the kids and energizes them, but she can also lead them to sobbing paroxysms of shame and grief as the youngsters ruminate on their sinfulness and God’s wrath. Her camp comes across as an emotional funhouse, where feelings get magnified, mirrored, lost in a maze, and turned upside down, all in the name of forming disciples who are ready to die for Jesus and who understand that military metaphors are entirely appropriate for describing their mission to save America from itself.

As a former Pagan, I winced when I saw the Jesus campers resort again and again to what any self-respecting Wiccan or witch would call magic: smashing objects that symbolize the current government; “raising energy” through singing, shouting, and dynamic movement; using a physical object (such as a lifesize cardboard cutout of George W. Bush) to focus and direct their energy. Of course, a fundamentalist Christian would protest vehemently if anyone suggested that they were doing magic (even in the name of Jesus), but the way I see it, anything that walks and talks like a duck, is a duck, no matter what you call it. I suppose it’s not surprising that Pastor Fischer and her young charges are expressing their Christian faith in such obviously magical ways; as the wonderful Anglican spiritual theologian Kenneth Leech once told me, “magic flourishes whenever people lose sight of sacramental spirituality.” Despite one brief scene showing Fischer and her staff sharing the Lord’s Supper, the overall sense of the movie is that the kind of Christianity profiled in Jesus Camp is about as devoid of true sacramentality as is Neopaganism. No wonder both so rapidly devolve into such practices as manipulating group energy and creating ad hoc rituals to symbolize the external power they seek. Sacramental spirituality by contrast both celebrates and trusts the graciousness of Divine love and the inherent (if uncontrollable) power that surges through those who trust in such love. But any spirituality that lacks a sacramental dimension also lacks any inherent sense of Divine presence, and thus must compensate by using the tools of ritual and/or ecstasy to create or sustain a self-generated (and thus, illusory) sense of personal or group power. It’s sad, really, especially in light of how much fundamentalist Christians and magically-minded Neopagans hate each other. Such hatred is driven, I suspect, in large part by the unconscious recognition that each is but the shadow of the other, and neither system contains a truly effective means of integrating that shadow.

Back to the movie – aside from Pastor Fischer and her underage flock, the other two key figures in this movie are Mike Papantonio, a Florida attorney who hosts a liberal Christian radio show on Air America, and Ted Haggard, who at the time the film was made was still the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado and one of the most influential evangelicals in America (as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he had a standing, weekly telephone appointment with President Bush). Papantonio provides the liberal counterpoint to the fundamentalist theology that pervades the film, but he comes across as more whiny than compelling. At one point he interviews Fischer on the air, and although she stumbles through her answers to his pointed questions, he fails to express anything other than a weary disgust at her ideology. Haggard, though, fares even worse – he seems slimy and insincere, making unfunny jokes that his congregation laughs at anyway and, in a telling scene, offers young Levi truly cynical advice on how he should capitalize on his boyish good lucks to build his career as a preacher (footage that assumes an even creepier edge in light of Haggard’s subsequent, well publicized fall from grace when a male prostitute accused him of being a client). It’s no surprise that Haggard is the only person who appears in this film who felt that it was unfair in its portrayal of its subject.

Jesus Camp asks lots of hard questions. Is the evangelical/fundamentalist/charismatic Christian right a threat to American democracy? What is the morality of indoctrinating children into religious beliefs, and what is the difference between education and indoctrination? Is there really a difference between Christian fundamentalists teaching their children to hate abortion and Pagan parents teaching their kids to believe in magic? Where is the line that distinguishes heart-felt devotion from utter fanaticism – and, have these young people already crossed that line, or are they just mimicking the religious rhetoric their parents and pastors have been feeding them since their birth? Challenging, important questions, and the film provides few if any answers. But perhaps that is not the film’s job. Getting the conversation rolling is important enough.

I have friends on both sides of the liberal/fundamentalist divide who have passionate, even angry opinions regarding this film. And that ultimately leads to what I think is its greatest flaw. Neither the liberal Papantonio nor the conservatives like Fischer and Haggard say much (if anything) in this film about grace and forgiveness and compassion. Such important elements of the Christian message, and yet they seem lost in all the discourse about fighting the good fight as soldiers for Christ (or, in Papantonio’s case, as soldiers for liberal religion and secular democracy). That omission, more than anything else, left me with a feeling of sadness as the closing credits rolled. And so, while I hope that both conservatives and liberals will make the effort to see this film, I hope we all can do so with a clear sense that the Gospel is most faithful to Christ when it is grounded in compassion, forgiveness, and – that most radical of all energies – love.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Brad

    I haven’t watched this movie yet for the simple fact of having read the reviews. It sounds like I’ll either throw up or throw something at the tv. And I don’t want to break my tv.

    And it seems a common theme to introduce more questions than answers. It is far easier to critique that which has already been published than to come up with a better alternative.

  • Maria

    Thanks for the thoughtful review. It makes me think about actually watching the film, which I’ve been reticent to do. I’m always uncomfortable with portrayals of religion which seem to offer a caricature based on opposing ideology.

    I appreciate your comments about the tendency toward magical thinking and practice in conservative Christianity. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with some of those practices, and you help me understand why.

  • Yvonne

    Fascinating comments on the issue of magic and magical thinking – something to ponder. I haven’t seen the film but I’ve heard all about it.