Jesus Camp

Shortly after the shocking events of 9/11, I remember thinking that I had more respect for Jihadists and Islamists than I had for nominal Christians.

I was still a fundamentalist Christian. And I could see, with the clarity of the converted, that the fundamentalist Muslims were doing it right. They really believed their religion, and they acted on it. They were people of true faith, who took the words of their Holy Book seriously. Of course, their Holy Book was wrong and they were going to hell, but they were not like the watery compromisers of the Church of England, at least.

I was reminded of this when I watched the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp for the second time. Ten minutes and 50 seconds into Jesus Camp, children’s evangelist Becky Fischer says,

Where should we be putting our focus? I’ll tell you where our enemies are putting it: They’re putting it on the kids. They’re going into the schools. You go into Palestine… They’re taking their kids to camps like we take our kids to Bible camps, and they putting hand grenades in their hands… It’s no wonder with that kind of intense training and discipling that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam.

I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan, and in Israel [sic], and Palestine, and all those different places because we have… excuse me, but we have the truth!

So you see, I wasn’t kidding when I wrote “I could have been a suicide bomber.” [I managed to watch it online here; link is still good at the time of writing]

I say watched Jesus Camp for the second time. I have absolutely no memory of watching it the first time. But when it began, I recognised the footage, and assumed I must have seen a trailer. Then a few scenes passed, and I continued getting the same sense of deja vu. This continued all the way to the end. Presumably, I did watch it once and just can’t remember when or where. But there’s part of me that wonders if I was really watching it for the first time, and it just felt familiar because this was my life.

If you’d like to get to know me better, watch Jesus Camp. My childhood was exactly like that. I moved in the same Pentecostal circles as Becky Fischer. I spent three successive summers at American Bible camps in my teens – Tulsa, Oklahoma and Fort Worth, Texas in 1999; Warrenton, Missouri in 2000; and Dallas and somewhere in Arkansas in 2001. I was older than the kids in Jesus Camp, but I see myself in every one of them.

One of the things I notice is that the cadences and rhythms the kids use when talking about God are similar to the ones I see in childhood footage of me. There’s a kind of family resemblance that comes from listening to the same style of preacher all the time. That and the fact – how did I not notice this before? – that Pentecostals speak almost exclusively from some kind of unwritten Jesus Phrasebook. Around 45 minutes into the film, when Levi is preaching, you might think you are watching an unusually articulate child. Which you are. But you are also watching someone talking like they’re trying to win a game of Pentecostal Cliche Bingo.

When I watch Jesus Camp now, I think the same thing most viewers probably do: Those kids are just imitating their parents and church leaders. The ecstatic responses, the stock phrases used in prayers, the praying in tongues, the religious gestures – these kids learn by imitation.

But I used to be one of those kids, and it didn’t feel like I was imitating anyone. I would have been insulted and angry at the suggestion. It felt absolutely genuine and sincere, as I’m sure it did for the children in the documentary.

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. I’m serious… all of it could have been shot from my childhood, if the children had English accents. That’s why I’m sure the documentary is an accurate portrayal.

The kid I find most upsetting in the whole film is the young blond boy with the bowl haircut. He testifies – with breathtaking honesty – that he finds it hard to believe in God because he can’t see him. Several times we see him crying, holding his hands out in a standard Pentecostal “receiving from God” gesture, desperation etched on his face. He wants so badly to feel what everyone else is feeling. I’ve been there, kid.

The reason he’s suffering is that he’s been told all he has to do to be saved is believe. He’s trying so hard, but it’s difficult sometimes. Yet if he doesn’t believe, he won’t be saved. And he knows very well what happens to the unsaved.

Teaching that to children is fucking barbaric.

Later, we see him reading Children Demand a Verdict, a work of propaganda by Josh McDowell, which quotes conservative writers to make it seem like evidence from scientists, historians, archaeologists and Biblical textual scholars all overwhelmingly point to the truth of (the conservative interpretation of) the Bible. At the end of the film, Becky Fischer admits that what she is doing is indoctrination, but doesn’t think this is wrong.

Some of you will be taken aback by the prayer directed at Satan. This is the doctrine of spiritual warfare. It was so normal in my childhood that I still don’t find it weird now.

I think my favourite bit is about 43 minutes in, when one of the girls expresses perfectly the superiority I always felt. She explains how God doesn’t like to go to “dead churches”, but prefers lively ones like hers.

God is not in every church. There’s a certain thing, they’re called dead churches, and the people there, they sit there, like this [adopts very still, stiff posture].

[In a monotone voice] We worship you God. We worship you God.

They sing like, three songs, then they listen to a sermon.

Churches that God likes to go to are churches where they’re jumpin’ up and down, shoutin’ his name, and just praisin’ him. They not acti – they’re not quiet [makes dour face and bows head]. They’re like [as if screaming] HALLELUJAH! GOD! you know? And depending on how they invite Him, He’ll be there or not.

I could talk about the whole film all day, but just watch it, OK?

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