Monday, September 17, 2007

Jesus Camp

Initial Reaction: Oy Vey.

Religion is a word that for many of us either elicits an "old time" feel, one that provides an image of masses packed into ornate buildings going through motions that are required by a belief system, or of charismatic Bible-belters who practically load their guns with scripture-inscribed bullets.

Faith is a word that for most gives us a very different sense than that of religion. Faith is warm and comforting. It's acknowledged as positive and beneficial by religious and non-religious alike. It's there even when many think it shouldn't be, and can be a great hope and encouragement to those trying to make their way through a difficult, unpredictable and unfair world.

Regardless of what my own opinions are of religion and faith, or the statistical truth of my above statements, religion and faith are often seen hand in hand, but occasionally as adversaries. The documentary Jesus Camp deals with a cross-section of evangelical Christians in the United States and, for me, wrestled with these two ideas. It didn't separate the two as I've done here, but for the purpose of this review, I felt it might be helpful. You'll have to excuse me, since it's difficult to objectively review a documentary in the first place, especially without throwing in one's own opinion on the topic.

Pastor Becky Fischer ran a camp for children in 2005 called "Kids on Fire." (Ironically, the location of the camp was Devil's Lake in North Dakota.) At first we are introduced to a few of the children that the cameras follow throughout the film: Levi, Rachel, and Tory. We see these kids at home with their families, attending church, and then throughout the duration of the camp. They tell us about their beliefs and experiences, and we get to see them in the midst of prayer, worship and evangelism. In addition to these kids, we also hear from their parents and Pastor Fischer.

As a documentary, Jesus Camp was quite good. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made it very even-handed, which I immediately noticed. I knew that some people could see it and be horrified, while others I know would love it and praise the efforts of Fischer and her church. I liked the addition of the radio show commentary by Mike Papantonio. This man admits to being a Christian, but he strongly questions the ideas and methods of Becky Fischer and her camp and he issues challenges to our country's religious right. Since most of the documentary is spent listening to the evangelicals promoting things like Kids on Fire, I felt like comments from Papantonio throughout the film were very helpful and a wise move on the part of the filmmakers. Instead of interviewing democrats and the non-religious in the U.S. (who would have basically just said "those fanatics belong in the nut house"), I think it was more effective to listen to another Christian with a differing view.

As a look at the evangelical movement in the United States, Jesus Camp is just a taste of the issue. It focuses on one church hosting one camp in one location in the United States. It mainly followed three children in this camp. But this does not mean Jesus Camp doesn't have a place in raising some issues. The scary part, to me, is when Fischer compares their camp to nations who are indoctrinating their children with Islam and training them with guns and grenades rather than prayer and preaching. She makes the claim that the "Jesus Camp" type of indoctrination is acceptable. Now, whether you're an evangelical Christian, Muslim, or atheist, this is a pertinent question. Throughout Jesus Camp, the children are spouting off phrases like "at 5 I got saved, because I wanted more out of life" and "when I dance, I have to make sure that that's God, because people will notice when I'm just dancing for the flesh." I mean, are these the voices of 9-year-olds talking here? (Personal response: If you ask me, at 5 you wanted more out of life probably because your parents told you there was more to get, but that the only way to get it is to pray this prayer and live this way.)

I appreciate the question it raises, especially for parents. Do you teach your children to believe what you believe? If not, then how do you guide them? If so, then how much differing thought do you allow them to see and hear?

As a side note, you should know that Jesus Camp also includes a visit to the mega-church of former pastor Ted Haggard in Colorado. We get an inside look at one of their services, and also a short interview with him. The interesting thing is that Haggard is one of the few noteworthy evangelicals who withdrew his support of the film after Jesus Camp came out. (No pun intended)

Rating: 15

A very well-rounded, honest look at a specific population in the United States. In my opinion, whether you're religious or not, Jesus Camp is an interesting film that can challenge you in a number of ways. It was an eye-opening experience, especially for a person who has had experiences like those of the children in the film. My conclusions? Personally, I'd rather have the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr. over that of Pastor Becky Fischer. Show me the doubting yet committed faith of Mother Theresa instead of that of Ted Haggard. But you make your own decision, it's a free country.

Favorite Scene: During an emotional high at one of the camp services, children are speaking in tongues and on their knees crying. A little girl (can't be older than 4) carries a tissue box and hands out tissues to the crying children in a very business-like manner. She is overlooked by the other kids and interviewees of Jesus Camp, but in my opinion is the most real person in the movie, as well as the best role model.

Iconic Lines:

A homeschooling mom says, "If you look at creationism, you realize it's the only possible answer to all the questions."

Ted Haggard says to the TV camera, "I think I know what you did last night. If you send me $1,000, I won't tell your wife."


Your Racist Friend said...

Great review, WLC. I like the part in the deleted scenes where the kids are marching through town going to that place that's the "Christian" alternative to Planned Parenthood (A Woman's Choice? I seriously can't remember...), and the filmmakers slyly follow a shot of puppets on strings with the kids walking through town. The film raises a lot of interesting points, and while it lacked some "spice" from it's almost unnaturally balanced viewpoint, it gains points for doing that where a lot of documentaries wouldn't. Another bonus if the unavoidable gayness of Ted Haggard. Seriously, how swishy was he? I have to disengage here before I embark on an incredibly un-PC rant, but I just think that he doesn't have to come out of the closet, since he's effectively just burst through the door Kool Aid Man
style, especially with his incessant use of the modifier "fabulous". I think that last quotation should be an IRONIC line, instead of an ICONIC line.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Look, I haven't seen the film and I don't know much about the subject matter, but it's good to see the camp's young children exercise their rights to make their own decisions in a free country. This is exactly why so many kids I know decide on turning Amish.

Wicked Little Critta said...

I actually didn't see the deleted scenes! Drats.

Btw, have you heard? I think Haggard now claims to be completely heterosexual. I'm really not sure what that means, aside from an attempt to subdue some cognitive dissonance, or to save face.

Your Racist Friend said...

In. Denial. That's all I have to say about Haggard.

Moshe, I REALLY don't know if you would say that if you saw the film. I think that I what I saw going on was much closer to brainwashing/emotional

Wicked Little Critta said...

I think I can safely say that I picked up on a hint of sarcasm in Moshe's comment...

Moshe Reuveni said...

By now I want to watch this doco just to see what this issue with this supposedly gay guy is about. Not that there's anything wrong with it.

Dr. Worm said...

There's nothing wrong with homosexuality. But a lot of folks would say that there IS something wrong with preaching to your parishioners that homosexuality is a sin, advising policymakers using same system of judgment, concealing all the while one's own homosexual dabbling, then undergoing brief "rehab" and pronouncing self cured. And, even with all this aside, Haggard doesn't exactly cover himself in glory in Jesus Camp.

Haggard aside, I think WLC did a bang-up job with this review. It's a hard movie to review because it's so decidedly even-handed. The opinions you form aren't about the film; they're about the people and ideas in the film. This makes it a really great documentary, but it also makes it hard to review objectively.

To jump topics yet again: The biggest issue people (myself included) have with the "crazy Christians" in this film is with their brainwashing. But no one would complain about someone being indoctrinated with a "correct" belief, i.e. "Don't be racist." Since these Christians believe that their ideas are correct just as strongly as we believe racism is wrong, what's the difference?

Moshe Reuveni said...

OK, I know I'm opening a can of worms here, but here's the difference.
Science is so far able to tell us that racial differences are stupidly benign. The difference between a white guy from Sweden and a black guy from Uganda, gene wise, is usually less than the difference between the genes inside a group of white home grown Abba fans. What's more, the racial differences that are there in the genes seem to mostly reflect the history of diseases that prevailed in the area; nothing of the type that Hitler would have you believe in.
So there you go: we have hard scientific evidence showing us that you cannot reliably judge a person by his/her skin color alone.
Religious belief is, well, a belief. Nothing you can win a court case with.

Dr. Worm said...

Fair enough, Moshe, and I don't disagree. But allow me to play devil's advocate.

Correct me if this is incorrect, but I think we've basically assumed that brainwashing/indoctrination is okay as long as the ideas being indoctrinated are true, and ideas are true if they're supported by science. Okay, fair enough, I don't think any of us want to call into question the scientific method.

But the Christians in the film might want to do just that. And while I may disagree with them, are they outside their rights in so doing?

To use a more benign example, you might believe strongly that abortion is wrong in all cases, and you'd understandably train your kids to hold the same belief. But another parent might believe equally strongly in the rights of the mother, and raise his or her kids accordingly.

Both parents believe they have the strongest claim to truth. In the same way, we believe that science represents the strongest claim to truth while the Christians believe that faith/tradition/scripture does. So, once again, my question is: what's the difference between these two examples?

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're obviously right in the sense that by today's standards, no crimes take place here (again, I haven't seen the film, all I'm saying is based on the review and the comments here, as well as - well, my own prejudices).
However, the line of thinking you're proposing, demonstrated through relatively nice Christians, applies just the same to your average Muslim suicide bombing institution. Which, I'm sure you'd agree, does present a very worldly problem as opposed to a more philosophical one (although I truly think that these philosophical issues have significant impact on the way we live our lives, but never mind that now).
So while I won't pretend to be able to answer all of this world's problems in one comment, I will repeat the points I have made so far:
1. In the long run, scientific based education will give you the best run for your money. The road there is not trouble free, though, because science can easily be twisted to serve some twisted purposes, but still - it's better to take hard facts with caution than to invent stuff out of the blue.
2. Kids do not have the capacity to choose for themselves at young ages discussed in the review. Even Bar Mitsvah age (13) is far from being old enough to truly understand the commitments and the philosophies involved.

Your Racist Friend said...

Indoctrination is one thing, and can be broken by the stronger-willed. I really don't know if I'd go as far to
say that out and out brainwashing is EVER ok, even for "good" causes.

Dr. Worm said...

Really nice counter-analogy with the Muslim suicide bombing institution, Moshe. My counterpoint would be that the Muslims are specifically fomenting violence--but even then I corner myself with having to define what is and isn't encouraging violent behavior.

I think the reality of the situation is this: All parents instill certain beliefs in their kids (whether they want to or not--young kids are trusting to a fault). We just happen to get bummed out when the beliefs instilled aren't the ones that we personally hold. I'm bummed that my fundamentalist Christian parents homeschooled my younger sisters and instilled in them the belief that creationism is a superior philosophy to evolution. At the same time, if I ever have kids, my parents will likely be bummed that I'm teaching my kids the exact opposite. In any case, though, there's really nothing either of us can do about it.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Generally speaking, we're thinking alike. In my opinion, the best way to sort out these issues is through education, as in proper fact based education. Obviously you can argue against it the same way you've done before - "how can the state tell me what to believe in", but my point is that with good education no one tells you what to believe in; facts are presented there before you, and you can form your own opinion.
And now the question is whether we teach evolution or creationism, or both for that matter? If presented in the right way instead of being imposed on the kids, there should be no problems with doing a mix of both (I do admit that I'm as anti creationism as one can be; I think the bible and such should be approached for their historical importance as a piece of literature that shaped our culture – and that’s it). If things are presented properly the facts should speak for themselves and there shouldn't be much of a contest.
Yes, I know, I'm living in a dream world. But think about it this way: As far as Western countries are concerned, this debate we're having here is very uniquely American. No other Western country has any issues with teaching evolution and with being quite secular as far as mainstream teaching is concerned.
The question I'm asking myself quite often is, why and how did the USA put itself in this situation in the first place? How can the most technologically advanced country find itself in a position where religious fundamentalism seems to be accepted as norm? The phrase American Taliban has not been coined by me; it's commonly used, for [sadly] obvious reasons.

Your Racist Friend said...

Cultural lag is responsible for it. That sort of thing is only accepted as the norm in the Bible Belt, not in civilized places like Boston. That last sentence is probably the snootiest thing I've ever typed in my
life, but I think that it's true.

Wicked Little Critta said...

It is true that areas like parts of the northeast (eg Massachusetts) have a pretty different population that that of, say, Arkansas. But, overall, I'm pretty sure we're outnumbered...

Particle Man said...

first of all, the Bible Belt IS civilized; it's just a different kind of civilization. but anyway, off-topic...

Moshe, i don't think religious fundamentalism is the norm. there really is no norm. it's true that fundamentalist Christians make up a very large chunk of our population (there are a LOT of them in the middle of the country), they are mostly quiet and keep to themselves. it's just the fringes and freaks like the ones in Jesus Camp that are loud. Bush was chosen to be our president because that otherwise quiet faction came out to vote (and because the other option was a douchebag...).

personally, i think evangelistic Christianity has no reason to exist anymore, and hasn't for a long time. in the USA, anyway, you will find NO ONE who hasn't at least heard about Jesus Christ. they may not have all the information, but they have made a choice (perhaps unconsciously) that Jesus either is or isn't for them. so we should all just stop freaking out about "spreading the gospel" (Jesus Camp people included), and start worrying about the face that we as Christians are presenting to the world. because right now, that face is butt-ugly.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Just to set the record straight, the USA is not the only country with this problem; it's just that whatever takes place in the USA tends to take place elsewhere as a result.
In Israel something like 10% of the population would probably qualify to be going through an equivalent of what the review makes the Jesus Camp sound like, and because they are the balance of power these people wield quite a lot of power (disproportionately to their share of the population).
And in Australia politicians flock to address the most famous evangelist church (which to me seems to be praising the lord of money, but never mind that). There's also this mysterious secret brotherhood (a weird Christian cult) that donates tons to the Republicans' equivalent here even though it forbids its members to vote (which is actually against Australian law, where it is mandatory to vote). A couple of years ago, when Bush popularized the subject, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence (which is more like the ministry of invading remote countries no one ever heard about) went on to say that intelligent design should be taught in school in addition to evolution.
The difference in Australia is that all this is sort of done with a wink; the vast secular majority regards all of the above as eccentricities. But you also get the feeling that people like the Prime Minister do whatever it is that they do as a test to see where the wind blows. I'd hate to be there at the time in which it blows in their direction.
In conclusion, I don't know that much about American politics, but in Australia this is more to do with traditional Christian values getting eroded through "modern times", and worst of all through waves of bloody non Christian immigrants (like yours truly, but most of the waves come from the Far East, so you're talking about people that eat really weird food and have narrow eyes and such; we don't want this lot in our fair country).
And just to make things very clear, that last sentence was said with much sarcasm.

Patrick Roberts said...

while i appreciate that the makers of Jesus Camp let interviewees do all the talking, they were obviously selective about what they let into the final movie release... over all, there is some useful truth in this flick... as long as it's taken with a grain (or maybe a bucket) of salt