The Wednesday Review: Jesus Camp (film)

Jesus CampI watched a movie, a documentary, called Jesus Camp Monday.  When I first heard about this movie several months ago I was immediately intrigued, and more than a little wary.  With a title like Jesus Camp how could I not be?  Is this a Michael Moore-style hit job on Christianity or a corny, saccrine Christian production, or an intelligent, balanced look at a slice of the Christian culture.  All this just from the title.  Though intrigued, I hadn’t really planned on making a special effort to see it.  But then I saw it in the Netflix queue of a friend of mine.  A friend who does not share my Christian convictions.  I decided that at the very least it would be beneficial to see in case he were to ask me about it.  I’m glad I did (though said friend has not asked me about it).

The movie is a look into the culture of a portion of the Evangelical Christian community through the lens of the Kids on Fire summer camp put on by a Penecostal children’s minister named Becky Fischer.  Its important to note that this is just one particular branch of the Evangelical Christianity.  I would identify myself as an Evangelical Christian but I don’t speak in tongues, as they do often in the film, and though I would agree with much of what Fischer and others have to say in the film, I do not think that her methods are 1). healthy and 2). biblical.  In all the scenes of Fischer speaking to the kids, I don’t recall once where she cracks open her Bible.  Granted, we only get snippets of these messages, but if this is in fact a Bible camp, it should not be hard to spot the Bibles.  I’m not by any means claiming that Fischer is a charlatan, quite the contrary.  She appears very sincere and devoted to Christ in reaching these kids for Him. However, I think her methodology is misguided.  As an example, in one scene the kids are admonished to pray for our government and for righteous people to rise up within it, certainly a noble prayer, but then are invited to smash ceramic mugs labled “government” with a hammer.  I wasn’t exactly sure what the connection was between mugs and government.

Government and the Christians role it was a major theme in the movie.  Fischer encourages the kids at the camp to be politically active as they grow up, especially on the issue of abortion.  Some of the language she usses in doing so could and does make those outside the Christtian communtiy more than a little nervous.  Here’s a quote: 

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 Israel and Palestine and all those different places…

Now, do I think that she is advocating the formation of pre-teen Christian suicide bomber battalions?  No, of course not.  But it isn’t hard for me to understand concerns that non-Christians would have when they hear this kind of language.  Because I know Christian-ese, I know that when she says things like “the army of the Lord”, she is not referring to an actual military force in the physical sense, but that there is a spiritual battle going on.  But to the outsider, it sounds militant.  The counter-point in the filme to Fishcer is a liberal Christian talk radio host name Mike Papantonio.  The movie bounces back and forth between the camp and Papantonio on his radio show railing against the influence of the religeous-right in American politics.  Again, I understand, though do not agree, with folks like Papantonio who are fearful of some kind of Christian coup of American government.  But I often find their arguments hollow and disengenuous, mostly because they are involved in the same kinds of activity on the other side.  Papantonio says at one point, something to the effect of, and I’m paraphrasing, “These people are training their kids to grow up to vote a certain way, to change the government into something they’re comfortable with.”  And this doesn’t happen with other groups?  Hmmmmm. 

On some level I am uncomfortable with the meshing of Christianity and political activism.  Do I thnk there are moral issues that Chsirtians should should take a stand on?  Absolutely.  But Evangelicals need to be reminded that God is not a Republican.  It just so happens that on many moral issues, like abortion, the Republican party tends to come down on the side more in line with many, if not most, Christians, though this is becoming increasingly less so.  That fact not withstanding, that shouldn’t give Christians license to look the other way when a political leader they support is caught up in some other immoral behavior or position.  Being pro-life doesn’t give a politician the right to rob the bank.  There is a scene in which one of those life-size carboard cutouts of President Bush is brought out and the kids are encouraged to pray over him.  Should we pray for our leaders?  Of course, but it would have been interesting to see if they would have done the same thing had John Kerry won the 2004 election.  Politics is a dirty business and to remain true to God’s commands and still climb that ladder….it makes me a little suspicious.

 However, the most interesting part of the movie was the kids.  It focuses on a couple in particular and its quite fascinating, and humbling, to hear them talk about their love of Jesus and to see their actions proving it.  During the end credits, we see two of the kids handing out tracts on the street and trying to witness to people.  Many have criticized Fischer’s camp as being a place where kids are being brainwashed or indoctrinated.  That she’s taking advantage of their moldable minds to create a massive future conservative voting bloc.  The group times are very emotional, over-the-top so, which makes me wonder, not if these kids are being brainwashed, but if the fervency they have is real, or if it, like emotion, will fade.

Overall, I thought the film was a fair look at this culture, with a coule relatively minor exceptions.  Some soundbites seemed cut a little short to give a certain impression and at times the music lent itself to a forboding mood that was probably unfair.  But on the whole, the filmmakers pretty much kept their opinions out of it.  There is no narration, and what you see is pretty much what you get. Fischer herself has endorsed it, though the reaction among the Evangelical community at large has been varied.  Defrocked pastor Ted Haggard, who appears briefly in the film, has denounced it, but given his recent troubles I don’t think thats an opinion we should be too concernced about.  This is not the church that I have known, or am completely in line with, theologically or methodoligically.  However, if all Christians had the passion of these kids, without perhaps the mug smashing, the world would indeed under go revival.  As one of the boys, Levi, says, “I feel like I’m different.  But if all Christians acted like they should, then I wouldn’t be.”

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14 thoughts on “The Wednesday Review: Jesus Camp (film)

  1. This is an interesting and good post. The most important thing is Christ. People need Christ and what he has done for them more than anything else. We should not be changing people’s political views per say. Instead we should be telling them about their only hope for heaven.

  2. How odd. Having spent a number of years at a less-than-genuious penecostal school, my viewpoint might be tainted.

    I personally found that relying on an emotional state was required to prove your devotion. I don’t know for sure but it souinds like they are WAY over stimulated. The fire isn’t always a sign of deep understanding.

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  4. Brandon

    I saw this movie and hated it. I am a Christian myself and went to church camps from childhood until the year i graduated. The methods used on these children is very wrong, they are not given a chance to see what the world is and to just be kids. In the camps i attended our faith lessons were based off of fellowship not our need to speak in tongues or pray for george w…this movie just disturbed me even as a man of God to see some of these children mislead by their group leaders and parents

    I agree with you about some of the methods used at this camp. I don’t know if I’d call them “wrong” in a moral sense, though they did make me uncomfortable, or just incorrect. Any Christian camp worth its salt should base its teaching on the Bible and not emotional appeals alone. I’m not sure what you mean by saying the kids “are not given a chance to see what the world is”? Isn’t the point of camp to try to get away from what the world is for a while? Don’t they see what the world is on a daily basis? Maybe I’m taking your meaning wrong.

  5. Brandon

    the only parts that i agreed with were the parts with the radio show…i think he was right that these people have a political agenda…

    i recall a part in the movie where a mother was teaching her son, Levi, that global warming is not a problem nor is an imediate problem and that bothers me that this boys kids are going to suffer from the choices his mother made.

    I found the radio hosts points very disingenuous. Sure, some of “these people” do have a political agenda. So does he. Because his happens to be on the other end of the spectrum, they aren’t allowed their’s? That’s absurd. And whether you or I agree or disagree with that family’s position on global warming, how is that really going to make their kids suffer? Are they not entitled to their own opinion and to raise their kids as they see fit, provided they aren’t harming or abusing them? Disagree, sure, but we need to be careful not to look down our noses and condemn.

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  7. Janae Nash

    I, myself, am a Pentecostal. Apostolic Pentecostal, to be exact. I do agree with what you said about the mug smashing. And the first comment as well. Sometimes people forget what being a Christian is all about, and they take it to levels of extremity that shouldn’t even be thought of. It’s all about falling in love with Jesus. Realizing that He died for us, who, realistically and literally, deserve nothing but eternal damnation in hell. But that’s where grace steps in. I do believe in speaking in tongues because Acts 2:38-39 quotes, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Now I realize that this scripture only says that they would receive the Holy Ghost, and says nothing directly about speaking in tongues. But if you read the scriptures, it just makes sense. Acts 10:44-46 quotes, “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles was also poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.” The believers knew that the Gentiles had received the Holy Ghost because they heard them speaking in tongues. It’s kind of obvious. Anywhere in the New Testament, after Jesus gave the promise that He would be with them, anyone who received the Holy Ghost was recorded as speaking in tongues.

    So if speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of the Holy Ghost being in you, and Peter even said that the promise was unto those afar off, I definitely believe that the Holy Ghost was not only made for the new church, but for all believers. I mean, why would we want to change the way the apostles had church? Wouldn’t we want to have the same fire?

    I know I’ve gone off subject. Just saying, we need to take the Bible for what it is. And search for truth. If there’s any one thing that I can promise, it’s that if you search for truth, you’ll find it. I didn’t type any of these things quoting my pastor. I’m not in a cult. I read my Bible and I take Jesus at His Word.

    Just fall in love with Him. Fall in love with His Word, and His truth. Things will make more sense altogether.

    First of all, thanks for the great comment. I really do appreciate it. Secondly, just to respond to your comment about tongues and to maybe clarify my belief of what the Bible teaches about it. I too believe that the Bibles teaching on tongues is obvious, though I don’t agree with your interpratation of what that is (or was). You are correct that Acts chapter ten talks about people speaking in tongues. But I think we need to look back to the beginning of Acts 2 to really understand what that means exactly. Acts 2:4-11 to be specific. It says:

    4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
    5Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.
    6And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.
    7They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
    8″And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?
    9″Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
    10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
    11Cretans and Arabs–we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”

    I’ve italicized the sections I think are most telling for this discussion. To me its pretty clear that the Bible is teaching that the tongues being spoken were in fact other existing languages. So, if I happened to be an Arab I would have heard the apostles speaking the Gospel in Arabian. The Holy Spirit had indeed come upon them and given them the ability to speak in another language that they didn’t know, for the benefit of bringing others to Christ. I do not believe that it was tongues as most Pentecostals practice it today. That’s not because I think its weird or strange, but I believe that is what the Bible teaches.

    I would also say that I agree with you 100% that the Holy Spirit was not just for the Early Church, but for all Christians for all time and I believe the Bible teaches that when you become a Christian you are filled with the Holy Spirit and it stays with you forever. It doesn’t leave and then come back. I’m blanking on a verse to back that up right now, but I will find one.

    You’re obviously someone who loves Jesus and has a passion for studying His Word, which is awesome. I just wanted to share my thoughts on this and make sure you and any future readers have an idea of where I’m coming from. I hope I didn’t come off as a jerk or anything, that wasn’t my intention. Please stop by again.

  8. Thane

    Very well-thought post. I originally saw this with a group of my secular friends when it opened. Our immediate reaction was our standard cynical disgust for christianity. Like we do, we went out for coffee after & talked about it or a while, we realized much the same as what your post divines. Having the christian perspective is good. When the topic arises again, I will include some of your words to temper my more radical friends.

    Over the years, I wax and wane cycnical over the notion of christianity. It is people like you who remind me that the vast majority of christians are not fanatical in their beliefs.

    Be well,
    TB

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