I 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.”