I had to watch the documentary Jesus Camp in pieces. It is a 75 minute piece that took me hours to watch because of the anger and confusion it caused.
Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s minister, runs an evangelical Christian camp in Devil’s Lake North Dakota. Call it irony, call it serendipitous, whatever. The documentary focuses on Becky, an unnamed minister who appears at the final night of the camp (summer 2005) and 4 children (not all of them named). There are some back stories on the children and their parents and a bit on Becky. The rest is just footage from preaching events.
As far as a summary goes, that’s it. The analysis that follows is likely to be angry, so you are forewarned.
Before I go into it with all guns blazing I have to state the obvious but often overlooked in situations like this: were people just vamping for the camera?
Is it a balanced piece? I have no idea how it could be. A moderate talk radio host is used as a sort of sanity check throughout the piece, but when you are facing levels of zealotry that cause Becky Fischer to pray in tongues over a Powerpoint presentation (this is no joke) . . . how do you balance something like that? I will say that the filmmakers did seem to bend over backwards to let Becky and those in her world speak for themselves. They presented a few statistics on screen, but there was no narrator—so this is one of the documentaries whose message relies almost entirely on the editing for some level of fairness.
Interspersed with the preaching events the filmmakers use snippets of religious radio opinion or sermons. This is the one—very early on—that got me. “Pray urgently that God’s perfect will will be won,” unnamed male speaker. The issue was over Supreme Court nominations, particularly that of now Justice Samuel Alito. The confusion I have here is over the notion that prayer is necessary for God’s will to be done perfectly. Why is this necessary? I have said before that prayer is the middle class’s way of thinking they have done something to aid a situation—I know this is libel to cause me some blowback. But if there is a divine plan, then why are prayers about the US government at all useful? If the whole idea is that God is all powerful and all knowing, what does prayer really do? Given a godhead like that, prayer has only a very private and personal effect.
Here are two quotes from Ms. Fischer that are both bamboozling: “We can say, ‘God, fix the world;’” and “Did you know that Muslims train their children from five years old to fast during the month of Ramadan?” First; if people are so unworthy of God and whatever He has planned or whatever, then how can someone of a true faith think that they are in the position to command God to do anything? It also presumes that the world, which is apparently part of God’s plan, needs fixing from His point of view. Just because a group of evangelicals don’t like it doesn’t mean that the world is any more fouled up than it was 200 or 2000 years ago (it’s just that there are more of us to be discontented).
The statement about Muslim children is as sad as it is frightening. For one thing, it sounds very much like (with this and other quotes I didn’t have the stomach to record) she wants to create an army of Christian zealots to go toe to toe with Muslim zealots. I’m sure there are several readers who say ‘well DUH.’ Yes, this is not a new idea, but think about the consequences. Christian zealots generally fight their fight with words; Muslim zealots fight their fight in a more desert fashion. I don’t advocate either side, but this either means that the children being ‘trained’ or ‘indoctrinated’ into this form of aggressive evangelicalism will not be prepared to stand toe to toe with their scrappier rivals. This may be over the top, but the image of children wearing tiny keys around their necks came to mind. In the Iran-Iraq war, young boys were given necklaces with keys to the Kingdom of Heaven on them, a place they would soon see because their job was to run into minefields and set off the mines so the soldiers could continue to advance.
Obviously, this horrified me.
Here is Ms. Fischer on her abilities: “I can go into a playground of kids that don’t know anything about Christianity; lead them to the Lord in a matter of just no time at all and just moments later they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God . . . Because they are so useable to Christianity.” There is zero reason to believe this is true. I have little doubt she knows how to talk to children, but it is impossible to believe that she could walk into a playground with just her word and make children hallucinate, unless what she was offering verbally came with lots of candy.
The frightening statement isn’t her braggadocio that has so much hot air I needed to turn on the air conditioner. The statement is that children are so useable to Christianity: “Here boy, put this necklace on—the key gets you into Heaven—and just run in a straight line until you see God.”
Children at the age covered hereׯ-12 is my best guess (none yet in puberty though some of the kids at camp were younger than 9, understand they were at the camp with their families)—are notorious for doing two things that are so fundamental to childhood that they are considered maturation points rather than psychological issues: wanting to fit in and telling adults what they want to hear (the latter is learned from earlier on, but at 9-12 they get better at it). Further, children at that age are seeking, usually through television, games, music, to establish an identity for themselves that is apart from their parents. How Ms. Fischer and her kind use this is by making new toys and games and music for the kids. Tory, 10, likes to dance and is troubled that some of her dancing is ‘of the flesh’ rather than ‘of the spirit’ and her favorite music is Christian heavy metal. The documentary also features Christian rap with statements like “You take JC wherever you go.” Ms. Fischer says children today are sight and sound kids, so she is using the tools of popular culture to spread her own message. I cannot fault this; to spread your word, use what tools are available. The only thing I can say about it is that it seems disingenuous. In her particular case, it seems that she is more intent on explaining her good idea to the camera than anything else. The megachurches (more on this in a moment) use the same sort of MTV light and sound show that turns every Sunday into a rock concert. This is also well documented in the worlds of sociology and psychology.
There is one unnamed tow headed boy with a scab on one knee. He appears to be 9 but no older than 11. On the first night of camp, Ms. Fischer says she knows that some of them are just pretend Christians (hard to fathom how this could be the case given the level of zeal involved here), so she has children who believe that they are pretenders gather so she can wash their hands with some Nestle water. The blond boy is one of them. He takes the microphone and says that he sometimes doesn’t believe in either God or the Bible and often has time feeling God’s presence. There are two ways to look at this: he is really on a spiritual journey and feels lost or he thinks this is the right thing to do but his experience is telling him otherwise. Either way, what happens is nauseating. To watch a kid who should be at play crying desperately because he doesn’t understand something so beyond his reach is heartrending—but worse, the film only shows people looking at him suspiciously; at no point (and I can’t say it didn’t happen, just that it wasn’t presented) is this child comforted in any way.
The longer the documentary goes on, the more frightening it gets. It also becomes very clear that the big message is not to be a good person but to be in an Army of God for one purpose: to end abortion.
The unnamed minister I mentioned above is the final speaker at the camp. His entire message is related to ending abortion. The audience he tells this surprising ‘fact’ to won’t be able to vote for almost 10 years: “Since 1973, up to fifty million babies never had a chance.” This would mean that nearly every woman in the country of childbearing years during that time had an abortion. That staggering number cannot be backed up with one single piece of data that can be verified. Even still, the message the children are sent away with is to be part of an army of people opposed to abortion. Even if they are taking other things with them—this is the last thing, and that, rhetorically and psychologically, is typically the most important. He has the chapel full of children, who probably barely understand the most basic levels of civics, chanting “righteous judges” over and over again. This is almost unbelievable. He also takes a group of children to Washington, DC presumably in January for the annual anti-Roe protests. Each child has a piece of tape over his or her mouth that just says LIFE. The message is sickening. No need for the children to speak or anything inconvenient like that, just put one word over their mouths (just a key around their necks, that’s all we really need them for).
I know that is probably getting old, but there is something that is more likely to happen here to these children that can be almost as frightening. These children for whom idealism is still something they believe can happen are being unprepared for the world.
Take this example—the filmmakers could not have known in 2005 what would happen in 2006, and that makes this film that much more ironic and sad in a way. Near the end, they visit New Life Church, a megachurch, whose senior minister at the time was Ted Haggard. He vamps for the filmmakers’ camera, at one point smilingly and jokingly pointing at the lens and saying “Repent.” A bit over a year from that taping, Ted Haggard would have to resign from his leadership post in the evangelical movement and from New Life Church, which he started, because of an ongoing affair with a Denver call-boy and drug use. He is now moving out of Colorado Springs to somewhere like Missouri where he and his wife plan to earn degrees in psychology. He has been asked to refrain from preaching in the future. At one point, he tells Levi, one of the main stars of this film, that for preaching he should use his “cute kid thing” until he’s 30 “then you will have good content.” This is dark comedy at its most dark.
What would Levi think now? This is the final piece of analysis. At the age where these children are, idealism is still something they view as possible (some view it as necessary). What happens when what they are being told stops being true; what happens when the messages about the near future don’t happen? There was a story about 6 weeks ago in The New York Times that reported the evangelical movement is having more and more difficulty holding on to their teenagers. The reason why should be obvious: the messages sent to them at 9 do not mesh with what they see at 15 when their brains are more mature in many ways. This is just a slightly more insidious version of finding out that there is no Santa. Stories you take to heart at nine or ten can stop making any sense at all when you get to fifteen, then again when you are in your twenties.
If you are in your mid to late thirties, and you thought The Breakfast Club was a profound experience when you were 15-17, watch it now. I can almost guarantee you won’t make it to the end without feeling too embarrassed to go on and that if you make it to the finale with the voice-over, you will positively be red faced that you ever found anything profound in it. It is a film whose message is meant only for the audience represented in it. Now if you are of that age and have children, realize that the same thing is going to happen to them—as they mature, things once held too sacred even to name will become too passé to name. That is a normal part of maturing.
But I’m not talking a silly John Hughes movie here. Here I am talking about what these kids view as their soul and their worldview. If you build an army of idealists, what happens when they realize that the ideal is impossible? How does the religion handle disillusionment? The simple answer is that they don’t. These children who begin to question often lose their peer group and go through a crisis of faith when they are still too young to have the tools to survive it.
I view parenting as a balancing act between protection and preparation. Imagine a slinky. When the child is an infant and for a decent amount of time thereafter, all of the slinky is in the protection hand. As the child ages, you begin to move the slinky more and more into the preparation hand. What the people covered and represented in the documentary are doing is not preparing their children for the world that is, but for the world as they want the children to make it. This is a huge burden not only on the child but on the society around the child.
Finally the only thing I can say is that it looked to me as if the children covered in the film really aren’t allowed to have a childhood. At times we are shown them playing and being kids, but, since many are home schooled . . . exactly how much time do they get to be and do on their own?
What did you think of this review?