Monday, September 08, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp (2006) 8/10
Documentary: Evangelical kids attend a Pentacostal summer camp, where they are taught to preach, receive the Holy Spirit, and reject Satan.

This is some weird shit, and it was really important to me to get past that. I am, after all, a member of a really weird religion, and if someone took documentary footage of a Pagan summer festival, they could certainly make it seem like we were crazy people believing in stupid things. So the fact that Pentacostals, fairly uniquely among Evangelicals, believe in speaking in tongues, prophecy, and laying on of hands is not enough to make me look askance at these people.

But there's a lot more going on. In fact, the whole package. The whole damn world of everything that reasonable people should be afraid of. Let's start with the anti-science home schooling. Science is stupid. Not just evolution, science. So ask yourself, if these people take over like they're trying to, where will the next generation of doctors and engineers and researchers come from? If that was the only thing scary, it would be plenty scary.


The indoctrination is everywhere, about everything. These kids have outings that are "prayer walks." The nine year-old dancer tries to insure that she dances for God and not "for the flesh," and all the children are whipped into a frenzy about their own hypocrisy, and weep for it. One girl prays to Jesus before letting go of her ball while bowling. It really feels like their every waking moment is filled with Jesus, and no moments are just there.

Which is just fearful. The whole religious movement feels fearful to me, as if they're afraid that if they stop praying to Jesus for one damn minute, the whole house of cards will fall down.

Central to this story is Becky Fischer, a preacher who specializes in preaching to children, and the head of the summer camp. She is fervent and joyful; she truly believes in her mission and speaks with remarkable frankness; about "using" children, about teaching them a fanaticism comparable to the Islamic terrorists who teach children to blow themselves up. Christian children, she says, should also be willing to sacrifice themselves for God. She isn't preaching violence, but after all, some Christians are, and if you teach that this level of fantacism and martyrdom is good, it's only a very short walk.

I was struck, early in the film, that Fischer, a very large woman, preached about how some people are too fat and lazy to fast for God or really serve God. It struck me as typical of the lack of self-reflection and the disconnection encouraged in this sort of religion. Ironically, the film ends with Ted Haggard, preaching before his downfall, showing the same lack of self-reflection, the same disconnection. This wasn't the intention of the film, which didn't know at the time how Haggard would fall, but it's kind of inevitable, as I've written before.

The filmmakers choose to let the Pentacostals, both adult and children, speak for themselves, and shows them pretty much how they choose to be shown. Although many things they say can be shocking or offensive, it doesn't appear to be because of manipulative editing. The subjects are given the opportunity to consider what they're saying, think it over, and say it at some length, it's never a quick clip with no context, and I don't feel there was anything lurid about it. The shock, if the viewer experiences it, comes only from the truth.

Rather than argue with the Pentacostals, the filmmakers provide a liberal Christian radio host (Mike Papantonio) for contrast. Some reviewers have said that this is a heavy-handed way of introducing counter-point, but the filmmakers, on the director's commentary, said they cut it in after filming was done because otherwise the movie felt kind of flat; it needed tension. And I think it works.

At less than an hour and a half, Jesus Camp seems overlong. It feels like it's going on and on and on about this point of view. I guess I would have liked more characters, or more than one group of preachers, or something. But it's a strong film, very well-made, and I am again grateful to Netflix for making documentaries something we can all see more of.

(Cross-posted by the power of the Holy Spirt.)