L. Michael FooteDirector: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cast: Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio
et me begin this review by acknowledging my own lack of objectivity. As a home-schooled kid from an Evangelical Christian background, I grew up agonizing over the souls of the lost and resisting the urge to masturbate. Evan as I grow older, Jesus continues to define my perspective. My rebellious years were set to the God-bashing tunes of Tori Amos and, to this very day, I accompany my parents to church every Sunday. This spurt of autobiography is no meaningless tangent. As I’m evaluating a film about a hot-button issue, it seems only fair to admit my many preconceptions and biases.
My stance on Christianity: Honestly, I find the religion rather repellent, but I freak out when somebody dismisses Sufjan Stevens because he prays to God. After all, most of my loved ones believe that Earth is less than ten thousand years old. My take on Jesus Camp: Although filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady occasionally (and understandably) veer into sensationalism, the film is largely an accurate depiction of the Evangelical Christian mentality. Inescapable tendentiousness likely stains this thesis, I freely admit, but I am trying to keep an open mind.
In its most hysterical moments, the film portrays Christian worship as something closely akin to satanic ritual. However, when the documentary disintegrates into footage of panicked children sobbing about hypocrisy, the filmmakers compromise their hard-hitting relevance. When the Holy Spirit moved in my church, people closed their eyes and lifted their hands, but they didn’t convulse on the floor. Nobody ever brought a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush into my sanctuary. The occasionally freakish tale of Becky Fischer and her camp for children may apply to fringe Pentecostal groups, but Jesus Camp claims to represent your average Evangelical Christian. Happily, once the blood stops boiling, the documentary becomes a heartbreaking, even inspirational portrait of the born-again demographic.
In order to gain anything from this movie, one must drop a condescending attitude and adopt the Christian perspective. One kid wears a T-shirt bearing the Reese’s Pieces logo subtly altered for proselytizing purposes. Later, a relentlessly bad hip-hop song informs us that “Jesus is in da house.” Yes, the subculture can be amusing; get over it. Now, the Christian worldview informs every facet of life, especially when you’re schooled at home. Jesus Camp captures exactly how this formative environment affects the minds of children. A boy talks about how “yucky” non-Christians make him feel; a girl, painfully shy, walks up to strangers and tells them that God is thinking about them. After confessing that agnosticism haunts his mind, one child lies crouched on the floor, gasping for breath, grasping for tissues, rocking back in forth as if constipated, begging for belief in God.
In one scene, a powerful testimony to the film’s fair-mindedness, Becky Fischer reviews this provocative footage without blinking an eye. The minister admits to indoctrinating her children, but also firmly believes that she’s doing the right thing. After all, children are tremendously gullible creatures; brainwashing is inevitable. According to Fischer, she’s well within her right to impart her values. When a pro-life speaker addresses the kids, he whips them into an emotional frenzy for the many children who have perished at the hands of abortionists. Is this speech callous political manipulation or merely an attempt to correct a tremendous outrage? Ewing and Grady portray the leaders of Jesus Camp as passionate believers with good intentions.
Although several scenes may strike the viewer according to their particular prejudices—leading Becky Fischer to hope and me to cynicism—Jesus Camp would be a mealy-mouthed documentary were it only to affirm our preconceptions. However, other scenes are undeniably pointed. “Ever since I realized the futility of earthly life at the age of five, I’ve been looking for something more,” one boy states, tossing out polished pulpit apologetics as original thought. Skeptical, Becky responds, “ever since you were five, huh?” (Obviously, I paraphrase.) In a similar scene, a home-schooling mother talks about the propaganda in public schools, asking her son to picture a classroom where the professor calls Creationism stupid. Then, ready to prove that any fair-minded person will inevitably arrive at Christianity, the mother flips the question and imagines the professor ridiculing the theory of evolution. Ironically, the son enthusiastically approves. In these potent moments, a rigid worldview manifests itself, running contrary to the intentions of Christian parents, leaders and educators. Of course, this observation certainly does not apply solely to the Christian community, but instead serves as a reminder to promote intellectual curiosity and flexibility in all youth.
Even in these examples, Jesus Camp emphasizes the good intentions of parents and leaders. In a seemingly contrary tactic, the documentary pleads relevance based on the hefty political influence wielded by the Evangelical Christian interest group. Thankfully, the film differentiates between the faith-seekers and those hungry for power. In an intersection between faith and politics, Levi, a boy-pastor, travels to the mega-church of Ted C. Haggard. Haggard brutally dismisses the “cute kid thing,” and comes across as a reptilian monster, cackling about the power of the Christian Right. Even if Haggard isn’t the antichrist that this film casts him to be (and his scenes do seem wrenched from context), the directors know how to choose their enemies.
In a challenging conclusion, the documentary records the offensive rhetoric of a liberal radio host. He bemoans the “us vs. them” mentality of the Christian Right, but simultaneously warns that, although these people may seem kind in small doses, just “get ‘em together” and see what happens. In one unfruitful confrontation, Becky Fischer calls into this show. In the ensuing, thoroughly depressing conversation, the man implies that Becky is going to hell (shouldn’t this have happened the other way around?). If my parents heard the radio program, they would quickly turn it off and continue on, re-convinced of an enemy presence. Would they do the same with Jesus Camp? In my view, this documentary promotes conversation and empathy, not intolerance. As I’ve already stated, Jesus Camp, in its implicit denunciation of the Christian religion coupled with respect for Christians themselves, neatly dovetails with my pre-established political stance. However, Becky Fischer herself, while expressing some reservations, has endorsed the film. Exactly how many of Michael Moore’s subjects feel they have been fairly treated?
Jesus Camp is currently playing in limited release.