Jesus Camp is a documentary about one of the most perplexing phenomenon in the world today- American charismatic evangelical Christianity. I think I have to preface this review with two comments: firstly I am not a believer and secondly if I were, charismatic religion revolts me on an aesthetical level. For me religion is quieter and more reflective, at its best it is deeply personal and internal- an examination of the soul- I come you might say out of a different tradition, in the sense that going back generations everyone in my family was either a Methodist or an Anglican. So in that sense, this film represents a strain of Christianity that I am naturally unsympathetic to: speaking in tongues and enthusiasm generally denote for me a rock concert, not a religious profession.
Jesus Camp was made to shock. The documentary makers are definitely not evangelical nor are they conservative: though their subject is both evangelical and conservative. They show their subjects- in particular Becky Fischer the children's pastor at the centre of the film- in a particularly bad light. Fisher uses the swell of group emotion to put forward both a religious and a political cause. She also teaches these kids to isolate themselves from other kids: the stress is on everyone else's sinfulness. Furthermore she and those affiliated with her ministry teaches them ideas which are just bizarre, that evolution did not happen, that Global Warming is a government conspiracy. What you have to say watching the film though is that she is an impressive propagandist in her own cause, she uses toys, keeps the kid's attention and is charismatic and fun to listen to. Her message is obnoxious and repellant- this is a call to extoll faith and neglect evidence based reasoning. She admits at the start of the program that she admires Islamic Fundamentalists and how in camps in Palestine they educate their kids (she derives this information from that incredibly accurate source- unidentified websites) to commit terrorist acts, she argues that she wants to do the same thing for young Pentecostal and Evangelical kids.
This woman is mad and dangerous. There is an issue though with her madness which I think the film should take more seriously. I am absolutely sure that lots of kids attend her camp in the summer but the film made me uneasy because it failed to take on two rather important questions. The first of which is that Becky Fischer may not be representative of most evangelical children's ministers: at various points she says that in her techniques she is an advance of them. I wouldn't mind betting that she comes from the more extreme fringe of this phenomenon. The second thing is that we should beware that we assume how the kids react to her: at one point one of the camp workers says that the kids are far too interested in having fun and far too uninterested in Christianity: they prefer climbing stuff to theology. In that sense I wondered how long this stuff will remain in the children's minds: you may be overcome in a crowd shouting that homosexuality is evil, you may be overcome in the crowd dismissing others, but does that endure or is that just a surface phenomenon. We get interviews with Kids demonstrating that some do internalise it, but I'm not sure we get any proof that all of them do.
There is another facet to this. This kind of ministry only works because in a sense there are kids who need it. One of the most interesting facets of this film I thought was less the condemnation of evangelical right wing crazies- I can do that for myself, thankyou- than the way that it portrayed the kids. At the beggining of the film Becky Fischer approaches two boys, who must be both about 10 and one of them confesses that he doesn't find social situations easy. For that boy religion gives his life meaning and means that he can confront to some extent his fear of social situations in Christian camp. Christian camp is something that these kids look forward to as a bonding experience. The thing that is central to them I'd suggest is that the Camp is fun, the beliefs flow out of the fun that they are having. In that sense, they aren't convinced by reason or by faith but by tieing together fun with this belief system. Its an interesting sidelight on why humans end up believing what they do, I don't think it is only relevant here and another post hopefully in the future will deal with it. But the central thing that I am trying to get at is that Jesus Camp is not a good thing, but that it supplies for these children things they would not naturally have.
All that said, and I hope you see why I am ambivalent about this film, the one thing you don't find at Jesus Camp is Christianity. Bear in mind all my aesthetical conditions above, but I found the purveyors of Jesus Camp to deeply unChristian. They do not know what Christ meant when he said do not cast the first stone, they seem not to have read the New Testament and to be using Christianity as a justification for expressing their own hatreds. More than the kids, it is the adults who run the camp who seem to me to end up looking ill, Fischer and her minions have such a warped view of reality, they are so consumed by hate, that they have lost their humanity. All kindness is directed to an end, all forgiveness is secretly abandoned and self righteousness is endorsed. I am not sure that that was the message of the New Testament. There is something very disquieting about hundreds of kids yelling 'righteous judges' without really knowing what it means and wanting to listen to anyone who disagrees. Something sinister about kids wandering around a bowling ring telling customers that they are going to hell.
Many of our belief systems in the end are psychological crutches- we rely on them to sustain us during the bad times and there is nothing neccessarily wrong with that. I think what we see with Jesus Camp is interesting: of course the theology and politics is crap, a point the film makers blast into your mind again and again and again. But in some way the more interesting thing is that the kids seem to enjoy it, for some of them it fills a gap in their lives. In part that is because say the boy who said he was isolated is home schooled- he doesn't meet many other kids- so in part it arises from this unique conservative Christian culture in the States, but it also arises out of real needs the kids have. I am not saying that I endorse anything that goes on at Jesus Camp, but in a way that's not the interesting question. The interesting question is about why these kids enjoy it so much, adult attention, the sense of being part of a 'greatest generation' and the comradeship of their fellow Christian kids I'd suggest have a lot to do with it. The basis of a religion, you have to be joking! But the film presents us, despite the intentions of its makers, with an interesting sociological portrait of how these camps perform a role in the life of the kids that go to them. And that is far more interesting than bashing Bush another time.