Film Review: “Jesus Camp” (2005)

Documentary directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady filmed “Jesus Camp” during one of the most tense political climates in recent history: the retirement of liberal Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor, and the nomination and subsequent confirmation of ultra-conservative New Jersey native Samuel Alito, Jr. to the bench as her replacement. Against all common sense, Dubya nominated an anti-abortion, big business-favoring male to replace a strong female role model. Why? Yeah, okay, the man has the intellect of a bag of hair (and not good hair. We’re talking old weave that fell out of a whore’s ‘do after a hard weekend). He was catering to his base – the newly empowered evangelical religious Right.

The film, set in flyover country (rural Missouri), is an eye-opening peek into the world of charismatic evangelicals. More importantly, however, it scars your mind with visions of writhing, bucking children lying on the floor; young, teary-eyed girls, speaking in tongues; a young boy saying that they felt there was “something missing in his life” at the tender age of five. This is a documentary showing the ritualized scarification of innocent minds that may never have a chance to see differently.

We start out driving, driving, driving. We see strip malls. It looks like Jersey, except there’s less smog and traffic. The liberal voice of the movie, Air America’s Mike Panpantonio (host of “River of Fire”), is broadcasting, discussing the rise of this religious movement that seems to clash so drastically with his own Christian learnings of charity, tolerance, and giving. Much of his commentary centers around the illogical and seemingly senseless practices that the evangelicals believe in.

The film’s stars are three kids: Levi, a precocious 12 year old boy sporting a mullet (God in the front, Devil in the back? Got me.), Victoria, age 10, a young dancer who punks out to Christian metal and tries not to dance “for the flesh”, and 9 year old Rachael, who is all Jesus, all the time…and woe to anyone that isn’t. All three are home-schooled. Levi, sitting at the table with his mother, works out of a textbook on Creation Science. His mother, Fulbright scholar that she is, gives him exercises out of a binder. I see MIT in this kid’s future…oh yes, I do. After his lesson, Levi and his brother chill in front of the TV and view a DVD about…you guessed it!…Creation Science. They laugh at those silly evolutionists that think humans could possibly have evolved from gross, stinky apes.

We go to Rachel’s house, where she sits in her bedroom and spouts off some truly frightening Christian rhetoric. Google Video took down the full movie, so I can’t supply exact quotes; I’ll tell you, though, that this young woman goes to the bowling alley, takes a Chick tract with her, and evangelizes to a blonde teenage girl minding her own business. She tells her father, who watches her with proud eyes, that she “felt that Jesus told her that she should talk to her”.

Tori is at home, dancing to Christometal, getting her Star Search on. She says that she has to remember to dance for Christ, and not for anything or anyone else.

They all go to the same church, a children’s ministry led by Pastor Becky Fisher. She reminds me of my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Morgenroth- round, short-haired, and full of herself. Oh, did I mention that I went to a Christian school from Kindergarten to 4th grade? Oops.

This is where things start to get really, really questionable. It starts off okay. Fisher preaches, the kids listen. She asks them all if they’re going to go to Kids on Fire, her one week summer camp at Devil’s Lake (no joke on the name). They all very enthusiastic.

Then, the calls for war come out. They aren’t here to play around, because there’s a fight, and they have to do battle. This battle calls for no less than thier lives, because that’s what Jesus demands of them in this evil, threatening world.

What follows at the end of this service is sickening, and a part of the sick power play that marks all of Fisher’s sermons. She screams at the all to speak in tongues. The kids, possessed by Jesus, starts to shake and cry. They rock back and forth, as if in a sort of uncontrollable mania. There is laying of hands, children fainting into each other’s arms. And, worse yet, the parents are there. They’re watching. And they’re doing the same exact thing.

We get to know more of Becky Fisher shortly. Her whole reasoning behind her fear fest? Hey, those Palestinians teach their kids to be killers, and to lay down their lives for their beliefs, so why not good Christian youngsters? After all, she “knows that they’re (the evangelicals) right!”

At the camp, we see more of the same types of services. One service centers on Fisher yelling out, “I know that some of you children have evil in your hearts! There are sinners among you all! You’re evil and bad! Raise your hands and come forward if you’re evil and bad!” What constitutes evil and bad? Well, liking Harry Potter, for one. Playing video games. You know…normal kid stuff. There’s a phalanx of distraught children that press around her, crying hysterically, hands outstretched. She anoints them with…bottled water from Wal-Mart. Klassy! After this, she then demands that children with sin in their hearts come out, take the microphone, and talk about their sin. One little boy takes that mike. In one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film, he cries through his admission that he is a bad Christian because he questions what he reads, and has doubts about the Bible. He crumbles to the floor, prostrate before a jury of his peers, hoping to repent for the sin of childish, innocent curiosity.

Levi gets an opportunity to preach, and actually does an okay job. It seems that he has preached at his father’s church, and isn’t that severe. I believe that he truly has a calling, although I believe that his budding spirituality will be ill-served by evangelism. Rachael and Tori, I notice, are very much in the background, as is fitting for good Christian women. They don’t say or do much; Levi is given lots of attention by church leaders, while the girls seem to be relegated to the background.

Fisher gets the “Hi! Take Away My Tax Exemption!” award for her utter pandering to the Republican party during the film. She brings in a pro-life speaker, who has a box of tiny plastic fetuses (I think the proper plural of that is fetii, but I won’t quibble) that he passes around. He tells them that little 9 week old babies shouldn’t die, because they could be your friends! What if you lost all your friends? The babies feel pain (a lie)! I screamed, “PEDO!” at the screen while this guy was on. He was extremely creepy. He placed red tape over the children’s mouths with the word “LIFE” written on them. Then, there’s the Gallagher-esque smashing of mugs that say “Government” on them- because there should be no government; Biblical law is all that’s needed to run a successful society. Best of all, though, is the unveiling of a life-size Bush cut-out, with orders to “send blessings” to him, because he is a true man of the faith. Just so you realize how egregiously over the line this is…in contrast, the liberal All Saints’ Episcopal Church came under fire for one antiwar sermon preached right before the 2004 screwup that we called an election.

The last 15 minutes of the film is spent between Ted “Meth and Male Ho’s Are Super!” Haggard, and an excursion to the nation’s capital to protest abortion. At Haggard’s colossal New Life Church (14,000 strong, and under new leadership), the children and their families attend a sermon by Haggard. During this, Haggard looks gay, gay, GAY. How people could have had any questions about this man is a mystery. He’s nervous about the cameras, but tries to cover it with humor. It’s a lost effort. Afterward, Levi and his brother speak to him, but Pastor Ted seems to not have much time for them; he’s a bit perfunctory, in my opinion.

In the Capitol district, we see the group approach a monument or two. At the last, they decide to sing, pray, and once again don red tape across their mouths to protest all the dying babies.

One last soupcon from Mike Panpantonio- he interviews Becky Fisher on his show, and she makes a fool of herself. I’ll admit, I muted this part; by this point, I was so sickened by this woman’s foolishness that I couldn’t listen to her voice without feeling a visceral reaction. I can’t help but feel a decidedly mean streak of joy upon hearing that she’s shut down Kids On Fire for the forseeable future, due to fallout from the film.

This film, critically acclaimed at Cannes and Michael Moore’s film festivals (against the directors’ wishes), commendably handles a very sensitive subject that could potentially slip down the slope of “Look at the freaks!”. The absence of narration saves this from happening, I think, because they let reality tell their stories, and reality is more than enough. I think they played it a little too safe with Panpantonio, and wish that they had given him more time. However, he’s very forceful with his views, and incredibly eloquent, and that goes far in portraying the opposing viewpoint in the little time alloted him.

The most disturbing aspects of this movement, for me, are 1) the slow, protracted murder of these childrens’ true selves, curiosity, and innocence, and 2) the complete bastardization of Christianity and Jesus’ word. Let me tell you why:

  1. Severe, repeated amounts of mental stress and abuse can and will cause lasting trauma in a developing mind. Being told that you are guilty, repeatedly, and made to embarrass and shame yourself in order to be “pure” is disgusting. George Lakoff, in his book “Don’t Think Of An Elephant!” theorizes that the root of America’s cultural divide lies in the conflict between the “stern father” model and the “nurturing worldview”. Allegedly, Fear-mongering makes for more frightened children, who, then, usually turn out to be conservative and/or Republican. The absolutes of the evangelical life make it impossible to reach out of one’s sphere to embrace the experiences that create character, compassion, and true gratitude. We need to succeed and fail in real-world situations in order to be well-rounded. In short, it makes for a person that lives in a willfully ignorant bubble. Note the insistence of Christian cultural immersion demanded by these churches: Christian rock, Christian schooling, Christian videos. This is a lifestyle that thrives on isolationism. The seeds for that isolation are planted in the hearts and souls of their children.
  2. True Christianity is about love, hope, giving, and compassion. It’s about redemption. Jesus was tolerant, and spent his time not with the rich men of the temple, but with the lepers and children. He spread joy to those who needed it, not just those that could pay their tithe every month. I’ve heard from so many Christians that they’re disgusted over these peoples’ attitudes of entitlement, pridefulness, greed, and lack of charity. Conservationism, the stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources, is just lately getting a foothold in evangelical society because many think…wait for it…since God is coming back, and since the Rapture is going to happen, why save anything? Resources should be exploited to the fullest, and Jesus will make sure to provide the rest! Oh, and the almost one degree rise in temperature due to global warming that we’ve experienced (I wasn’t wearing a coat in NYC on Dec 1)? It’s nothing. It’s minimal. And it’s a lie.

“Jesus Camp” is necessary viewing for anyone who wants to see what the future holds for our culture if we don’t get it together as thinking humanists. The religious Right has been dealt some pretty handy blows lately, and we can hope that they’ll crawl back under their rock, but there’s no guarantee of that. Liberals must make a conscious choice not to deride all Christian faith due to the actions of the few. We, also, must not dismiss religion out of hand as a refuge for fools. We, then, have become the close-minded people that we seek to fend off, and we become our own worst enemies.

 

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~ by isiskali on December 5, 2006.

2 Responses to “Film Review: “Jesus Camp” (2005)”

  1. I have GOT to see this!

  2. Very amazing site! I wish I could do something as nice as you did…mary

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