by Mel Valentin
For liberal-progressives and secularists, the rise of the Christian Right over the last forty years has been a troubling development, more so as the Christian Right has moved into the public sphere, advocating conservative principles through politics. The Christian Right first helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency in 1980, returning in 2000 and 2004 to give George W. Bush the votes necessary to become president of the United States. Their priorities are apparently two-fold: to bring back religion, specifically fundamentalist Christianity, into public life, legislating Christian morality into law, and repealing abortion rights through federal and state legislation, and just as importantly, through the appointment of anti-abortion judges to state and federal benches.Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's new documentary about an evangelical bible camp, Jesus Camp, focuses primarily on Becky Fischer, a youth minister from Missouri, who runs a summer bible camp in North Dakota. Before we get to the bible camp, Ewing and Rachel introduce us to several children, including Rachel, a 10-year old girl passionate about the youth ministry, and Levi, a pre-teen eager to become a minister. The bible camp really is a camp. The boys and girls are separated by gender, each group sleeping in bunk beds. Their days are completely regulated (and regimented), with activities geared toward continually affirming the evangelical message, including meals. The evenings, though, are saved for sermons, singing, dancing, and testifying to their spiritual connection to God through the Holy Spirit. As evangelical Christians, Fischer and the others, including the children, speak in tongues (a sign that the Holy Spirit is speaking through them). Abortion becomes the focus of one evening.
"What would Jesus do? Good, no excellent, question."
Even after the bible camp ends and the children return home (several to be home schooled), they still spend time together, but as in the bible camp, the activities are directed by adults to explicitly spread the word about their faith. For example, the children are taken to Washington, D.C., just days before the final vote on the Samuel L. Alito appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they pray by the Capitol building. For her part, Fischer relives the apparent successes at the camp via videotape. As spring comes around again, we're left with Rachel and Levi proselytizing on street corners, undaunted by rejection or the confused looks they receive from passersby, certain in their faith in evangelical Christianity. What the future holds for either of them (or the other children) is unknown, but Fischer and the other adults expect them to become part of a Christian army, engaging in spiritual warfare against the "enemy" (presumably non-believers).
From one perspective, it's difficult not to see how the bible camp as depicted here doesn't resemble a cult. At least on the surface, it seems to have all the requisite features of an authoritarian cult, young, impressionable members, infallible leaders, primarily Jesus, but also the current president of the United States, who's seen as religious figure and not just a political one (e.g., the adults bring out a cardboard cutout of Bush during one service, the children dutifully gather around and touch the cardboard cutout reverently), a holy text or writ in the Holy Bible, fearmongering, exclusionary language and actions (e.g., a vaguely defined enemy in the service of sin and Satan), and the threat of exile, spiritual, emotional, and mental, for non-believers or doubters within the groups.
There are several intertwined questions that need to be considered. First, how much control did Ewing and Grady's subjects have over the filming and presentation of the bible camp? Ewing and Grady seem to have unprecedented, close-up access to the bible camp, bringing their cameras into the boys and girls rooms, following Levi and his friend as they go on a nature hike, and explore a cave, follow Becky Fischer as she prepares to give the opening sermon at the bible camp, follow Levi and his family to a mega-church rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado (where Levi gets a coveted front seat), and almost as importantly bringing the cameras into the prayer services, sermons, and other activities. At minimum, Fischer and the others expected that their words and actions would speak for themselves, regardless of what biases Ewing and Grady brought with them.
Assuming that Jesus Camp isn't, in fact, "objective" by any definition of that word, then what should we make of Ewing and Grady's subtle leftward slant? After all, they show Fischer at her most vulnerable, primping before a mirror, and later, sitting alone at home, wiping away the tears as she watches videotape from the most recent bible camp. Later, Fischer claims to be both happy in her mission to teach and instruct children in evangelical Christianity, then sinks into a moment of despair about the state of the world as she looks out at a placid roadside scene. Ewing and Grady really tip their hand, however, through the use of ominous, eerie music to underline the scenes of the children overcome with emotion as they publicly testify and confess their sins. Then again, Ewing and Grady include at least two scenes of the bible camp kids dressed in combat fatigues, their faces painted, as they sing and dance to Christian rock.Last, the key question is how representative is this particular evangelical movement of Christianity (or fundamentalism for that matter)? It's a broad, perhaps too broad a question for Ewing and Grady to answer in a feature-length documentary, but it's certainly a question worth exploring more deeply in a subsequent documentary (if it hasn't already). Despite popular belief, Christianity in the United States isn't monolithic. Besides the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism, by its nature, is decentralized, with dozens of denominations, and that's not even including The Church of Latter-Day Saints (i.e., Mormonism). And why give us only major voice on either side? While Becky Fischer is front-and-center, Mike Papantonio, an Air America radio host, is the only liberal voice we hear. Sure, we hear from the parents who send their kids to bible camp, but they're onscreen for just minutes at a time. Including educators and religious voices from the left would have helped give "Jesus Camp" a broader, fuller perspective.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14374&reviewer=402
originally posted: 09/29/06 02:59:02