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Religion, Worldviews and Controversy Pitch Their Tents at "Jesus Camp"

Filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
by U.J. Lessing

It’s 5:45 on a Friday evening when filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing join me at the Screenland Theater. Accompanying them is Becky Fischer, an evangelical children’s pastor and the primary subject of the film. All three women look tired and overworked, but that doesn’t stop them from enthusiastically sharing their ideas about “Jesus Camp” a new documentary about a camp oriented towards evangelical Christian children.

Today is the film’s opening day, and the three women have spent a tremendous amount of time sharing their thoughts and ideas about the film. One source of irritation arrived in the form of conservative pundit and film reviewer, Michael Medved. All three women were interviewed live by Medved on the air earlier that afternoon and were surprised when Medved slammed the two filmmakers for what he perceived to be liberally biased filmmaking.

“I think it’s really arrogant of a pundit or a representative of a certain group of people to tell us that the people in our film aren’t smart enough basically to make their own mind up”

Rachel explains, “He thought it was absolutely glaringly obvious that we had a pointed and vicious and venomous agenda against Christians and against conservative people, and it’s very ironic because for the past three days we’ve been showing very conservative Christians the film, and they have embraced it.

“So I think it’s his preconceived notions and he’s somehow decided that Heidi and I, based on what he knows about us, because we’re from the east coast, maybe because we’re filmmakers, maybe because I’m Jewish and she’s Catholic, that we’re liberals and that we are making these people look like idiots. However, they don’t feel that way, and when other people have seen the film they don’t feel that way.”

Both filmmakers are clearly upset by this attack because they feel that they worked hard to eliminate any bias from their film. Heidi says, “We’re not wearing how we feel on our sleeve, and it’s not even trying to be coy. It’s just honestly not relevant. We decided to chronicle this group of people and try to tell the story of the greater culture war that is emerging in this country to the best of our ability.”

In regards to Medved’s attack, Heidi counters, “I think it’s really arrogant of a pundit or a representative of a certain group of people to tell us that the people in our film aren’t smart enough basically to make their own mind up…People are trying to weigh in and co-opt the film for their own agenda and dragging us into this political fight, and we really refuse to join that fray, because that’s really not why we made the film.

“It’s a useless film if it’s co-opted by one side or the other. If both sides don’t get to see the film and weigh in it’s going to be a much less rich experience for exeryone. We hope it’ll go the right way.

Heidi understands that it’s a charged issue. “It’s politics and religion in America right now in 2006. There’s a midterm election…It’s timely. It’s topical…

“Right now people want to talk about this.”

“And we’ve given them a vehicle, “adds Rachel.

“…an original interesting approach to children and it’s turning out to be controversial”

Ewing and Grady got the idea for “Jesus Camp” when they were filming their last documentary. Heidi explains, “‘The Boys of Baraka’ featured a 12-year-old Baptist preacher named Devon Brown…We were inspired by him because he was a fire and brimstone excellent 12-year-old preacher that had knocked our socks off, and he’s featured in our last movie. So he stuck with us, and we became interested in doing a film on children who are truly devoted, children of faith.

“We started doing our research and calling different churches and looking into the history of children worshipping and children pastors and Becky Fischer’s name came up a few times from different churches we called. And so we went to her website and started looking into her ministry and we had never seen anything like it before, and I think no one has ever seen anything like it before.

“(Her ministry) is an original interesting approach to children and it’s turning out to be controversial.”

Becky Fischer is a larger than life character. In the film, she is an affectionate and charismatic figure to the children. She also evokes strong feelings in them, bringing them to tears and teaching them about the sins of abortion, popular music, and Harry Potter. Unlike Heidi and Rachel, I have no need to hide my political feelings. The ideas she preaches in the film scare the hell out of me.

Becky herself, however, is anything but scary. She is an instantly agreeable and warm. You can spot this type of person a mile away: she genuinely cares about children. She is also selfless and genuine. The voice of my conscience tells me that it is possible for nice people to have morally reprehensible ideas. But “morally reprehensible” just doesn’t seem to describe Becky’s character.

Becky shares with me about her childhood and faith, “Our background is charismatic Christian. My parents were pastors. They were pastors of churches for 25 years. I had grandparents that were both ordained pastors and were the same denomination, and then I had four uncles who were pastors. So I kind of grew up in that environment. But I can honestly say that from my earliest experiences that I embraced the message as my own. I was never one of those kids that just rode on the spiritual shirttails of their parents. I embraced the faith as my own from a very young age.

“My parents tell me I actually responded to an alter call when I was five years old, although in my heart I believe it happened much sooner.”

Becky never expected to enter a career with children, “I always tell people that God tricked me actually, because I had no interest in children whatsoever on the surface. I was like anyone else in their local church. I took my turn teaching a Sunday school class, and I took a season where I took one whole year and actually did their children’s church services. I was actually very good with the kids with no experience and no education or anything, but it never occurred to me that it was my call in life.

“In fact my first experiences of seeing children operate in the supernatural in the specific area of healing the sick occurred during that time. But that was back in the 1980s when it still had not dawned on me that this was a calling from God.

“Then I moved to another city, started getting involved in that church. They lost a children’s pastor, and so I just picked up the baton and began to carry it, and that’s when I really began to fall in love with this thing. I much more deliberately began to teach them. Before I just taught them by accident what I felt and believed. But when I stepped into this church it was a deliberate passing on (of) values and things at that time, and I began to see how children just really responded to this message.”

Becky shares her interest in the future of the children she teaches, “This group of kids of course, they’re still in the making. Levi, the main character, believes that he’s called to be a doctor in India, so he will be in the medical profession but he will use that as an evangelistic tool.”

Heidi interrupts, “They have big plans actually, that’s why we want to make part II, because we’d like to see if those plans get realized and how these kids are as adults maybe five or ten years down the road. That would be fascinating, but they do have big plans and all of them involve God in some sort of way. It figures into everything even if it’s a non-religious profession. Most of the kids work it in somehow.”

“We said, ‘Would you have prayed to Clinton? You know, pre-scandal, during scandal, post scandal.’”

One of the most controversial moments in “Jesus Camp” occurs when a cut-out figure of George W. Bush is displayed in front of the children. A woman who works at the camp tells the students to speak a blessing to the President, and says, “He has surrounded himself with spirit filled people.” The students wave their arms and passionately pray for the president. I ask Becky if this was a religious moment or a political moment.

Becky replies, “This is a very interesting aspect because, of course, we didn’t see that as political on any level. We’ve prayed for presidents all my life. That’s just a thing we do as Christians, because there’s a scripture that says, ‘Pray for those who are in authority over you,’ and God has placed all people in government. He raises kings up and he takes them down, and if you want to live in peace you need to pray for your leaders.

“So we looked at that as just… ‘Well, we’re just teaching what the bible says.’ These ladies came in from a secular vantage point having not had that background, and all kinds of antennas started coming up because they only had one grid to see that through, and it was political.

“And so they didn’t have any other foundation or basis through which to see all these issues like whether it was abortion or praying for the president or any of those things. So that’s where it got very interesting and at first very intimidating.

“We realized what the angles they were taking. It was like nine months into the film before I knew that any of this was happening, and it really did make me kind of frightened at first. Well, what just happened here? But as we’ve discussed it and we’ve walked through this process together, I understand that it happened very organically.”

Heidi adds, “We said, ‘Would you have prayed to Clinton?’ You know, pre-scandal, during scandal, post scandal. And they said, ‘Yeah! We would pray for all of our leaders.’ But I think the moment is significant… in context to the broader political spectrum of the film because there is a special affinity, as we all know, between Evangelical Christians and George Bush. This is clearly a very friendly relationship.

It’s not that cutout; it’s everything everyone wants to put onto that cutout.”

Becky responds, “It’s only fair to say that there’s a lot of Christians who are getting frustrated with some of the things that they see. I’m not pinning my hopes on (George W. Bush). I pin my hopes on Jesus Christ. He just happens to be a temporary vessel, and if we can take back some territory we feel that we’ve lost on spiritual issues then so be it, but I’m certainly not pinning my hopes on him.

“I can only say for myself that I’m starting to see things from a different angle, but I would still say I am probably going to vote down the line. For me personally, the only reason I would… vote Republican is because they happen to support more of the issues that I believe in than the other party, but that does not mean that I think... we got no faults and no issues. I think we’re fraught with issues. The honest issues, I get very frustrated with my party of choice. You don’t want to put all your cookies in one jar or whatever, but the only reason I personally tend to go that route is because there are more issues I can agree with than I can in the other party.”

“A Just life has nothing to do with damnation, and here’s where we get controversial.”

Becky’s rhetoric in the film implies that Christianity provides the only way to live a decent life. I decide to ask her flat out if she believes that a strong ethical and moral code can exist in a family that is not religious.

Becky says, “Absolutely, but I’m going to bet that somewhere down the line Grandma and Grandpa or Great-Grandma and Grandpa or somebody had some pretty strong religious values. I travel all over the world, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, and I know there’s people who are going to argue with this point, but this nation was based on biblical values. What are those biblical values? Basically: the Ten Commandments. I’ll take you to nations where the Ten Commandments was nowhere in their history, and it’s a stinking mess.”

I ask Becky if you have to be born again to live a just and moral life. She replies, “No. I think these guys (Rachel and Heidi) live just and moral lives and they don’t claim to be born again. I don’t think Christians have a corner on that, but I think if you are a Christian that it behooves you. That if you’re not, you’re a phony.”

I ask her if one can lead a just life and still go to hell. Becky says, “A Just life has nothing to do with damnation, and here’s where we get controversial.”

Heidi interrupts, “Because I’m going to hell! But (Rachel) gets one last chance, which is totally unfair.”

Rachel chimes in, “Is that not true? If you’re Jewish, you get one last shot?”

Becky smiling replies, “I’ve heard that, and I really don’t know.”

Rachel quickly quips, “I think it’s true,” and now we are all laughing.

Heidi with mock bitterness shouts, “I was brought up Catholic, and I’m going down.”

But Becky does not skirt around the issue, and once our laughter is done, she provides a serious explanation, “As a bible believing Christian who claims to have a born-again experience our anchor is the scriptures, is the word of God. So any opinion, any worldview we have is anchored in that book. That’s it. So unlike a pluralistic society where all religions lead to heaven and it’s based on good works. So we adhere to the word of God.

“So there’s many scriptures, too many to even discuss here, but the basic one was Jesus said, ‘You must be born again.’ He was the one who first used the terminology that’s now a catchphrase in America.

“A lot of people say, ‘You have to pray this certain prayer before you can be born again.’ But that’s not what the Bible says. The bible says, ‘If you believe in your heart that Jesus is the Son of God and if you believe God raised him from the dead, you’re saved.’ But it says, ‘You must confess with your mouth.’ So that is the pivot stone.

“We adhere to that scripture. So it has nothing to do with your works. You can sing in the choir, give all your money to charity, give your body to be burned for the saving of a poor orphan child in Afghanistan, but if you don’t name Jesus Christ as the lord of your life, that’s the deciding factor of where’s your going to spend eternity.”

I decide I can’t let this one go. A religion where morality takes a back seat to belief just seems wrong to me. I point out that, according to the Bible, humans are made in God’s image, and that as a human I would not wish that fate to befall any just person. I ask why God allows the just to be punished. (I am transforming myself from a film critic into a theologian.)

Becky answers, “He didn’t wish that fate on anyone, and hell was never created for people. Hell was created for the devil and his angels, because of their rebellion, and every man, woman and child is born with a choice. And he says, “Choose you this day whom you will serve. Choose you this day. I’ve set before you today life and death. Choose life, that you and your children might live.” And so he gives every human being a choice of choosing life. And so it’s not his choice, and it’s not a matter of, “You’re not saved so I’m going to send you to hell.” It’s a choice that people make, and that’s why we as evangelical Christians feel it’s so important for us to get the word out because a lot of people haven’t been given that knowledge in order to make that choice.”

I say, “It sounds…”

Becky interrupts me, “It sounds narrow and bigoted doesn’t it?”

I say, “Narrow and bigoted aren’t the words I was thinking. It sounds dysfunctional. It sounds like a system that God, being a powerful entity, would try to stop. God would change things around so that people who live an ethical life would be the ones to reap the rewards of heaven.”

Becky answers, “Okay, here’s the whole foundation. If we could get to heaven by our works than Jesus died on the cross in vain. There was no purpose in his dying. None whatsoever. And so for some people, that’s not a problem… And this would take a whole sermon for me to outline the significance of his dying on the cross and his shed blood— that’s a term that you will hear a lot around Born Again Christians—has nothing to do with what we do as far as works or goodness. We have no goodness. Even Jesus says, “Why are you calling me good? There’s only one person who’s good and that’s God.” So this really gets outside the dimensions of this movie I think. It’s a whole doctoral debate that just goes on and on and on, and it just depends on your worldview and your understanding of the scriptures.”

“This film has totally changed my worldview and that’s so precious.”

My time is running out. It’s now 6:30pm and Rachel, Heidi, and Becky are famished. I was promised twenty to thirty minutes. They have given me forty-five. I ask the filmmakers about future projects.

Rachel answers, “…we want to continue to make films that are provocative, that we get to reap a lot of benefits intellectually from as well. This film has totally changed my worldview and that’s so precious.”

Heidi responds, “I care a lot about the audience. I think about the audience every shoot I go on. I think about what my audience needs to see. What I need to do to make an audience understand…In a very efficient 85 minutes, this person is going to have an accelerated compacted intense experience, and it excites me to think we are giving them that.”

Rachel sums up her experiences making “Jesus Camp” well, “It was fascinating we really did feel like we were allowed to participate in a parallel existence that was happening right in the middle of America. I think that’s a privilege any time someone lets you do that. You’re penetrating someone’s most intimate space.”

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originally posted: 09/24/06 13:46:23
last updated: 11/05/07 11:04:14
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