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Movie Review

Jesus Camp

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some discussions of mature subject matter

Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez

Better than Average
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Documentary, Religion
1 hr. 24 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
September 29, 2006 (NYC)
Copyright, Magnolia Pictures
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Featuring: Becky Fischer, Mike Papntonio (Commentator)
Director: Heidi Ewing (“The Boys of Baraka”—2005)
Producer: Nancy Dubuc, Molly Thompson, Jacquelyn Shulman
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

“America is being born again.”

I have to admit that part of me really hoped I would like “Jesus Camp,” the new documentary from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, before I even saw it. I am, after all, actively involved in the Children’s Ministry at my church, teaching Sunday School every week and having the opportunity to help serve our church’s wonderful children’s pastor. I also had the great opportunity to spend a summer working at an equally wonderful Christian children’s camp in Washington a few years back. So, a movie that follows a children’s pastor and her ministry, as well as takes us on a trip to her Christian summer camp really was something I wanted to be able to get behind. But, after seeing it, I just can’t do that.

The film follows Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s minister who runs the “Kids on Fire” summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Becky’s methods of reaching the children are powerful and, at times, thought-provoking. There is no denying that she has a great charisma, and the children seem to warm to her instantly. I particularly liked the way she describes how bad music, movies, or things children see on TV sticks with them long after the song, movie, or TV show is over. She takes a plastic brain mold and uses one of those sticky hands that you can throw up against a wall or onto a table, and it sticks. She threw the sticky hand onto the brain mold, and, of course, it stuck, just like the bad things kids can see or hear.

But, some of her methods were a bit more radical. In one scene, she calls children forward who are living in sin and need to repent of their hypocrisy (mind you, these are grade school children), and encourages them to be washed by the Spirit (which in this case is a bottle of water she pours onto their hands while an older girl strangely wails into a microphone in the background). In another scene, one of the camp leaders calls children forward to break the Devil’s stronghold on government and other areas of politics by having them take a hammer and smash coffee mugs with words like “government” written on them. Both of these scenes clearly brought out strong emotion in the children, but I wondered if that was all the children got out of it.

The film also follows three children, Levi, Rachel, and Tory. Levi is a 12 year old boy who was saved at five because “I wanted more out of life.” He is a charismatic youngster who feels called to more, and wants to see the other children his age take a stand for God. Becky takes a shine to Levi, and even asks him to preach during one of the evening services at camp. Rachel is a 9 year old girl who has a desire to evangelize the lost. We see her early on in the film walk up to a stranger and present a Gospel tract, saying that God just laid it on her heart to tell them that He wanted to love on them. She then goes back to her family, and informs her father that after she prayed about it, she felt she “picked” the right person. Tory is a 10 year old girl who uses her love of dance and Christian heavy metal music to dance for the Lord. She is cautious though that her dancing may at times be “for the flesh” and not for Jesus.

Interspersed throughout the film are clips of radio broadcasts from “Ring of Fire” co-host Mike Papantonio. He is a professing Christian who has serious issues with the “religious right” and the involvement of the Christian faith in politics. He gives us his take on separation of church and state, as well as his side of the ever-popular global warming debate. This may seem a bit out of place in a film about a children’s camp, but as the film progresses it takes on a much more political tone.

There are moments early on that clue us in to the fact that the film will take us into the political realm. Becky talks about raising up soldiers for God’s army much like the Islamic fundamentalists raise up their children for battle. Also, before the kids start eating breakfast at camp one morning a parent prays for the meal by asking God’s forgiveness for the sins of the nation and asking for God to end abortion. Abortion ends up taking the center stage towards the end of the film. A speaker is brought in to Becky’s church to speak to the children about abortion, and the kids line up at the end so that he can place red tape over their mouths with the word “LIFE” on them. Then, as the film ends, members of the church, including Levi and Rachel, go to Washington D.C. in silent protest of abortion.

My first problem with the film is that as a documentary it lacks any obvious focus. Most documentaries present a side of an issue or event and then make a strong case for that stance. Think about documentaries we have seen in recent years—“Super Size Me,” “Bowling for Columbine”, “Born into Brothels”, “Fahrenheit 9/11”—all had an issue or circumstance to address, and all of them picked a side from which to make their case. Whether the viewer agreed with them or not, we knew where they stood. That’s not the case with “Jesus Camp.” We see Becky and the kids and their zeal for changing the world as members of God’s army. At the same time, we get the dissenting opinion from Mike Papantonio. But, as viewers of the film, we are never told which side of the fence the filmmakers are on, or on which side they want the viewers to be. I wish the directors had picked a side, any side, and made it obvious, just so we would see their slant one way or the other.

The opinion of the directors is implied, although they probably don’t want us to see it that way. The film is being marketed as an even-handed, unbiased look at the Evangelical movement. Perhaps the reason they don’t just come out and say which side they lean is because by doing so, you are obviously alienating the side you disagree with. And everyone knows, as the film suggests, that alienating the Evangelical movement could be a bad financial decision.

The second problem I had with the film is the way it portrayed Christians. If the film’s intention had been to show an impartial viewpoint on the modern Evangelical movement, then they probably would have shown an aspect of it that is commonly practiced by the majority. I am not going to get into a discussion on what is right and wrong about denominations or about certain issues among denominations, but most churches that claim the Evangelical Christian tag do not regularly endorse female ministers. So by showing this as a normal practice, you are suggesting that all Christians believe and support it. Early on in the film, Becky is seen leading the kids in a prayer in tongues. Once again, whether this is right or wrong is beside the point. It is not a practice commonly endorsed by most Evangelicals, and those who do practice it are much more private about it. By showing a room full of kids writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues, it is suggesting that were one to walk into any church in America on any given Sunday, this would be considered a normal thing.

And my final problem isn’t really with the film itself, it’s with the issues that the film brought light to that I had never really paid much attention to. I have to admit, I feel sorry for the children portrayed in the film. They all seem like wonderful children, yet I couldn’t help but think that this whole experience for them is just one big emotional roller coaster. Emotion can be a very powerful thing for adults, but for children it takes on an even greater influence. The children in the film don’t really speak like normal children; don’t act like normal Christian boys and girls. They seem to be speaking like their parents, and at times, for their parents.

In one scene, Rachel describes what it means to be a dead church, suggesting that if people aren’t jumping around excitedly and praising the Lord loudly, the Holy Spirit has no part of that church. These aren’t things a normal 9 year old girl would say unless they are topics her parents and church leaders press into her impressionable mind. The most telling scene of the entire film, in my mind, takes place in the opening minutes. Becky asks her audience of youngsters, who in the room feels that God can do anything He wants, and then the camera shows us a young mom who raises her young daughter’s arm and then reaches over to grab her son’s arm to raise it as well. Then Becky tells them how they are all going to speak in tongues, and informs them how to do it. These children are saying what people tell them to say, doing what people tell them to do, and all the while feeling like this is getting them closer to God. I have no doubt these children desire a strong relationship with God, but I fear from my own experience that if these children base their faith in Christ on an emotional whim or a feeling they get during a powerful event, they could be in for some trying times when those emotions go away. I would pray for these children, and urge anyone else who has seen the film to do the same.

Violence: None / Profanity: None / Sex/Nudity: None

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer Comments
Comments below:
Positive—“Jesus Camp” is an awesome movie! I recommend everyone go see it. Will everyone like all of it? No. Will all Christians be pleased with it? No. Will it open up dialogue about the Lord Jesus? Absolutely!! The kids in this film are confident, happy and sure of what they believe.

I read one reviewer wishfully hoping that someday he could be as sure of something as these kids are. Some may say this film only gives a small slice of what children’s ministry is all about, and although that may be true, it will open up many opportunities to talk about Christ. Take your unsaved friends to see it.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 1
—Tracy O’Brien, age 41
Positive—This film provides a good look at a growing section of Christianity. I went through Lutheran schools who taught much of what is seen in this film, though without the speaking in tongues and the film really resonated with me long after viewing it. Watching this forces recognition that there is a deep division in our culture. That division exists because the most vocal groups have become the two extremes. The first is those who are intolerant of and unwilling to understand Middle American Christian values that are held by genuinely good people who live their lives based on those values and with compassion for people, and I saw these people in full effect in the theater seeing as I saw the film in Berkeley. It truly hurt me to hear people laughing at what these children were professing to believe in so whole heartedly.

The second group, which is just as intolerant is that which is shown in the film. There are a growing number of Christians that profess what is borderline hatred of those with other beliefs. There is no leading by example, there is only the teaching that through shear numbers one day they can force their values upon others. Listen to the words they use to describe their movement: cultural war, values under siege, attack upon beliefs, God’s soldiers, preparing these children to do battle. Why are people describing Christianity in such violent terms? Yes, there is a time to fight for your beliefs, but does one really believe Christ would have wanted people to try and force their beliefs upon others, to supercede their freedom of choice which is probably the greatest single thing that God has given us. The freedom to be believe in him or not is what makes Christianity so special, to make a choice in favor of anything is to love that thing and in the case of Christianity that is Christ and the Holy Trinity.

Make no mistake, while I was hurt by people’s misunderstanding of Christianity in the theater, I was equally as hurt to see what I can only describe as the exploitation of children in the film by those who claim that they love Christ and are working for His Glory. These people use these children to further their own intolerant political beliefs in what they call a cultural war. An example of this is the discussions that revolve around global warming and how science has failed us here and that it is just a myth, almost the idea that it does not matter how we treat the Earth because Christ is returning and the world will end anyway’s. Since when did Christians cease to be stewards of the Earth? If, in fact, we still are stewards, charged with being caretakers of God’s creation, then why are we not open to educating ourselves on both sides of such an issue, our knowledge is a gift from God to be used not buried away like in the Parable of the Talents. The children here as one Christian in the films says are indoctrinated into Christianity, not taught about it, they are never allowed choice.

I grew up in Christian schools, and like the adults in this film, many of the teachers were manipulative. I have been in college classrooms since where so called intellectuals have been utterly dismissive of Christian values. I have also had professors state the great importance of religious values in our society, even here in the Bay Area. Why does one side mock the values and beliefs of Christians, and why do we as Christians not truly reach out to these people to give them a better understanding of what Christianity is? Both sides need to be educated about one another, yet both sides continue to embrace the stereotypes that they believe each other to be. The people in this film represent a true sect of Christianity that is intolerant and unwilling to be educated or seek knowledge to enhance their Talents. Those who laughed my theater represent a specific group among secularists who are intolerant and unwilling to be educated about or seek knowledge about Christianity.

Neither of these groups truly represent the Christian or non-Christian worlds, we just more often than not let them. This is a film that should be seen by all those who are not in one of these extremes, as it will help you to better understand your Faith and what you truly believe. For those at the extremes, sadly, it will only solidify what you already think you know. Lastly, despite what one review has said, this is not a film to take your unsaved friends to, due to the fact that while it might help them to see the error of their ways, there is probably a greater chance that it will turn them off to Christianity. This is a film for those with a true knowledge and love of religion as a whole.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 4
—Alan, age 25
Positive—Frankly, I was appalled by what I saw in this film, yet I couldn’t turn away from it. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the children. I have fond memories of church camp, our youth minister, “lock-ins” at the church overnight, etc., But thankfully my experiences were nothing like what’s shown here. I assumed most would feel the same and that those involved would not like how they appeared. However, being from a part of Missouri nearby to where some of the filming was done, I was surprised to learn from the theater presenting the movie that some families featured in the film had attended and were pleased with the result. Overall, the theater said they had very good response from church groups who were happy with the film, to more liberal-minded people whom it frightened. Apparently the variety of evangelicalism shown is more common in this part of the country than one might otherwise think.

I think this is an important movie for Christian, non-christian, and secular adults. However, I couldn’t help thinking of the slogan “know your enemy.” It disturbs me that such a thought occurred to me during a film describing a form of Christianity.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Walter, age 42
Positive—I sat down to watch “Jesus Camp,” having the read the main review for the movie from this Web site, thinking I was going to be disgusted with the over-emotionalism, writhing from being slain in the spirit, the second blessing, and a feminist who obviously has no regard for 1 Timothy 2:12. To be honest, I saw more in this movie that we as Christians from other denominations could learn from in how we raise our children, to even how we as adults worship, live our lives, and share our faith. I disagree with the validity of much of the speaking in tongues, emotional outbursts and “whole lotta shakin goin on,” but in the same breath I couldn’t help but wonder if in an effort to “not be like the extreme” some of us have gone to the other extreme in perhaps the way that we sometimes worship with absolutely no emotion, we talk about the Lord Jesus like He’s still dead, and evangelize like… well, honestly, how often do most of us as adults freely evangelize like some of these children and recite Scripture regularly? Sadly, few of these children will be going on for the Lord in fifteen years, but what better can be said for any of our other denominations?

I’m not from Pentecostal background, but rather an extremely conservative evangelical church, but as a musicians that tends to see artistic edges in most everything in the world, I saw some things in this movie that made me question why I, a thirty-year-old man who has been to Bible college, and has known the Lord two-thirds of my life, is reluctant to do many of the things that seem to come natural for these children, with memorizing Scripture just the least of my problems.

I would recommend this movie for all Christians to examine with an open heart, and a foundation of a strong belief system to analyze the movie carefully. I would strongly recommend that if children watch it, their parents should accompany them, to answer questions, and I would love to see more youth groups and college/career groups to use it as a discussion topic. There is much we can learn and take from this movie without subscribing to what many of us would clearly disagree with.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 3
—Doug Engle, age 30
Positive—I was very moved by this film. I live in Ontario, Canada, and have just recently learned about the charismatic movement. What I got out of this film was very different from many other people. Seeing the passion and boldness of these children, the level of spiritual maturity and commitment truly inspired me and challenged me to get off my sorry butt and start walking the walk instead of talking the talk.

At first I thought they might be going to far with these kids, but then after thinking about it, kids these days can absorb much more than when I was a kid and also, in these days we are living on a dying planet. Maybe we have to be this serious with our faith. I see how kids talk and act at least where I live and I’m shocked with the language and attitude. Satan takes this seriously, and so should we.

As for the way they talk about an army of God and other warrior type language, you have to understand that what they are talking about is spiritual warfare. It’s key in the charismatic movement. When the children are breaking the cups with the hammer it symbolizes breaking the hold of the enemy in the spirit. 'Our fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.' It is very important that christians and non christians understand that these people are talking about spiritual warfare, not physical.

I honestly understand and totally respect how some people view the charismatic movement and what is going on with the children in this film. I’m not saying I agree with everything in the film and I’m still new to learning about the charismatic movement. Some things are very weird and hard to understand but at the same time I’ve read and heard stories of revival that are so remarkable that I don’t want to dismiss it because I don’t understand it. We as christians may not agree with some things but we all agree on Jesus. I’ll finish by saying that we should be careful to judge things like this. It might look crazy and not make sense but there were other “crazy” people in the Bible that were totally being used by God. If we aren’t careful we (including myself) may just be judging a move of God.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 5
—charles, age 34
Positive—This was a wonderful expose. I hope it will give parents better insight into the sort of concerted indoctrination applied to young minds at some fundamentalist Christian summer camps. I am a Christian, but the cartoon-like hocus pokus that falls off of these camp leaders' tongues should send shivers up the spine of any critical and thoughtful Christian. …
My Ratings: Offensive / 5
—Walter Freelander, age 34
Neutral—We are one of the families highlighted in the film. We have begun a blog to add context to statements made in the film and discuss our opinion on whether the film was balanced. The film is now out on DVD and available at all the major video outlets.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 4½
—Jesus Camper, age 39
Negative—This movie provoked two reactions in me; one was an awful feeling of disturbance that a fringe segment of Christianity was portrayed as representative of all Evangelical Christians in America, and the other was a deep seated desire to propel my two children deeper into their own faith commitment to Christ. The Christians represented are not deep thinking, culturally savvy people; they are homespun, bread-and-butter believers. Add to that, the obvious emotionalism and experiential focus of their Pentecostal perspective, and what happens is that an oblivious audience is doused with an outsider’s view of something very Christianly “in house,” and they neither understand, nor have the informed charity to try.

The portrayal is nearly as unsettling to much of the Evangelical community as it is to unbelievers who heard assertions like “science doesn’t prove anything” and “God only attends churches that shout and get excited” (not an exact quote, perhaps, but close enough to get the fact that the people portrayed are fairly certain that the way they do Evangelicalism is THE way to do and understand it).

The ominous radio announcer also claims to be a Christian, but you get the feeling that he is a nominal, in-name-only sort, who doesn’t hesitate to put the separation clause above Scripture, or to expose the Christian community as a threat to America, as if America didn’t have bigger worries than a people group which actually prays for the president.

The audience in West Hollywood, where I saw the film, laughed a lot, when I did not. It made me wonder deeply about the way Christians are perceived by those outside the faith, and how we desperately need to be on the ball and equipped to answer hard questions about God and what He requires. I got the sense that the Christians in the film derived most of their theology from pop-Christian novels and insipid Christian television, yet you just couldn’t fault their fidelity to Christ, for what they knew.

It’s not a “good” movie, but it’s not poorly made. I’ll buy it when it comes out on DVD just for teaching purposes, but I am sorry that such a film has been produced for the sole purpose of demonizing Christianity, and doing so with children.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 4
Rev. Bryan Griem, age 45
Negative—Looking at this movie and the content within it I can’t help but feel that there is the possibility that the filmmakers were focusing on the more extravagant or extreme activities at this camp. It’s clear that the ministry leaders are sincere in what they are trying to do. However, I simply cannot condone this type of manipulation of children. It is one thing to have Sunday school. It is one thing to teach children right or wrong and teach them about Jesus and his life and death and what they mean. It’s another thing to get all kids worked up like this. When Levi said he became born again at 5 years old because her wanted more out of life. My goodness what type of message is that. A lot of these ministries can often turn kids away in their later years.

Further this movie will set back the evangelical community. Christians will be seen as manipulators of children rather than the light in the world that we are supposed to be.
My Ratings: Excellent! / 3
—Rob, age 34
Neutral—A Christian hit piece disguised as a well-balanced documentary. The boding, horror film music and sly editing gives this away. Oddly, both of the viewpoints presented do not seem Christian as a whole, making this a somewhat aimless film in terms of a Christian audience being able to identify a protagonist or antagonist. I’m guessing more Christians will identify with the “Jesus Camp” than the radio talk show host, simply because the Jesus Camp Christians realize they are in a war. Regardless, viewers of any background will be able to take something from it as a discussion point, but sadly, that’s true of any film, regardless of quality or message.
My Ratings: Very Offensive / 2½
—Adam, age 24