Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez
What part should morality play in politics? Answer
Does character matter in political leaders? Answer
Should Christians seek political power or should we only focus on evangelism? Answer
What advice do you have for new and growing Christians? Answer
How do we know the Bible is true? Answer
How can the Bible be infallible if it is written by fallible humans? Answer
|Featuring:||Becky Fischer, Mike Papntonio (Commentator)|
|Director:||Heidi Ewing (“The Boys of Baraka”—2005)|
|Producer:||Nancy Dubuc, Molly Thompson, Jacquelyn Shulman|
“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.