Jesus Camp: Brainwashed in the Blood – or Is it Spin?

Jesus Camp: Brainwashed in the Blood – or Is it Spin?

Jesus Camp — click to view largerJesus Camp, what an experience. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s investigation into the hidden world of one Pentecostal kids’ camp simultaneously delighted me, fascinated me, and embarrassed me. I love this film. I hate this film.

It angers me.

For those who haven’t seen the trailer, by now, the premise is simple: follow three pre-teens from Missouri heading to a summer camp owned by the Assemblies of God in Devils Lake, North Dakota (Lakewood Park Bible Camp). Document their experiences there, and follow up on the aftermath. Simple enough.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Or, in this case, the future Evangelical Army of God is in the details. As Ewing and Grady have noted, their initial raw footage had no real drama: “There was absolutely no conflict. … it wasn’t dynamic enough.” So, toss in a conflicted profile of the “Kids on Fire” camp director, Becky Fischer; include a few oddball characters for color and commentary; stir up dissent using Air America radio host Mike Papantonio and his uninformed Greek chorus of callers. Then get a major Charismatic Evangelical to appear in the documentary to give your subtext some heft and legitimacy and tie it all together with a neat little bow called George Bush and the Supreme Court.

Oh, and through it all, hammer home the idea that this kids camp represents all of Evangelicaldom and poses no less a danger to American life and liberty than extremist Islamic madrassas training would-be terrorists and martyrs. Or worse.

Before going any further, I must say: I may be embarrassed and irritated by the documentary, but I am glad I watched it. It needs to be seen, if only to see how our insular communities looks from the outside.

That said, I have three main gripes to address: the outsider’s point of view, the use of children to represent a worldview, and Pentecostal peculiarities.

A view from without: liberals don’t get us.

While Ewing and Grady admit they honestly liked the people they were documenting, there’s no denying they don’t get them. Ewing and Grady are outsiders to the culture they depict.

While this alone isn’t bad — documentary film-makers set out to learn and teach simultaneously — it can lead to gross errors of representation and interpretation. When outsiders document a subject they are ignorant on, wisdom dictates they become experts on the subject. They don’t have to be joiners, and they don’t have to ditch their skepticism, but knowing what they’re seeing through the lens would be a plus. Otherwise there can be no question of subjectivity trumping objectivity. The risk of bias and misrepresentation is no less real for liberal New York democrats filming Pentecostals than it would be for a Pentecostal documenting a convention of Darwinists.

That the film-makers don’t get it is apparent within the first few frames of the film, as it opens with voice-overs announcing, in order:

  • The resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
  • James Dobson calling for prayer, ” … that God’s perfect will will be done.”
  • A southern preacher proclaiming, “We are engaged today in what they call culture war. We didn’t start it, but we, by, his grace are going to end it.”

These are all perfectly legitimate and innocuous quotes by themselves. But when layered atop one another in this unnatural out-of-context sequence, it sounds like an open Supreme Court justice seat has become an all-out call to war.

To make sure you get it (and confirm that Ewing and Grady don’t) we are then introduced to our angry “Virgil” for this tour of the Evangelical underworld: Mike Papantonio, liberal Methodist, top-flight lawyer, host of Air America’s Ring of Fire talk show, and one of Air America’s board members.

Papantonio informed a caller to his program — and us by the way — that:

“There’s some new brand of religion out there. … And right now everything they do they say they do in the name of God: that we need to go to war in the name of God; we’re being told that George Bush, of all people, is a holy man who’s been anointed with the job of creating a Christian society — not just in America but all over the world. … There’s this entanglement of politics with religion.

“What kind of lesson is that for our children?”

If you’re wondering what this has to do with a religious children’s camp documentary, join the crowd. The truth is, there is no real connection. But, hey, we need conflict to tell a story, right? So Ewing and Grady have found their navigator through the murky swamp of Evangelical war-mongering, and “Pap” is his name. Does it matter that Evangelicalism or Pentecostalism is not new? Does it matter that no Evangelical preacher I’ve heard of denies the relevance of the Sermon on the Mount? Does it matter that “peace-making” is not incompatible with defending the weak and oppressed? Does it matter that I’ve never once heard of George Bush referred to as a holy man either in church, in private conversation, or in all the pages of Christianity Today? No, no, no, and no.

Yet, Papantonio says it is so — thus it must be. He remains unchallenged in the context of this film.

Again, this has nothing to do with kids’ camps. Ewing and Grady may have started out making a documentary about kids camps, faith, and childhood, but along the way it became simply camp itself. Their film has inadvertently become just another variation of Hillary Clinton’s “vast right wing conspiracy” theory.

But since the avuncular Papantonio is our guide and interpreter along the way, here are some other bits of wisdom he bestows upon us and his radio audience.

Mike Papantonio on global warming and Evangelicalism:
“Look, rape this world, rape this Earth, take everything you want from it because you know what? ‘It doesn’t matter. We’re not here for very long — Christ is coming to take us away from Earth. So cut down our trees. Use all of our oil. Take advantage of everything that the Earth has to offer.’

“That’s why you hear them getting involved with issues like global warming.”

Ah, yes. That would explain the Evangelical Environmental Network and their paper, “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation.” (Ted Haggard, by the way, is a signatory of the Covenant.) Or the North American Coalition for Christianity and Ecology. Or the Assemblies of God’s position paper on “Environmental Protection,” stating, “everyone needs to be good a steward of all God’s creation—including the earth.”

Mike Papantonio on Evangelicals and democracy:
“We have a population — 25% of American population right now describe themselves as Evangelicals — that’s about 80 million people. They’re very tenacious, and they elbow their way into positions of power in America. That the M.O. of a group that is committed to — like I say — building a government that they’re comfortable with. In the end it’s going to come like a thief in the night. There’s this slow chipping away at the separation between church and state. …

“There is a religious political army of foot-soldiers out there that are being directed by a political right. This is not tinfoil-hat conspiracy stuff — it’s happening. … They’ve taken over the Whitehouse, Congress, the judiciary for a generation. Together these people form a powerful — I mean powerful — voting bloc.”

But it’s worse than you fear, Mike. The best recent estimates say there are roughly 100 million Evangelicals in America (30-35% of the population — see “Defining Evangelicalism” provided by Wheaton College). And I scarcely believe a 100-million-man mob is out there roughing-it-up to secure top slots in government — else why did only 23 million Evangelicals vote for Bush in in 2000 and only 27 million in 2004? (Grady and Ewing, incidentally, agree with Papantonio’s view of a solid evangelical voting block, “If you look at the numbers, the vast majority vote Republican.”)

But then, even if Papantonio’s right, he might thank his liberal God we live in America where we enjoy due process of law and the power of the other 200 million Americans — the majority — to simply vote those meanie Evangelical bullies out of power.

In Mike Papantonio’s America, everybody would be free to vote and run for office — except Evangelicals. Or, at least, Republican Evangelicals, I suppose.

Mike Papantonio on the Separation of Church and State:
“You know what’s always made this country special — what’s always set this country apart — is because there is something that we call a separation between church and state. That’s always something that separates us and has separated us for 200 years. It has worked. I respect your right as a fundamentalist to teach your children whatever you want to teach them but don’t let that bleed over into the public sector. Don’t let that bleed over into the schools.”

Unfortunately, the last time I checked, the creedal phrase, “separation of church and state,” appeared nowhere in the Constitution. What does appear is the guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .” This “separation” means that worshipers in any religion are free to exercise their religious beliefs as they see fit. And it means that the government can neither restrict nor enforce such religious expression through law. Papantonio is right in that this is an American distinctive — it’s one of the chief reasons the colonies were formed in the first place. And it has worked.

But, apparently, Papantonio would rewrite the Constitution to forbid individuals from expressing their faith “in the public sector” and in school. And since children are usually in school, perhaps he would prefer they not get the religious instruction their parents prefer since it might dangerously “bleed over” into actual behavior instead of theory.

In this film, Mike Papantonio not only provides the commentary and interpretation that will resonate with the liberal and secular audience, he also provides the worldview that interprets the film. When Papantonio says Evangelicals are urging war in the name of God, the next clip obligingly shows children performing a “human video” to Todd Ganovski’s militaristic worship piece, “Breathe Prophesy.” Papantonio tells us that Evangelicals have anointed President Bush to the status of a “holy man,” so Ewing and Grady feed up a scene where kids are encouraged to pray over George Bush with a life-size cardboard cut-out as their focal point.

He says Evangelical kids are “taught that global warming doesn’t exist,” that Evangelicals are raping and pillaging the Earth, and that this is why we’re “involved with Global Warming,” therefore we see a clip where a home-schooling mom glosses over global warming saying, “It’s not really a big problem is it?”

It should matter, but doesn’t, that she immediately follows this by telling Levi, “It’s a huge political issue, global warming is, and that’s why it’s really important for you to understand it.” It also hardly matters that Levi is able to cite the exact published estimate of global warming to a tenth of a degree (it’s 0.6 degrees Celsius, or 1 degree Fahrenheit, according to the National Academy of Sciences June 2006 report — did you know that?).

Learned men of science disagree on these matters, but a home-schooling parent and her child are somehow painted to look like fools for doing the same.

A screen title in Jesus Camp notes that “75% of the home schooled kids in the United States are Evangelical Christians,” somehow underscoring the academic trouble untold millions of youth have coming to them. What the film doesn’t note, however, is that this small number of kids “out-performed their counterparts in the public schools by 30 to 37 percentile points in all subjects” (Dr. Brian Ray, Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America, Natl Home Education Research Inst, Salem: 1997). Global warming notwithstanding, perhaps we’d be better off with more home schooling, not less, because the number of home-schooled kids is still relatively low. Whereas 3-in-10 Americans are Evangelical, only 1-in-50 kids is home schooled (just over one million kids in 2003, according to the National Center for Education Statistics).

Without Mike Papantonio’s straw-man and ad hominem arguments misrepresenting Evangelical Christianity, this film would be bad enough. But with “Pap’s” bias paving the way, secular and liberal viewers are given permission to gasp in shock at what follows and to nod their heads in agreement with Papantonio’s angry callers (one such caller: There’s nothing gentle, and nothing compassionate — to me there’s nothing Christian about ‘em).

Another evidence of Ewing and Grady’s misapprehension of Evangelicalism is their attempt to use NAE president Ted Haggard to lend weight to their interpretation. After a full hour portraying Christian jingoism, activism, and revivalism, Ted Haggard is trotted out on stage with some choice out-of-context quips. Scenes from New Life Church in Colorado Springs, where Ted Haggard pastors, are cut to portray him as yet another political subversive with an evil, fundamentalist agenda. Liberals will surely label him a homophobe:

“We don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity — it’s written in the Bible.”

And on the other hand he will be thought a political ring-leader:

“Those of you that are citizens of the United States, you need to make sure our nation has a core belief. And as we settle those philosophies correctly then our freedom is guaranteed.”

My, that sounds subversive, doesn’t it? But Haggard is merely agreeing with G. K. Chesterton who reasoned that democracy was only made possible by Christianity (See Orthodoxy, chapter VII). Any other form of religion or non-religion focuses man’s attention inward or downward, but never upward — and those societies without a transcendant God can never provoke men to rise above themselves to secure liberties and freedom.

Meanwhile, an excerpt from Haggard’s closing prayer will be seen as endorsing Bush and Alito, when he’s actually praying for something quite higher and longer-lasting than a mere appointee:

“We pray for President Bush as he’s preparing to elect a new Supreme Court nominee. Give us a pillar of strength that lasts forever. Lord, let us not waver, let us not be talked out of it, let us not be negotiated out of it.

“It’s massive warfare every day. Let the battle begin!

By the way that last line … the one about warfare and battle? I am convinced that wasn’t part of Ted Haggard’s prayer. It was cut from somewhere in his message and placed immediately after the closing prayer, Haggard seems to be issuing a call to divine war — an Evangelical jihad, if you will. But this call to arms simply doesn’t belong here, and I would challenge Grady and Ewing to demonstrate that it does fall naturally at the close of his prayer. I believe it doesn’t.

In an after-service interview with Haggard sitting on the edge of the stage, he seems to revel in his role as an Evangelical king-maker:

“It’s an awful lot of people and we’re growing. Churches like this — there’s a new church like this every two days in America. It’s got enough growth to essentially sway every election. If the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election.

“It’s a fabulous life!”

What does Ted’s fabulous exclamation (a favorite word of his, apparently) have to do with the de facto voting power of 100 million Americans? Well, nothing. But it’s another example of what seems to be a clear case of editorial liberty. By themselves, neither of Haggard’s comments seem remarkable. But edited together, Haggard seems to be a triumphalist Evangelical bully — exactly the kind of guy to elbow his way into power. And have a fabulous, humorous time doing it.

When a film editor splices quotes out of their natural context, even prominent public speakers can be made to say almost anything. I know — I’ve done it with video footage of my boss as a humorous prank.

But Ted Haggard is not laughing. He has, in fact distanced himself from the film noting that Grady and Ewing portrayed their subjects in a sinister light and grossly misrepresented evangelicalism. In Haggard’s view, one “can learn as much about the Catholic Church from Nacho Libre … as a non-evangelical can learn about evangelicalism from Jesus Camp.” (“Fire, brimstone around ‘Jesus’ film,” Denver Post).

A view from below: when did kids become spokespersons for grown ups?

But if liberals don’t get Evangelicals, surely the portions of the film that focuses on children won’t misrepresent anybody, right? Children reflect their culture in surprisingly honest ways — just ask any elementary school teacher: she can paint an accurate portrait of her students’ family lives just by what the children unthinkingly and honestly reveal in class. Or can she?

All throughout this film, Ewing and Grady use filmic synecdoches (parts used to represent the whole) to represent nearly everybody. Mike Papantonio represents all good-thinking liberals who reject Evangelicalism. Levi, Victoria, and Rachael stand in for all the abused children who are brainwashed by the Evangelical conspiracy — in turn represented by Becky Fischer. Ted Haggard stands in for the bullying Evangelical leaders taking over our government, and the Supreme Court appointment symbolizes the “culture war” between Christianity and secular culture.

But in presenting these synecdoches, Grady and Ewing make several category mistakes. To be sure, Mike Papantonio doesn’t represent all non-Evangelicals, he’s just being used that way and it would be wrong to think that all liberal Christians and all non-Christians think exactly as he does. Ted Haggard, a Spirit-filled, Charismatic Christian, certainly doesn’t represent all 100 million Evangelicals, even though the film says he represents at least 30 million — and I’m not even sure all 30 million Evangelicals he does represent know about it. Becky Fischer doesn’t represent all camp directors. And the Supreme Court appointment isn’t representative of all the moral issues at stake in the culture war — it wasn’t even on the radar for many Evangelicals because they could do nothing about it except pray.

Similarly, children do not represent Evangelical or Pentecostal faith — or any faith except their own. Further, any single Evangelical kid does not represent any other kid’s faith. Children’s beliefs and worldviews almost never reflect informed adult beliefs — that’s half the fun of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, ghost stories, and the entire Cartoon Network — and when they do reflect adult beliefs, it’s a sure bet they’re parroting their parents and teachers.

For example, twelve minutes into the film, when Becky Fischer meets 12-year old Levi for the first time, she asks Levi how long he’s been a Christian. His answer is stunning:

Levi: I’ve been a Christian … I was … At five, I got saved, because I just wanted more of life — cause there was just nothing that I thought was fun.

Becky: “You thought at five years old there’s nothing fun?”

Levi (nodding): “Yeah.”

Becky: “Really?”

Levi: “Five years old.”

Come on, it beggars my belief that any kid at five years of age is sufficiently world-weary and disengaged to believe that there was “just nothing fun” to do? And that this drove him to Christ? No, this is either the learned language of disillusioned, middle-aged, grown-ups, or it’s a reflection of an adolescent clinical depression. I have, in my household, a bona-fide copy of five-and-a-half year-old testosterone and exuberance in the form of a little boy on loan from God. In all my experience with my son and other five-year-olds of a similar make and model, I have never once heard the words sighed, “I just want more from life.”

From his pre-school disenchantment, to his preaching to the collected youth at camp, to his bold self-introduction to Ted Haggard as a fellow preacher (his favorite sermon topic is faith), there is no way the words “typical,” “representative,” or “average” can be applied to Levi.

And then there’s nine-year old Rachael, who prays over her bowling ball (“Ball, I command you, in the name of Jesus, to make a good hit.”), has the guts to share the Gospel and Chick tracts with complete strangers (even though she might mutter, “I think they were Muslim,” when they inform her they’re already going to Heaven), is apparently unconcerned about her “weirdness” (“They think I’m weird, go ahead. You’re not the ones that are going to be judging me if I’m going to go to Hell or Heaven, God is … it doesn’t matter what you think.”), has definite and strong opinions about the kind of church God likes to go to (“Churches where they’re jumpin’ up and down, shouting his name and just praising him.”), has odd notions of how missionaries are commissioned and sent (“Like when there are dads that are, like, missionaries and stuff, and he’s about to go somewhere really dangerous and stuff, they jump around him yelling, ‘Martyr! Martyr!‘ … It’s really cool.”)

Tell me, does this sound like a typical Evangelical fourth-grader?

And, finally, there’s 10-year old Victoria, who favors Christian heavy-metal rock-and-roll (“They do have a Christian basis and it is focused towards him”), couldn’t care less about Brittney Spears or Lindsay Lohan (“because … their songs are mainly based on either, like, guys or girls and … we as Christians — I — do not believe in that.”), who loves to dance in a hip-hop, urban style but is concerned about being in the flesh (“People will notice when I’m just dancing for the flesh, and I do that sometimes. … I must admit that I really need to get over that.”), and likes to stand in the rain (“I have to get hit ten times by drops of rain cause I’m ten years old!”).

Interestingly, Victoria seems like the most “typical” of the three kids. And perhaps that explains why she gets so little screen-time compared to Levi and Rachael.

These children’s lives, and the bits including other kids at the camp, are not representative of the whole of Christianity, the whole of Evangelicaldom, or even the whole of Pentecostalism. Their lives may prove interesting, entertaining, inspiring or sobering. But it’s a category mistake to assume that the characteristics of the individuals or even a small group of individuals resembles in any significant way the whole. It’s a category mistake to think that all, most, or even many of our kids are being trained to be fervent preachers, to eagerly anticipate martyrdom, encouraged to speak in tongues and prophesy, or to march in protest against abortion in Washington, D.C. The sample set is vanishingly small and its relevance for understanding Evangelical pre-teen culture is nearly worthless. Entertaining and provocative, yes. Definitely yes! But three kids do not make Jesus Camp a sociological study.

A view from within: This is not my church.

Finally, the same complaints registered above apply here. While Becky Fischer is a fourth-generation Pentecostal whose grandfather held credentials with the Assemblies of God for 75 years, her more immediate roots are in the Word of Faith movement, a subset of the wider Pentecostal and Charismatic movement (her ministry started as a children’s pastor at Word of Faith Church and Outreach Center in Bismarck, ND). While there are many commonalities between Word of Faith doctrine and classical Pentecostalism (such as the A/G, Foursquare, Church of God [Cleveland, Tenn.], etc.), there is a difference in emphasis, and a difference in culture. From a classical Pentecostal perspective, Word of Faith adherents are even more reliant on experience and subjectivity than is deemed wise. Whereas in the classical Pentecostal churches you would be hard pressed to find someone bearing the title “Prophet,” it’s far more common in Word of Faith churches.

The typical classical Pentecostal emphasis on prophecy is that it serves primarily for edification of the whole church, rather than foretelling of future events (the common saw used to describe this distinction is “forth-telling” as opposed to “foretelling”).

In Becky’s case, she has stated:

“Back in 2002 … a children’s minister I was visiting prophesied over me, ‘There’s going to be a TV show that’s going to be made that will be current all the time with what’s happening with children around the world. TV channels are going to open up to miracles and to signs and wonders because nobody will deny it when it happens to children. I believe we’re going to have kids on these TV shows that will speak about what the Lord is doing … ‘” (“Questionnaire from Magnolia Pictures & Loki Films“).

In the film, there is what seems to be a very brief mention of this prophecy in voiceover, out of context, when she states:

“This moment right now, today, is a fulfillment of prophecy.”

Fisher, who is very open to foretelling “words of prophesy” sees this film as direct fulfillment of these prophecies. Never mind that this isn’t a TV show. Never mind that people are criticizing what’s happening at this camp precisely because it’s happening to children. Never mind that the last time I checked my TIVO, TV channels are not in danger of opening up to miracles, and signs and wonders any time soon.

I won’t deny the possibility of a truly prophetic, foretelling prophecy. I’m just not sure, yet, that this film is a genuine fulfillment of a genuine prophecy. Personally, I’d be shy about calling anything a foretelling prophecy that doesn’t contain verifiable details and isn’t confirmed by at least one or two other people. However, outside classical Pentecostalism and Reformed Charismatics, standards about what qualifies as a prophecy are somewhat more lax — as we see with Levi when he’s called out in front of the youth camp for a personalized public prophecy without any sort of discernment applied to the event.

One can also discern Fischer’s Word of Faith background in documents scattered throughout the “Kids in Ministry” website. In one article, reporting on a baby raised from the dead (remotely, while on an operating table, undergoing surgery) during one of her services, Fischer describes what was happening just before the miracle occurred:

“We led the children in calling out for their generation to come to Christ. We began to pray for their gifts and callings to come forth through our dancing and drumming. The artists drew what they were seeing and feeling. You could tell we had stepped into true spiritual warfare.” (“Did Kids Raise a Baby from the Dead?“)

The “calling out” of spiritual realities “into manifestation” is an earmark of Word of Faith theology and you hear echoes of it in the film (“Name it, name it out loud, name it, what do you need to be forgiven of?”). You might know this by its more pejorative label: “Name it, and claim it.”

Another way Fischer’s camp culture doesn’t reflect wider Pentecostal culture is the easy-going, public use of tongues while on the microphone. Classical Pentecostals point to 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14 as Paul’s guidelines for how charismata — spiritual gifts — ought to operate in the church. In particular, Paul says that tongues without an interpretation are to be kept private: “the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” (14:28). Otherwise, Paul says, the listener will hear it and conclude the speaker is out of his mind.

Which is precisely the reaction many non-Pentecostal and secular bloggers are having to this film.

And Becky Fischer has an unbalanced view of the role of spiritual gifts in my opinion — specifically regarding tongues. At about eight minutes into the film, we see Fisher concluding a “children’s prayer conference” held in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, with an exercise in praying in tongues. This is how she leads them in this experience:

“If you don’t open your mouth, the Holy Spirit can’t talk.

“All right, now I want everyone to raise your hands and we’re gonna pray in tongues. Hallelujah, let’s do it. Oh we love you Jesus — (Fisher breaks into tongues).

“Oh, Let the holy Spirit fall. He’s here! Feel his power. Feel his power. Feel his power! This is you talkin’, and the Holy Spirit’s just gonna whisper in your ear what to say.

“Don’t stop, don’t stop, this is the greatest day of your life next to the day you got saved.”

(Cut to young girl apparently praying in tongues — it appears to be Victoria.)

She later describes the girl as “hookin’ up with the Spirit.”

Now, I have several problems with this. First is the objection already mentioned: public tongues, especially over a microphone, without interpretation. I don’t really have problems with people praying in tongues in a relatively private service, but the picture here is primarily one of disorder and chaos: the diametric opposite of Paul’s mandates in 1 Corinthians.

Second, I have significant problems with leading children in exercises like those when they are so impressionable, and eager-to-please and fit in. One very likely result of telling children to just open their mouths and let the Holy Spirit talk is, clearly, imitation.

Third, since Fischer’s goal here seems to be the acquisition of tongues, not the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, tongues itself becomes the tail wagging the dog. Christ made the role of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of the Spirit clear in John 14 and Acts 1. In John 14, Jesus promised to send the Paraclete — the Comforter — to prevent his disciples from being abandoned as orphans after his Ascension. The Comforter would be with and in us, and he would teach us “all things,” reminding us of everything Christ had taught. Then, in Acts 1, Jesus referred to the baptism of the Spirit as a gift that the disciples were commanded to wait for, that would impart power for evangelism and witness.

Nowhere in these passages is tongues mentioned as the point. Tongues is described in later passages in Acts as an evidence for the event, but evidence always follows an event. It’s never the cause of the event, and it’s never the focus of the event. The focus, instead, is on the event itself, specifically, on relationship and empowerment for witness.

But Pentecostals and Charismatics have a demonstrated tendency in this area toward emphasizing the observable and compelling consequences of Spirit-baptism. This tends not to be as prevalent an issue in some Charismatic circles because the role of tongues as “initial physical evidence” serving to prove the fact of baptism has been downplayed. But where this excessive stress on the evidence continues in Pentecostal circles the possibility of abuse, misuse, and outright imitation remains.

Fourth, I find the phrase “hookin’ up with the Spirit” distasteful on many levels and it may reveal a nuance to Fischer’s pneumatology. The Holy Spirit is neither an impersonal powerplant to “plug into” whenever one needs recharging. And the Holy Spirit is not a casual friend you can “hook up with” as the mood and budget strikes.

I have several other concerns as well, such as the magical thinking and tokenism I witnessed throughout the film. Or the unusual plastic fetus-babies handed out to the children to illustrate the heinousness of abortion. Or the unusual method of praying for President Bush by propping up a cardboard cutout before the children and anthropomorphizing it. Or the co-option of duct-taped children as political eye-candy when marching on Capitol Hill. Or even the fundamentalistic attitude toward fantasy literature — or at least Harry Potter. (Harry Potter’s out, but Hobbits are in. I spotted a Lord of the Rings omnibus sitting on Levi’s dining room table.)

But I’ll leave all that for another post, if ever, and conclude with my greatest concern over Fischer’s approach and that of this particular subculture. In the film, 12-year old Levi was spotlighted and given an opportunity to preach in one of the evening chapel services. As we watch him prepare his message it becomes clear this isn’t the first time he’s preached — it’s just, “I never really preached to a whole bunch of kids that I didn’t know.”

Then in another service later in the week, a guest anti-abortion speaker Lou Engle singled-out Levi for attention:

Lou Engle: “Who’s the young man — the young man with the long hair … ? Right there! Come here, son.”

(Levi goes up)

Lou Engle: “Just stand right with me. What’s your name?”

Levi: “My name’s Levi.”

Lou Engle: “Levi? That’s great name, Levi.” (To the audience.) “You like Levi’s name?”

Scattered response from children in audience: “Yeah.”

Lou Engle: “Here’s the deal: Before you were born, God knew you. Extraordinary. He said this, he said he formed you in your mother’s womb. You’re not just a piece of protoplasm — whatever that is — not just a piece of tissue in your mother’s womb. You were created intimately by God. Is that incredible?

“God wrote a book about your life and he wrote:

Levi. …

“Levi would be a God-seeker from an early age, and he would become a voice that touched America, and he would not sell-out in his teenage years. He would go for God in all those days, and he’d be a man of prayer.

“And in his twenties he’d begin to shake things real strong for God in the nation.

God’s Dream: the Novel of Levi’s Life.

“Signed, God.”

( Engle thumps Levi on the chest. Levi is grinning, beaming.)

Lou Engle: “Whaddaya think of that?”

Levi: “That’s pretty cool!”

Lou Engle: “Pretty cool, eh? You’re pretty cool.”

(Applause, Levi sits down.)

While this segment of the video is disturbing on a level I cannot articulate, what I can say is this: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:2a). There’s a reason for Paul’s injunction to Timothy: it’s a fatal mistake to urge and goad young men and women into the public spotlight at an early age.

Pentecostal and Charismatic history is littered with the broken careers and shattered integrity of preachers who “got an anointing” at a precocious age. We don’t send new converts out into the pulpit for the same reason we don’t send babes into the pulpit: they are spiritually unformed. Children’s characters are unformed and chaotic. I am convinced that children simply don’t have the spiritual, moral, and intellectual resources to withstand the pressures of public ministry, the stress of being held up as a moral examples in the midst of childhood hormonal hurricanes, the pressure of feeding their elders spiritual sustenance without the moral and spiritual history that informs wisdom.

The great tragedy in all this (and Becky Fischer is not solely at fault here, clearly Levi’s church leadership is encouraging this sort of precociousness) is that Levi is completely and blissfully unaware of the danger he faces. The risk is great, exceedingly great, and this is the one aspect of the film that troubles me and angers me the most. It’s bad enough that Levi’s church fosters an early inculcation into ministry. It’s worse that Becky Fischer does it at a youth camp where he can receive the acclaim of strangers. It’s even worse when the anti-abortion speaker singles him out for singular attention and personal prophecy. But to memorialize the whole thing on film released to the entire nation and immortalized on DVD? Now Levi is the subject numerous threads of debate. He’s simultaneously scorned, praised, doubted, admired, and judged.

And here I am doing the same thing. I’ve descended into the madness.


I don’t think these kids are any more “brainwashed” by Becky Fischer than any other modern pre-teen is brainwashed by MTV, pop culture, and the PlayStation. I do think they’re probably not getting the best Christian training they could be, and they are parroting the “party line” far more frequently than seems good. But I also have to admit: I’m happily brainwashing my children already. When my son asks me why Jesus died on the cross, I don’t assemble a panel of interfaith opinions on the matter, I tell him simply, “So that you could go to Heaven someday and live with him forever.” And, guess what? He believes me.

Maybe “brainwashing” is what you call it when you disagree with the content?

It’s an awesome responsibility, this training, parenting, and teaching thing. We’re all about the business of indoctrinating our children whether we know it or not. What the question of “indoctrination” really boils down to is not whether these kids are being indoctrinated, but whether they’re getting the right indoctrination.

And, largely, I think they are.

While Becky Fischer’s slice of Pentecostalism may not look like my preferred version of Pentecost, and it certainly may not look like your flavor of Evangelicalism — here’s some good news.

Trusted religion pollster George Barna has noted that Pentecostals are atypical — in some rather positive ways: Pentecostal believers were more likely to be born again, to believe the Bible, to believe in Heaven and Hell, more likely to pray, and more likely to share the gospel with unbelievers (“Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination“).

Who wouldn’t embrace a Christianity that teaches these values?

But those same qualities as portrayed in Jesus Camp take on ominous overtones. Being “born again” means you’re mystical. Believing in the Bible means you’re unthinking and radical. Believing in Heaven and Hell makes you exclusivist. Praying means you aren’t willing to face reality, tongues reveals psychosis, and sharing the gospel makes you intolerant.

This film, its point of view, and what it sometimes depicts angers me. But I’ll get over it. I just hope, in the end, that Levi, Victoria, and Rachael move past it, because the effects of this film will still be real for them long after the rest of us have forgotten all about it.

[tags]lou-engle, air-america, assemblies-of-god, assembly-of-god, baptism-in-the-spirit, becky-fischer, blogrodent, brainwashing, charismania, charismatic, christianity, christianity-today, devils-lake, documentary, evangelical, evangelicalism, evangelicals, film-review, heidi-ewing, hollywood, indoctrination, jesus-camp, jesus-camp-review, kids-camp, Lakewood-Park-Bible-Camp, liberalism, magnolia-pictures, mike-papantonio, movie, movie-review, nacho-libre, nae, national-association-of-evangelicals, pentecosta, pentecostalism, rachel-grady, ring-of-fire, summer-camp, ted-haggard, tongues, word-of-faith[/tags]

60 thoughts on “Jesus Camp: Brainwashed in the Blood – or Is it Spin?

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  7. Oengus Moonbones

    I feel completely unsurprised; from your review, the movie appears to have turned out very much as I expected: another tendentious docu-agitprop exercise having the effect of smearing xnty.

  8. Rich Post author

    You were right on the button, Oengus. Of course, that much could be seen from the trailer. I suppose that much could even have been inferred from Michael Moore refusing to pull it from his film festival.


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  13. Marc V

    Congrats on the article — no wonder your site was slow for a few weeks on posts a month or two ago. I’ve only read the CT version, and maybe I’ll have time this weekend for the full discourse.

    As soon as I saw “Pap’s” credentials with Air America, I suspected that we’d be in for a rough ride. It’s interesting that he has the “liberal Methodist” label. 50-100 years ago a liberal would have been someone who challenged the status quo to improve church life and worship style.

    Now a liberal is someone who tries to find a church where they are at least wishy-washy, if not accepting, of abortion-on-demand and homosexual membership in the church. Jesus may be Savior, but they’re not so sure about His Lordship in their lives.

    [Got a chuckle from one of your own labels: incessant blogger. That’s tough to consistently live up to.]

  14. Rich Post author

    Thanks, Glen!

    When I told Mark Moring, editor for the Christianity Today Movies channel that my weblog article was more than 6,500 words long, he asked me, incredulously:

    “Do visitors to your blog actually read something that long?”

    You and Oengus are my two data points for an affirmative reply. It makes me happy.


  15. lobo1023

    I was born and raised in the Pentecostal faith but here’s exactly the problem with evangelical Christianity. I read Rich Tatum’s problems with the “Jesus Camp” movie and his objections sound exactly like every radical Muslim’s rant when we simply point out the problems with their faith. “Oh, the Al-Quaeda version of Islam doesn’t represent the true faith.” And what do we say, “then break fellowship with them”. Which they won’t. But neither do we.

    Until we are as willing to weed out the fringe elements from our own ranks, we need to keep quiet. Muslims seem just as adverse to question anyone who proof-texts the Koran as we are these radical charismatic groups who do the same.

    You all know the drill, “touch not the annointed,” “he is is not against us is with us,” etc. We all need to be willing to call these Christian “radicals” to the same standard as everyone else we disagree with.

  16. Rose-Marie Slosek

    Rich, I read the long article too, so count me in.

    I was beginning to think that the blogsphere was the easily distracted baby born of parents with severe Attention Deficit Disorder. Which brings me to my comment.

    I’m not sure that people are realizing that its how “Jesus Camp” is put together (what material is chosen, how it is edited, and who does the editing and to what end) that makes this thing a bomb waiting to explode. I have not seen it, but from the trailer I get the idea that this is meant to shock “normal, middle class Americans” into fearing that a “christian taliban” is about to launch a counterattack using children RIGHT IN THEIR MIDST. Enter the crusades and the whole world going up in smoke.

    I think it is supposed to bring about the same kind of horrible surprised feelings that September 11 did, but this time it is our own people who will emerge as the enemy. Christians seem to be aware that the secular news puts spin on things so you get Christians watching Fox News and avoiding CNN, for example, but are they seeing that the same thing is happening here and because of its timing, can cause untold damage? I really hope so.

    Subtle editing can make your grandma look like Hitler. Let’s hope that is not happening here.

  17. Rich Post author

    Thanks, Rose-Marie. I think you hit the nail on the head. Most of the criticism I’ve received on my piece over at Ministry Today (thanks for your support) I think revolves around people simply not “getting it,” they see themselves in this trailer and video, and they really don’t see how it maligns them, the children, and Christ. I don’t know what to attribute it to except a lack of sophistication.

    To put it nicely.


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  19. Will Phillips

    Your review certainly covers all the bases in regards to the big problems, Rich. It blows my hastily put together rant out of the water, and that’s a great thing.

    While I may not agree with your stance on the global warming issue, I think that, as a whole, this is a really well done piece.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this baby up.

  20. Rich Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Will, and thanks for the compliments, too!

    I don’t think I took a position on Global warming in my commentary except to say that Mike Papantonio’s point of view is incorrect. While there may be some segment of Christianity that cares not one whit for the Earth, that position does not color all of Evangelicalism. I cited sources to the contrary.

    As for my own views on Global warming? I’m not sure they’re relevant here–and anything I say must be preceded with the caveat that I’m neither a researcher of the field, nor a scientist. But I’m happy to say I’ll always chime in with an opinion where none is warranted.

    I think the Earth is getting warmer. It must: we’re at the tail-end of an ice-age, after all. In fact, we’re still in an ice-age (note the polar ice caps.) But Earth’s cyclical temperatures are exactly that: a cycle. And in this cycle, it’s still heatin’ up.

    Do humans contribute to global warming? Yes. And sometimes in unintended ways: The vast warrens of cow lots with all their methane-producing steer contribute a significant amount of warming by themselves. (Something that could be ameliorated with grass-fed cattle, I’ve read.)

    Yes, autos, industry, and technology all contribute to global warming. But I suspect it would be happening anyhow. I’m actually far less concerned about global warming than I am our dwindling supply of fossil fuel, which is finite and limited. Unless we come up with effective alternatives, we’ll be facing a global darkeing and global famine long before global warming bites us in the keister.



  21. carl

    Your article was well thought out and and well presented. I was thrown aback by one line though.

    The risk of bias and misrepresentation is no less real for liberal New York democrats

    I am not sure if you used this stereotype tongue in cheek to chastise all stereotypes or if you really cannot see the biases you may hold yourself. Have you really bought into the marketing that Christians can only be republicans?

  22. Rich Post author

    No, Carl, I haven’t. Christians can only be libertarians, didn’t you know that?

    :: grin ::

    I certainly think it’s possible to love and honor and obey God and be both liberal in philosophy and democratic in politics. However, in interviews about this documentary, Grady and Ewing have self-identified themselves as “a couple of liberal democrats from New York” and their comment was made in light of how they are “outsiders” to what they filmed.

    It seemed an important distinction to Grady and Ewing to make. Though, perhaps I should simply have gone with “secular liberal.”

    Or, pagan.


  23. Oengus Moonbones

    Greetings, Rich.

    I have the feeling in my gut that this movie is somehow about to make a big splash in the Mainstream News Media.

    This very evening Entertainment Tonight had a segment about it. Soon, I’m betting, it’s going to make it to 60 Minutes or Nightline.

    Has the NY Times taken notice yet?

    The MSM always loves controversy, and this movie is juicy and dripping with it. It’s not hard to imagine how far they’re going to take it.

  24. Rich Post author

    Oh, yeah. There’s a ton of hits if you search via Google.

    I was interviewed on Tuesday by MSNBC’s “The Most” for three minutes on this affair. When I have it ready, I’ll post it online for you guys to see.

    Update: You can read my note and view the clip here.

    Becky Fischer showed up on CNN last night against Mike Papantonio. She was on “Good Morning America” yesterday, as well.

    Yeah, this thing is getting all kinds of play. And through it all the directors are saying, “We’re objective! We’re objective!” And Magnolia is saying, “Why are all these Evangelicals distancing themselves from this movie? It’s a documentary. It happened. Deal with it.”

    And every single MSM introduction to the film focuses on the same tired cliches. Army of God. Extremism. Militant children. Brainwashing. Martrydom. Potential for violence. And why, oh why, oh why are all the babies crying?

    It’s a circus already.


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  28. carl

    1. Just watched your clip with alison stewart. I still see her as the MTV girl from 20 years ago. Unfortunately you won’t be asked back there because your words were not inflamatory enough. You might want to talk about eternal damnation more next time. Good job and congratulations.

    2. From a journalistic viewpoint (wow, for a moment here I might use my degree) when you were quoting the filmaker’s self description you probably should have captioned and sourced it. It would have deflected criticism that you were judging them through a political lense. I, of course, did not see the film and did not know that he made that quip (unless of course you cited that in your peice and I missed it).

    Again, congrats. This is a real milestone (unless you get this all the time and then all I can say is ummph).

    Wonder why my gravatar is not showing? No love for Homey from the gravatar people?

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  30. Buck

    Editor’ note: Buck’s post refers to my article on Ministry Today, his initial comment, and my response, if you’re interested. — Rich.

    This comment was cross-posted on the Ministry Today “Guest Commentary” blog article, but I felt it would be appropriate here too.


    I wish these comments were threaded together better, but since they aren’t, I’ll do my best! I will try to cross-post this comment on because I like the comment format much better there.

    The main thing I need to say at this point is “THANK YOU.” Thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully read and respond to my earlier comments on the blog (“Ministry Today Guest Commentary“).

    I have to admit, I read your Ministry Today guest commentary blog post first and based my comments on that article.

    But THEN I did some digging to find out more about you and your other writing, and I ended up reading your much longer 6000-word “Kahuna” article on What a huge, awesome, unmistakable difference when I read the longer version, because it really helps me see the background behind the core of your comments. Maybe Strang would let you create more obvious links to the “other” article so people can get a much better depth there.

    To answer your question, yes, that’s our son Andrew who carries the day in the stretch we affectionately call “The Doubt Segment.” My wife and I found ourselves visibly squirming when we saw the piece that was used, internally wondering, “when will this piece end? Why did they leave in so freakin’ much of it? Why the ashen, downer looks on some of the other kids’ faces, who seemingly have no response to Andrew’s questions? Why the long, awkward silence here? Somebody CUE SOMETHING and FAST! We’re dying of dead-air here!”

    In talking to the filmmakers on several occasions, we’re told that “The Doubt Segment” is, as you say, the “fly in the ointment” for many viewers of the film…it makes people who might have thought the movie to originally be nothing but a “promo” for Kids in Ministry (and those who are on the other side of the fence — that it was purposely designed to make all spirit-filled Christian children look like idiots) to stop and realize that perhaps we really are seeing more depth here. Maybe there is a chance to catch our breath, for just a few seconds.

    Heidi Ewing told me that at almost every screening, people ask them about the blonde boy who has doubts about his faith, and yet presses on because he knows we all have “those days.” It’s a gripping moment in the film no matter who’s seeing it, and while we parents squirm anxiously, we’re recognizing that these kids are real. They’re not being scripted. The tears that flow from their eyes are tears of compassion…and with the faith many of us would love to have, they seem to “go for it” in spite of the deck being stacked against them.

    The past few days I’ve seen a whirlwind of interviews on MSNBC, CNN, and Good Morning America. In every case, “Pap” rolls out the “they’re too young to be manipulated like this” shtick while Becky Fischer wisely explains that what the camera DOES NOT show is what preceded the on-camera moments of weeping and praying for the lost.

    I had a great “teachable moment” with Andrew as well as our 15-year-old son Alex the other night.

    I wanted them to understand exactly how judicious editing can absolutely determine a movie’s success when it comes to a two-minute trailer. I told them to think about all the movies they might have seen where the trailer promised them one thing, but the actual movie didn’t live up to it. Put in the right shots, push the hot buttons, stick in the grandiose white-type-over-black graphics, and you’ll get people to see your film! That’s what trailers are for.

    As my example, I showed them the spoof trailer of “The Shining” (in which Jack Nicholson’s movie is laughably passed off as a romantic comedy) and “Star Wars: The Empire Brokeback” (yeah, you probably know where that one’s headed!). There are other spoof trailers out on the Internet — done by film students and editors — and they are an absolute RIOT, if a little risque in their innuendo, but they proved well my point!

    Take the most compelling visual shots you can possibly find in the hours of video on your hard drive array…sprinkle in some ominous music…hang for a couple extra seconds when you want an on-screen person to appear to be implying something other than what they actually say. Sprinkle it together into 120 seconds and you can make ANYONE say ANYTHING, while being perfectly legitimate in saying that those shots came from the actual film. In the case of “Jesus Camp,” we get plenty of face paint, camouflage, Becky talking to the kids in particularly intense moments, and creepy music.

    I’ve watched the trailer being looped over and over again incessantly (especially on the MSNBC interviews) while two opposite guests provide interesting voiceover, and everyone gets to watch the sparks fly. It’s pure genius on the part of Magnolia films and the networks who are using the trailer as B-roll (and roll, and roll, and roll. I keep wishing they’d do a little digging for some real cinematic nuggets, such as the car wash scene, or the “adult bookstore” sign right next to the bowling pin sign; Levi and his friend exploring a cave and looking at the huge spider; you get the idea).

    My bottom line is, Rich, I think you have done a very insightful, thorough analysis of the film in your 6000-word “Kahuna” article. While I do not agree with everything you wrote in that piece, the biggest thing I’ve picked up from the article is that you actually SAW the movie before commenting. Instantly, your credibility shot way up in my book. I’ve heard so many people bashing the film, based entirely on what they saw in the two-minute trailer, and I just wish they would have spent a little more time understanding (and wondering, like you!) how a film about Christian kids and an effective ministry could possibly be released into a secular market by self-described “secular filmmakers who live in a bubble in New York” (Rachel Grady’s own words) and expect it to go in much of anyone’s favor in either direction.

    Thanks again for taking the time to really try to get into the nuts and bolts of the movie, even if you don’t like it.

    It means a lot to the father of the blonde boy who has major doubts on some days, but continues on in his faith because he has (hopefully) been taught, trained, raised, “brainwashed,” or “indoctrinated”(!) to believe that it’s OK for him to follow Hebrews 11:1…

    “…The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. (The Message)”


  31. Rich Post author

    Here is where I attempt to respond to earlier, neglected comments.

    Marc, thanks for the kudos. You noted that my posting frequency was slow “a few weeks or a month or two ago,” but that was due to simple neglect (not even something as morally upright as a blog-fast).

    Would you believe I penned this 6,300 word behemoth in one night?

    Well, maybe it took more than one night. I got the DVD on a Tuesday. I watched it and took copious notes on Saturday night. I had a few false-starts and wound up throwing probably 5-to-600 words away right at the beginning because I couldn’t decide whether I was writing for the CT audience, or you my Faithful Readers. I finally punted and decided to write for my blog, publication be … uh … danged. Then in one long caffeine-induced frenzy of words, I wrote my blog article on Sunday night.

    The following Monday, I called the editor for the Movies channel at CTI–Mark Moring–because he had expressed an interest in seeing my blog article because he might want to run it on CT Movies. I sheepishly confided that it was a little long … and he might not want the piece. How long, he asked. Uh, let me check …. open Word … copy-paste … count words … Uh … 6,300 words?

    Don’t even bother sending it to me, he replied. I don’t even have time to read that much less edit it.

    :: sigh ::

    I immediately decided just to push it out the blog. That’d make Mark sorry, for sure.

    Then pragmatism took hold. After all, I wanted people to read this. I felt the words needed to be out there. Surely even if people only read one or two ideas out of my big kahuna, it should still be worthwhile, right? So, I figured, what the heck, I’m not gaining anything by submitting exactly nothing. What’s the worse insult to my article? Zero words? Or a thousand words?

    I saw the light.

    So, I unfocused my eyes, and let my fingers magically delete my favorite sections. Man, did it hurt. But once I’d done the deed, I sent off my submission to Mark with a note of explanation, and went to a meeting.

    And here we are.

    That was a really long way of saying, no. I wrote it in one night.

    I write too much, don’t I?


    You wrote:

    I read Rich Tatum’s problems with the “Jesus Camp” movie and his objections sound exactly like every radical Muslim’s rant when we simply point out the problems with their faith. “Oh, the Al-Quaeda version of Islam doesn’t represent the true faith.”

    Then, I’m sorry, but you didn’t read the same article I wrote. I only noted relatively minor differences in theology and practice between me and Becky, and that was only one segment of my critique. Try again. This time, read?

    You proposed:

    Until we are as willing to weed out the fringe elements from our own ranks, we need to keep quiet.

    And how do you propose to weed fringe elements out of our ranks? And exactly which fringe would you excise? Who gets to decide who’s on the outs? And what method of investigation and measurement do you propose as a standard? Just bad theology? Just bad practice? What about bad emotions?

    One of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is denominationalism, believe it or not. The Calvinist who holds forth on predestination and the decretive will of God is as valuable for the Body as the Arminian who holds forth on man’s moral responsibility to respond to the call. This is a good thing and it provides balance. For more on this, you might consider reading G.K. Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy. Just try not to mis-read him as you have mis-read me.


    Thanks for your nice words about the MSNBC clip. You’re right, I wasn’t inflammatory enough, but the producer did have nice things to say to me after I was on the air. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be a nightly anchor soon? (I hope not. I have a face for radio.)

    For the record, I don’t get called by the MSM all the time, however, I had a presentation on “Integrity on the Internet” that did generate some interest a few years ago and led to some conference presentations (two) and radio interviews (three, two of which I have transcripts for here and here). But no book deals and certainly no boob-toob face-time. Oh, and once I was fortunate enough to be the last man in a chain of witnesses to convince a Wiccan to make the final step to salvation and that turned into a half-hour piece on a Christian TV program–Primary Focus, “Witchcraft’s Spell“–where I was featured for a few minutes. (Someday I’ll tell that story here and introduce you all to Kathi Sharpe, ex-Witch extraordinaire!)

    So does that still qualify for congratulations, or do I just get the “ummph” of love?

    (BTW: I fixed your gravatar for this post … you’d misspelled your email address with a touch of dyslexia.)


  32. Rich Post author


    You’re going to hate this because I’m compounding your problems by replying to you separately on each forum. Some elements of my replies may be similar–or identical (I don’t know, I haven’t written my MT reply yet, and your comment hasn’t appeared there yet!)–but the fora are different enough that your comments deserve equal thoughtfulness suited for each context.

    Thank you, so much, for your kind and thoughtful re-evaluation. I’m grateful that a reader from the MinistryToday blog has finally seen past all the previous ad hominem attacks to the real issues I’m trying to address.

    I don’t know why I became the issue on that blog, when the article isn’t about me, it’s about Jesus Camp. But, somehow, Becky Fischer supporters rose up en-masse because by distancing myself from her by any degree I was therefore attacking her. (You may find this of interest: many who have linked to my commentary have made note in their comments that they don’t agree with me on every point, you even made this clear in your comments. Yet, I don’t see this “distancing” from me as an attack. Despite my grand delusions of utter sensibility, how could I possibly expect everyone to agree with me completely?)

    Maybe it was the way I wrote my commentary for MT: I know that Matt was hoping to provoke dialog, so I was a bit snarkier in my writing. Maybe it was the caffeinated sleep-deprivation, maybe it was just poor writing. But, as I have held-forth on that forum, I’ve carefully avoided directing readers here, to this blog, because that’s not what Matt asked me to to do: He wanted a thought-provoking Jesus Camp opinion-piece, and that’s what I gave him.

    That you took the time to investigate the man behind the article demonstrates your integrity and wisdom. Thank you.

    If you really think Matt Green should modify the article to point to my thought-piece here, let me know. I can send you his email address offline. I’d prefer you put that question to him, not me. I happily promote my blog in other people’s comment-space, but I don’t feel at liberty to do so in an article I wrote for hire.

    For my readers who are in the dark about Buck’s reference to “The Doubt Segment,” I complimented Buck on his son’s public outworking of his doubts and faith in the film–a non-reported segment that actually disproves any contention that the children are being brainwashed. Here’s how the scene plays out:

    A blonde boy has the microphone, he’s holding his Bible, and as he talks he finally sits on the floor, as though so burdened by what he has to say he can’t stand:

    “Uh, I haven’t got much to say I just wanted to talk about belief in God and I’ve had a hard time doing it and … it’s just really hard do this. … Just to believe in God is really hard because you don’t see him, you don’t really know him much. Sometimes I don’t even believe what the Bible says–it makes me a faker, it makes me feel guilty and bad cause God has always talked to me about that like I rejected him.”

    And this is what I had to say about that scene over on MT:

    I have to say that this was one of the best parts of the film for me, and it’s the fly-in-the-ointment for everybody who says these kids are brainwashed. I absolutely loved that part of the documentary, and I was glad the filmmakers left it in. I wish that segment was included in the trailers as well.

    If this is your child, I want you to know, I completely admire and like this kid. It takes guts to admit you have problems with faith, and yet still have faith. Kudos for him. And it demonstrates you can be a thinking kid, and a thinking Pentecostal at the same time.

    The children in this film, especially, are getting a bad rap out there in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. At every turn, the question is being raised, “Are these kids being brainwashed,” and the question is nearly always rhetorical. The presumed answer is “Yes!” because who in their right mind lets their kids dress in camo with face-paint? That’s just … criminal, right? And what kid feels a call to ministry? Absurd! And children who weep openly in worship? Utter and outright emotional manipulation (as if no pre-teen ever wept over a pop-idol for less cause or for more selfish and useless purposes).

    I’ve seen these comments all over the blogosphere. I’ve spent considerable time attempting to defend the kids and put forth the idea that the film is misrepresenting everybody (anyone can check my comments-trail to see how much I’ve written on this elsewhere), but I’m giving up. The flood of negative criticism–both from people who’ve seen the film and from reactions to the trailer–has just grown too massive.


    • “Is this child abuse, or just completely twisted? Imagine if Camp Quest taught our kids to be an “Army for Atheism” and we brainwashed our kids. Truly disturbing.” [link]
    • “I am all for religion keeping people straight — but to create an army of little brainwashed children is just wrong. … [T]his … documentary from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady outlines in detail [how] many children in the US are being indoctrinated into a proselytizing, militant perversion of biblical morality.” [link]
    • “i did catch this brain washing thing and it is not good what that woman is doing to those kids and the parents that are letting it happen should get a slap up the side of the head!” [link]
    • “The Beau was mostly horrified and affected for the children who were so blatantly being brainwashed; he hopes against all hope that at least some of them will see the light and break free. I, on the other hand, watched it in order to see what the fundies were up to these days, and it was the same old stuff, just more bald-faced and blatant. It seems the general talk of raising up children has become a shameless drive to indoctrinate. War-cries meets object lessons, fearful shame tactics meets arrogance-as-evangelism training.” [link]

    (Note, everybody, I didn’t hand-pick these comments. I simply did a Google search and chose the first four results.)

    The one good thing Grady and Ewing did was leave footage of your son in the film. It’s an interesting narrative choice, really, and it does testify to the likelihood that Grady and Ewing were at least trying to be objective. In terms of the film’s narrative and story-arc, it sticks out like a hangnail. Andrew wasn’t one of the featured protagnists, we don’t get to meet him, we don’t learn his name. I doubt he’s even seen for the rest of the film, and the only reason I can see for the directors including this clip is to provide some of the vaunted balance they were searching for. Unfortunately, it’s so far outweighed by the emotional impact of everything else and the prejudicial statements by Papantonio at the beginning, that Andrew is simply lost in the noise.

    And that saddens me, because Andrew is my hero.

    By the way, your use of spoof trailers to teach Alex about the power of spin and context is absolutely brilliant. What a great idea! And I really enjoyed the two links you provided. I love how the Internet has created this whole mashup culture, and if I had the time, I’d fire up Adobe Premiere and create my own “improved” trailer of Jesus Camp.

    If I only had the time.

    Thanks again for recognizing I’ve spent time with the film. I can honestly say I’ve studied this documentary, sometimes frame-by-frame. Of course, I haven’t spent as much time with it as the directors have, but I have been immersed in it for a couple weeks now, and I’m as concerned about its lack of objectivity now as I was when I first saw the trailer.

    Keep up the good work, I suspect you’re a great Dad to have around the house.


  33. Duane


    As the father of four, three appearing (not speaking) in Jesus Camp and a prayer leader at Christ Triumphant Church (CTC) where much of the movie was filmed I want to thank you for your insight.

    In parable of the kingdom of heaven being like a man who sowed wheat and his enemy sowed tares I’ve noticed how easy it is to focus on the tares. While it is easy to see the tares in Jesus Camp maybe a look at the fruit of the children ministry at CTC and Kids of Fire would be refreshing.

    I was introduced to Becky’s ministry one night when the phone rang and I was ask to come to church because a child of mine was deeply effected and laying on the floor crying. When I arrived I found her deep in intercession for orphan street children in South America. Many other children were powerfully impacted that night.

    What came out of that kids conference was a weekly prayer meeting attended by 10 to 20 grade school age kids that has lasted for a couple years now.

    All four of my children between the age of 5 and 10 have had encounters with the living and powerful God. It’s my aim and prayer that they will have a both a solid bibical foundation and real and deep experiences of God’s presence.

    Becky Fischer’s heart is that children will get powerfully saved, filled with the spirit and equipped to minister to their generation. Hopefully mature pentecostal denomination will continue to pass on their rich heritage to this next generation in their sunday schools and not just baby sit them.

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  37. LJ Eaton

    Dear Rich,

    I found many of your comments very insightful and interesting. However I would like to note that you yourself are subscribing to the very behaviour you criticise: In one of the articles you reference about “Jesus Camp” and its makers, Grady and Ewing, they do not condemn or even too deeply distort the camp or the faith behind it even according to the camp leader herself. However in your blog, you have edited around their comments in order to depict them as filmmakers who created something extreme out of nothing at all.

    Regarding your comments about the lack of conflict within the raw footage and how they then throw in many disparate elements in order to create a better story, if you read the entire article, it actually says is the following:

    I agree with Poland that Papantonio’s role feels a bit forced and unnecessary and could perhaps be edited down before the film is widely distributed. When I asked Grady why he was included, she revealed Papantonio actually “was a late add to the movie; we had been editing for six or seven months before we incorporated him.” She explains that without his scenes, “There was absolutely no conflict. There was no conflict of conscience on any of the children’s part, there was no conflict of conscience on any of the adult’s part. Part of their lifestyle is they don’t have a lot of doubt. They very much believe that their lifestyle and what they’re doing is the one and the only way to live, and they hope that people will join them. So there was something about it that just felt like it wasn’t dynamic enough.” Papantonio’s involvement does allow for at least one interesting moment late in the film, when Fischer calls into Papantonio’s radio program and the two briefly interact in a moment representative of the larger national debate that is sure to ensue when the film becomes available to a larger audience.

    (Scott Feinburg, “The Passion of the Evangelicals…“, May 2006, emphasis mine)

    The comment about a lack of conflict is not regarding conflict within the story arc, nor is it regarding a lack of conflict because of the angelic and peaceful nature of these people; this lack of conflict which Grady estutely points out is one of belief. Because Evangelicals tend not to question The Word and subsequent beliefs, but instead regard it as absolute truth, filming solely amongst members of that insular community allows no conflict of belief that characterises the greater national debate facing our country right now.

    Also, Fischer is (apparently) very pleased with the way the film came out. She feels she was given an accurate and balanced portrayal of herself and her mission. Or so says the article.

    But if it serves your point better to edit that out and instead insinuate these filmmakers “toss in a conflicted profile of the “Kids on Fire” camp director, Becky Fischer; include a few oddball characters for color and commentary”, so be it. Your editing skills seem to fight fire with fire.

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  39. Rich Post author


    Thanks for your comment. It’s clear you’ve read up on the documentary and spent time reading my too-lengthy post, for which I am grateful. Thanks for taking the time.

    I unapologetically admit that my view is biased. I am “inside” the Pentecostal movement, I’m “inside” the Evangelical movement, and I’m “inside” Christianity. Despite that, my insider view is my own and nobody else’s. If anything I write resonates with you or other readers on this blog, then I’m happy to have found a kindred point of view. But I am not foolish enough to believe that my point of view is the absolute truth. Only God has that view. I welcome disagreement if only because it fosters dialog and provides an opportunity to be grow in knowledge and wisdom.

    But from my point of view Grady and Ewing have crafted a film with a clear message, and it’s a message many of those “outside” either Christianity, Evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism have reacted to with anger, fear, and venom.

    Maybe that’s not the message Grady and Ewing intended to deliver, but it’s the message that has been inferred, regardless. Just see some of the commentary from the blogosphere, which I mentioned in my comment to Buck.

    You state that I have misinterpreted Grady and Ewing’s point of view, committing the very same error that I accuse them of in my post. And you state that I edited around their comments to satisfy my own agenda.

    Perhaps you are correct. However, the quote you cite from Scott Feinberg’s article states that the directors felt there was “no conflict of conscience” on the part of the children or adults in the film (emphasis mine). You interpret that to mean that the lack of conflict is simply “one of belief.” I respectfully disagree.

    To state that there was no conflict of conscience as, Grady stated, is to say that the characters in their documentary never questioned whether what they were doing and saying was morally and ethically correct. This is not a conflict of mere beliefs, but a conflict over right vs. wrong.

    A conflict of conscience is vastly different than a conflict of beliefs. You might believe that the hypothetical Starbucks we intend to meet at on Friday at noon is located at the corner of First and Main streets, and I might believe that it’s located at the corner of Second and Main. One of us is right and one of us is wrong, but this is a conflict of facts, a conflict of beliefs. It’s not a conflict of conscience.

    To state that the film needed conflict (and every good story does, indeed, need conflict), and then to identify the necessary conflict as a moral conflict may in fact reveal something telling about Grady and Ewing’s own beliefs on the matter. And, true to the quote, the protagonist they provided, Mike Papantonio, gives us exactly that, for Papantonio believes that Becky Fischer and her crowd are not only factually wrong, they are evil.

    Then to use Papantonio as the effective voiceover for the film … well, that’s telling as well. Papantonio stands in as the filmic proxy for the reasonable thinking person, and it’s through his perspective that the events in the film are ultimately filtered for the audience. He becomes the interpretive lens for the meaning behind the documentary’s content.

    To further buttress my point that Grady and Ewing weren’t thinking of mere conflict of beliefs, as you state, I only need to point you to the scene where Buck’s son openly describes his lack of faith and his doubts. (See my exchange of comments above with Buck here and here.) Buck’s son is evidence that at least one child in the film is confronted by a conflict of beliefs. Presumably, the filmmakers chose not to follow-up on that — perhaps because a conflict of conscience is far more controversial and exciting.

    I’ve stated over and over that I take Grady and Ewing’s assertions that they actually like the subjects of their film at face value. I believe they do like them. But I remain convinced that Grady and Ewing have ultimately crafted a film that portrays Fischer, the camp, and Evangelicals as doing something to children that is quite simply wrong.

    And, frankly, the fact that Becky Fischer thinks this film is the best thing since sliced avocados means nothing to me.

    Again, thanks for posting, I appreciate it.



  40. LJ Eaton


    Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoroughly and thoughtfully to my comment. I hope you took no offense in my posting as I did not mean to be disrespectful in any way and I think you make many very good points.

    I confess we have now entered the area of semantics and subjective response… In some ways, I respectfully disagree with your semantic distinction between “conscience” and “belief”, but I do also think you make a very convincing argument.

    However, I also confess I’ve not actually seen the film yet. I was a sociology major in college and am a sucker for studying the sociological makeup of religion. I find it absolutely fascinating. All of it, from the more ritualistic religions like Catholicism to the very extreme cults like Jonestown that have cropped up throughout the decades. So, when I heard about this documentary, I was naturally intrigued. As I also spent a summer working at an Evangelical summer camp, so my intrigue was heightened that much more. I stumbled upon your blog when doing a google search for reviews regarding the film, as I wanted to get a feel for the angle of the documentary and the general reception before going in blindly.

    Knowing that, do bear in mind that my response was based solely upon the way you utilised the information from that one article. I read the entirety of your posting and thought it fascinating, and when I started to click through some of the links, I found that one quote presented the information in a context that seemed slightly distorted. However, knowing the way in which you interpret the quote, I can understand how your context does make sense. So, all of this to say… I can’t really speak much more eloquently on the subject of the film itself (and thank you for enlightening me that little bit more- it has made me that much more curious to see it, for a number of reasons). I merely wanted to point out to someone who seems very reasonable that it might be important to review your own tactics of research and presentation of information while lambasting those of the filmmakers.

    Again, thank you so much for taking the time to reply so thoroughly. I always love a good dialogue and debate.


  41. LJ Eaton

    p.s. As an interesting aside (that isn’t directly related to this debate): Regarding story conflict and documentaries, if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend the film “Etre et Avoir” or “To Be and To Have”. It is a documentary in the most pure sense of the word. It has no agenda; it merely documents one year in a one room school house in the Auvergne, a rural part of France. It is a lovely lovely film. There is no conflict (barring one small playground disagreement between two boys), just children being children and one man teaching them.

    So it is possible to have an interesting film sans conflict. But by the same token, it had no agenda. In that way, perhaps Grady and Ewing wandered astray a bit. Again, I don’t know having not seen the film yet.

    Long story short, regardless of all of this, if you haven’t seen it, see “Etre et Avoir”. It is simply lovely.

  42. Rich Post author


    First, with a sidebar:

    Thanks for the film recommendation, I’ll look for it the next time I’m in the documentary section over at BlockBuster. I suppose documentaries don’t have to have conflict to be interesting, but I’m not sure that it’s a “story” then, at that point. Story-tellers (and some documentarians are that) seem to fare better with audiences when there is an identifiable protagonist wanting something, and an antagonist standing in the way. Modern lit, though, seems to attempt to test that theory, which is probably why I don’t read much of it.

    Offhand, I can’t think of a film I’ve ever seen without conflict of some sort. I’ll have to think on that some more.

    As to whether I took offense at anything you wrote, no. Not at all. That you worried about this at all is probably testimony to my lack of skill in writing. Sorry. Perhaps I came off too stridently? But, no — no offense felt here, and I also did not feel you were disrespectful. In fact, I count it an honor that you felt motivated enough to point out what you considered to be an ethical flaw in my posting.

    Regarding my claim that there is a difference between the phrases “a conflict of belief” vs. “a conflict of conscience” (and whether or not Grady used the term in the way that I understand it): I agree this has become an argument of semantics. All I can do is shrug and say, words mean what they mean. Maybe Grady doesn’t know the distinctions between the words. In my way of thinking all matters of conscience are necessarily matters of belief, but not all beliefs are matters of conscience. And, when it comes down to it, beliefs and conscience are not the same. I, for one, don’t think Grady mis-spoke — she envisioned a particular type of conflict that she felt the film needed, and that conflict was fittingly supplied by Mike Papantonio, who attacks Fisher and all Evangelicals not on the grounds of mere beliefs, but on the grounds that what we are doing to children is evil, that what we are doing to the environment is evil, that our faith is bullying and more than mistaken or incorrect, that it is morally empty.

    But, regardless, whatever type of conflict Grady and Ewing wanted, why quibble over definitions? The film needed conflict of whatever sort, and Papantonio apparently fit the bill. We could argue over whether I have misinterpreted Grady and Ewing, but my basic point here is that Grady and Ewing’s choice of arena for the conflict they introduced is restricted to one big idea: Evangelicals are dangerous and evil. The balance they achieved — forget whatever they sought — the ballast they used to counterpoint to the faith, beliefs, and practices of Fisher, et al, was to set them against Mike Papantonio’s diatribes.

    By the way, I hate to stoop to citing definitions, as if that ever settled a debate — but too often debates continue simply because the participants are talking past each other using the same words with different meanings. In what way do you differ from my view that beliefs and conscience are not the same? I fear we are both using these words in far different ways, and I just cannot see my way past this. Belief consists of what one thinks to be true. Conscience consists what one thinks to be morally good.

    Beliefs inform conscience, surely, but they inform conscience in the way that, say, facts inform wisdom.

    You wrote:

    However, knowing the way in which you interpret the quote, I can understand how your context does make sense.

    I appreciate that. Wouldn’t mind if you noted that in your blog, as well, to sort of blunt the very pointy end of your post! :: grin ::

    And thanks for saying that I seem very reasonable. I assure you, I’m only acting. In real life, I’m an obstinate cur.

    You’re welcome to dialog here any time … especially when you disagree with me. Like you, I do enjoy dialog.



  43. LJ Eaton

    Haha, yes, regarding my blog: I meant to follow that up with our continued dialogue- as I said, I thought your follow up comments both insightful and interesting… but unlike yourself, I am not a regular blogger. That was the first blog I’d written in nine months. I only put it in to document the debate in case I never heard anything again; the beginning bit was meant merely to be a recap for those unfamiliar with the controversey. Sorry if it came across pointy- not my intention, but I absolutely understand how it read that way.

    Planned to follow it up with our continued dialogue, just haven’t gotten around to it the last two days with a birthday dinner party I threw and a seminar I’ve been attending. I will, however, get around to it as I don’t want you to feel misrepresented and I do think the continued dialogue is one of genuine interest.

    Not that anyone actually reads my blog, but regardless. Out of principle, it will be done. ::wink::


  44. Rich Post author

    Thanks, LJ. And thanks for the cordial dialog, it’s refreshing and much appreciated.

    I understand the lack of posting. Since losing my job in November, my posting rates have plummeted, mainly because if I have to choose between working at my computer to earn money versus playing with my weblog, I chose the former.

    My babies’ gotta eat.



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  46. Tim O'Brien


    I am the father of Levi and pastor to Rachael, both highlighted in Jesus Camp.

    Thank you for your article. If you missed the mark on any other postings, I think this one was well thought out and you are obviously very informed. I relate in an agreeable fashion to just about everything you said (although I would call your position on tongues unbiblical). I think you grasped the situation we found ourselves in and the risks we took with this film.

    We have never endorsed the movie, but we have looked for God to impact some lives and create dialogue with it. Now that the DVD is out, we get a steady stream of emails from those postively affected by it and those angered by it. For the former, we offer some insight to the different scenes in the movie and assure them that we are not trying to take the world by force. It seems to work well.

    FYI, my son Levi cringes at the “I-got-saved-at-5″ scene. It was the first time he was filmed and the first time he met Becky Fischer. He did have an experience at 5, but it was later in life that the craving for real Life came.

    Tim O’Brien

    PS: My boys love Andrew and the kids at camp were not shocked at Andrew sharing his doubts. It was a wonderful moment of “Hey-you-can-be-real-here.” All scenes in the movie of the audience are suspect. They do not necessarily match the moment. If the editor wanted a kid looking confused, she only had to have a shot of a kid listening to directions to go-kart track. I know that I am shown head-nodding to something Ted Haggard said that I know I didn’t head-nod to.

  47. Rich Post author


    Thanks so much for your comment, I really appreciate it, and I am grateful you actually read what I wrote (so many people don’t!).

    I am not concerned that you find my position on tongues unbiblical, I am aware of many of my brethren in my own fellowship who disagree with my exegesis. But that’s a topic for another post on another day. There’s plenty of room for disagreement there.

    I find it interesting that you have never endorsed the movie. So many people have rebutted my commentary with the claim: “But the people in the film have endorsed it and think it’s great!” So, it’s good to hear from the source that you have not affirmed everything in the film 100%.

    Further, I’m very grateful that Levi sees the irony in his statement. I’m sorry if I come off sounding too harsh about this, but it struck me as irresponsible for the film-makers to leave in the film. Thanks for the clarification. I do hope and pray that Levi does not remain in the “limelight” at such an early age — I do believe it can have deleterious effects. But, I’m sure you’re monitoring this as a loving parent. You don’t need my advice!

    And I’m very glad you wrote this:

    All scenes in the movie of the audience are suspect. They do not necessarily match the moment. If the editor wanted a kid looking confused, she only had to have a shot of a kid listening to directions to go-kart track. I know that I am shown head-nodding to something Ted Haggard said that I know I didn’t head-nod to.

    This is a point too many people fail to keep in mind when thinking about how film is edited, and it is unavoidable. Personal bias ineluctably compels how an editor cuts a film, and to ignore that, as viewers of the film, is dangerous.

    Thanks for your comment, again, I really appreciate it.




  48. Berni

    I just read your comment on Jesus Camp. And I am speechless. But I got over it. To quote you: “I don’t think these kids are any more ‘brainwashed’ by Becky Fischer than any other modern pre-teen is brainwashed by MTV”.

    You might be true. But that’s no argument.

    Right here you moved on to that strange level of Becky Fisher, when she justifies her way with the fact, that children on the other side of the planet are drawn into koran schools. I think you lost your argumentation stream somewhere. Liberals don’t get you, but you don’t get them either. But you think so and they don’t.

  49. NC

    Speaking as one who is a Christian but not a charismatic, I found it rather interesting to note the misinterpretation of “warfare” in this documentary. I wondered if the film-makers really thought this meant literal warfare and didn’t ask someone what was meant by it, or if they deliberately didn’t include references to the whole “not against flesh and blood, but against powers, principalities, etc” thing in order to boost ratings? I suppose I, as Christian, can understand “charistmatic language” more easily than someone not well-versed in the Bible, but it puzzles me that any person who really tried to understand would manage to misinterpret something that badly.

    That being said, I’ll say about this the same thing I said about the whole Dan Brown fad — at least Jesus is on peoples’ radar screens!

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  53. trout

    One of the directors (I forget which one) has criticized the lumping together of Evangicals due to this movie. He claims it was only meant to represent the extreme, “lunatic” fringe inside of Christianity

  54. Robert

    I have read through most of this, not the comments though, and have one quick point: Evangelicalism is “new”. It is only ~150-200 years old. Compared to Christianity as a whole, Evangelicalism is a tiny baby.

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  56. Chris

    I was wondering what has happened to Levi. He was so impressive and it’s been 3 years or so since the movie–so I guess he is aroound 15 or 16. What is he up to–still preaching?

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