Jesus 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.”
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 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.
( 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]