I picked up Jesus Camp last week at the library and have some thoughts I'd like to get down before they're gone.
A summary: Jesus Camp is a documentary about a Pentecostal youth minister, Becky Fischer, her "Kids on Fire" youth camp in North Dakota with a focus on a few of the kids attending, all framed by reaction from a radio talk-show host (a self-professed moderate Christian) who's quite alarmed at the idea of kids becoming Christian soldiers in "God's army." The camp specializes in training young children to "take back America," while also whipping them into an emotional, tongue-speaking, ecstatic state. So, clearly, there's nothing controversial here. Just move along.
[Side note: the documentary includes sermon footage from Ted Haggard, proclaiming the normal, Republicanized Christianity. After this film's release, Haggard was released from his pastorate in the midst of accusations from a homosexual prostitute. In the sermon clip, homosexuality was one of the specific sins he spoke against. In the wake of his personal sin, the film clip is both ironic and terribly tragic.]
Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:
- I thought the documentary was about as fair-minded as one could be trying to record something like this. There was no overdubbing, all-knowing narrator and there were only a few explanatory notes along the way (i.e., "Evangelical Christians believe one must be born again by faith in Christ to be saved."), most of which were accurate, if simplistic. So the directors (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) should be commended for that.
- Having never really been around much charismatic Christianity, the film was a real eye-opener for me. Several times I found my mouth open and my eyes wide at how different this type of Christian life is.
- Despite her obvious love for the children and strong faith in her message, Becky Fischer's teaching strategy was thoroughly manipulative rather than Scriptural. Clips of teaching kids how to speak in tongues ("just open your mouth and let the Spirit flow through you!") and young children crying in fear of Satan all made me quite sad. Even if the parts of the camp they left out were filled with solid, Biblical and reformed teaching, I still wouldn't send my kids within 10 miles of the camp. The problem lies not just with Fischer, but with the hyper-emotional, unbiblical and manipulative tendencies of charismatic Christianity.
- I shudder to think that the outside world, looking in at the church, thinks the evangelical church is all like this. But yet we are joined in some way to Becky Fischer and the charismatic-evangelical churches. Until we are ready to disavow them as Christians at all, they are our brothers and sisters. And so I find myself in the odd position of being embarrassed by our own extended family. It make me hesitant to write these thoughts in public, because I don't like the idea of airing our familial grievances before the world. Yet there is, I trust, another branch of the American evangelical church, one not beholden to the Republican party, one steeped in Scriptures rather than emotional experience, one ready to engage the world thoughtfully and Biblically - and somehow I want the world to know about that part, too.
- One of the homeschooling moms interviewed had a solid and reasonable defense of homeschooling her children. I was glad for this.
- Watching a young girl (7 or 8) take a tract to an adult woman in a bowling alley, stumble through the most awkward gospel presentation ever ("God just wants to love you and you'll be happy and Jesus died for you and...") and walk away assured that she has done what God wanted ("I just heard Him speak to me...") must be one of the most uncomfortable moments I've ever seen on film. But when was the last time I had the courage to approach a stranger to proclaim the gospel?
- The passion for and focus on the children should also be commended. Fischer and her church is entirely right to believe the future of our nation and culture lies with our children. That belief is good and right; it's how they work it out that poses the danger of zeal without knowledge.
- That this movie is rated PG-13 is quite interesting. As far as I can tell, it's because of some discussions of abortion. But even then...