I’ve been wanting to see the movie Jesus Camp ever since it came out this summer– the responses to it were so passionate and varied. On one end of the spectrum, you had people who were utterly stunned by what they saw, calling for someone to rescue those children from the fascists. On the other end you had people praising the summer camp to the skies and calling for all Christians to similarly train their children.
Now I hear it’s up for an Oscar. It’s a good movie. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in American sub-cultures or Christian life or childhood/coming of age stories. The filmmakers, who incidentally are not quite as even-handed as they would like us to believe (I noticed the ominous music undergirding certain scenes), follow a handful of children from Missouri to the Kids on Fire summer camp. Before they go, we meet their families and get a peek at their lives. They are all homeschooled and attend a pentecostal church. One girl prays over her bowling ball on a group outing; another dances to Christian rock in front of her mirror and explains the difficulty of dancing always for God, and never in “the flesh.” A boy laughs at Veggie Tales with his brother and discusses with his mom the “bad reasoning” surrounding global warming.
The kids the filmmakers chose to highlight are great. They are articulate, loving, and passionate. They are creative and silly and secure. Any parent would be proud of kids like these. I know a lot of families who are raising their kids in a very similar way: sheltered, homeschooled, and family- and church- focused. My church teaches children to do some of the same things the summer camp does: pray, prophesy, evangelize, worship.
The children’s pastor who runs the camp, Becky Fisher, is also great in many ways. She has a sense of humor and a wild closet full of props (brains, goo, etc) that she uses for object lessons. I’m totally stealing her balloon idea. She takes children seriously and treats them (for the most part) lovingly, and she never forgets that they are children. The kids, after their time in her camp, leave with a sense of their importance to her, to God, to each other, and the world. All good.
So I can see why many parents and people who work with children feel inspired by the movie. I can also see why it makes some people feel worried. First of all, Becky and the children’s families seem to come from a standpoint labeled by its critics as “dominionist”. From what I understand, that perspective is characterized by a sense of the inevitability of truth: we have the truth, truth is slowly marching over the land, and it is only a matter of time before all of America and the world recognize the Lordship of Christ. To hasten the coming of that day, Christians should move to take power in every domain, spiritual and worldy, and thereby further the cause of Christ. Every sphere of life, from government to education to medicine to entertainment to the free market, should come under the dominion of the Kingdom of God, and it is our job to make that happen through prayer and obedience and allegiance to truth. (If I have mischaracterized dominionist thinking in any way, please offer an alternative description or clarification).
The way this works out practically is in comments like one boy’s mother made, that there was no other possible explanation for the natural world than a six day creation: it was the only thing that made sense. It results in intercessory prayer meetings which become very passionate, often with people crying, yelling, and clapping; or in prayer walks, where people lay spiritual claim to a specific area. It means organizing protests and political action on issues that are seen as especially Christian, such as pro-life activities. It means training to join fields and industries where Christian influence is seen as being in short supply. There’s something of a “beat them at their own game” vibe involved. The Christian entertainment company that produces the Veggie Tales cartoons was hailed for many years as a light in a dark industry, though recently it received criticism for agreeing to tone down its religious message for afternoon network cartoons. A lot of people saw that as a step backwards and a compromise of truth.
At any rate, the kids at camp cry. A lot. They are moved to tears in worship, in repentance of sin, and in intercession for their country. For people not familiar with this type of Christian expression, it can seem a little freaky to hear a group of children crying and screaming to, for instance, “take back the land.” During one strange moment, they all extend their hands to pray over a cardboard cutout of George Bush. Though they were praying generically for him to govern with godly wisdom, it is darn hard to imagine that they would have done the same over a cut-out of Bill Clinton or John Kerry.
It’s unfortunate that war metaphors and comparisons to terrorist camps are made so often by Becky and others in the film. She positions her camp as the Christian alternative to jihadist schools in Palestine and elsewhere, whose fanatical dedication she seems to admire. Neither she nor anyone else in the film intended to convey that Christians should actually pick up weapons and storm the ramparts of the secular world, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people took it that way.
I myself have participated in many of the same activities at different points in my life. They’re not quite as freaky as they appear. Some of them– especially prayer– still form an important part of my response to my culture. Others, I have stepped away from entirely. I’m not a dominionist; I don’t share the same dream of an ideal American culture, and though I want to add love and goodness to the world around me, I feel no need to seek positions of power to do so.
I have two concerns with the way the children in the movie were being taught. First, scripture was almost never read, referenced or quoted. The power and persuasiveness seemed almost entirely experiential. Of course, this could have been a choice of the filmmakers to focus only on the most intense moments; the kids did seem to carry their bibles around a lot.
Second, the children were being raised in what appears to be an entirely closed, self-referential system. They go from home to church to camp and back again. Any encounter with outsiders appears to be mainly an opportunity for evangelism (there’s a great moment when a little girl approaches a group of elderly black men hanging out on the Capitol Mall in D.C.). They are told that every part of their worldview is equally, unquestionably true, from learning to love each other to politically conservative positions on global warming. They are urged to have absolute confidence in what they have been taught.
The claustrophobia of this closed circle came home to me especially when one girl started explaining that there are some churches where God will not visit, because the people just sit there and mouth the words of songs during the service. Even fellow Christians, she seemed to be saying, can be outside the circle. Another moment that this point was pressed home was when the filmmakers contrived to have Becky call a progressive Christian radio show. At the host’s questions, she became flustered, lost her usual articulate poise, and ended up saying silly things, though the other guy’s challenge was not a particularly good one. She wasn’t used to being confronted with other opinions.
I worry for these children because as they grow up they will encounter many other views and ideas. They may not know how to interact with people who don’t share their basic values. They may never learn to reach out beyond superficial contacts or conversion efforts. Alternatively, they may realize that some parts of their closed circle of truth are open to credible challenge or multiple interpretations, even among Christians. They may, upon finding these vulnerabilities, lose faith in the whole package and entirely abandon the way of the cross. That would be sad indeed.
I want to clarify that my comments here are confined to particular children as they and their families and teachers are portrayed in the film– not Christian homeschooling families in general, which come in many shapes and sizes.
I also had a few problems with the film itself. As I mentioned earlier, the music sometimes sent a certain message. There was some artificial cutting and pasting designed to marry the confirmation of Judge Alito and the intercessory prayer at the summer camp, even though they took place during completely different times of year. The directors also staged some scenes after the camp was over– first, the kids meet withan awkward, un-funny Ted Haggard at New Life Church in Colorado Springs; then, they suddenly appear in a pro-life protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. These scenes are so contrived that they fail to demonstrate the themes presented earlier in the film. But the patient attention shown to the small moments of their lives at home and their spiritual awakening at camp make it all worthwhile.