Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 17, 2007)
Back when we were 14, my friend Kevin tagged along to Bible camp with some cousins. Never particularly interested in religion prior to this experience, Kevin emerged as a Born Again, raging Christian believer. To say this least, this came as a shock, and it created some tensions given Kevin’s rather aggressive pro-Christian, anti-everything else venom at the time.
Kevin’s “conversion” didn’t take and he soon went back to being the same bonehead he is today; despite this bump in the road, we’ve remained friends essentially our whole lives. Still, I obviously have strong memories of this experience, so when I heard about a documentary called Jesus Camp, I was curious to get a look at how some of these religious organizations work.
Camp introduces us to a few main personalities we’ll follow. We meet Pentecostal children’s minister Becky Fischer and learn that she runs summer camp for Evangelical kids. We also get to know a few kids who will attend that camp. These include 12-year-old aspiring preacher Levi and 10-year-old dancer Tory. We also find nine-year-old Rachael and learn that she hopes to someday open a Christian nail salon.
The movie sets its personalities against a backdrop of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court. The film uses that to remind us of the political stakes related to the Christian Right, and further notes along those lines come from intermittent shots of radio talk show host Mike Papantonio. His program discusses religious issues and he presents concerns that his fellow Christians are subverting the Bible to suit their own needs.
Most of the movie looks at Becky and the kids, though. We follow them to her camp and see what happens to them there. Mostly this means we learn more about their religious beliefs and how these affect their lives.
It’s one thing to inculcate a sense of spirit and ethics in kid, but it’s another to totally brainwash and indoctrinate them. That’s what we see in Jesus Camp, as all the adults involved act to indoctrinate kids into their holy army.
Just imagine how American audiences would react if Camp depicted identical events but featured Osama and Islam as the subjects. The material on display here truly boggles the mind. I don’t seek to argue theology or religion, but I don’t think you have to be a non-believer to come away from Camp with a feeling of discomfort. Only those fully on the side of Becky and her zealots could view this and not feel disturbed.
Did the filmmakers intend for us to come down with this sense of disgust toward Becky and her ilk? I don’t know, as the movie never really tips its hand in that direction. Camp can’t be called an objective documentary, as no such thing exists, especially not when confronted by material as charged as this.
Nonetheless, the filmmakers don’t take the Michael Moore approach that leaves no question where they stand ideologically. Really, they don’t need to taint the footage with their opinions because the clips stand on their own. This isn’t the kind of stuff that allows us to find room for interpretation; either you’re fully with these people or you’re against them.
Frankly, most will be in the latter category, as it seems hard to find redemption in such over the top zealots. Becky scares the crap out of me. Superficially, she has issues. I think it’s ironic to see the morbidly obese Becky rant about how lazy Americans lack the discipline to fast ala Muslims; clearly she hasn’t skipped meals any time recently – or ever. Also, isn’t her focus on her appearance – she spends a lot of time with her bizarre spiky hairstyle – a sin? Seems that way to me.
Beyond these superficial issues, though, Becky scares as only a possessed “true believer” can. Fischer clearly seems to think we need to brainwash and train kids to be warriors for Christ. She makes comments such as “We have the truth” and “We’ve got to stand up and take back the land”. She also chants “this means war!” repeatedly while kids in camouflage dance. She even views radical Islam terrorists as role models for how we should indoctrinate our kids!
This is the stuff of nightmares. Separation of church and state? No such thing in the World of Becky. It’s all Christian zealotry, all the time in her universe.
This becomes especially troublesome as we see its effect on the kids. Of course, Becky’s not alone, as the various parents feature similar viewpoints. Levi’s mom even states that “if you look at creationism, you realize it’s the only possible answer to all the questions”. Plenty of other creepy, meddlesome adults crop up along the way.
We see their effect as we hear from the kids. They buy into what the adults tell them because they’re kids. They’re the best kind of zealots because they lack the life experience to possibly see things differently. Of course, that’s why adults shouldn’t force beliefs on them so strongly, but Becky and her ilk view it differently; what better time to indoctrinate kids than when they don’t know any better?
This makes the material in the film especially sad to see. Really, what Becky and the others do borders on child abuse. They don’t transmit the positive side of Christianity. Instead, they communicate how “sick” the world is and how they need to fix it by forcing others to follow their beliefs. In this world, there aren’t any beliefs; there’s only “the truth” as interpreted by Becky and her pals. If this means they communicate a dark, warped view of the world and brainwash kids to do their bidding, so be it.
You know, I didn’t think that much of Jesus Camp as I watched it. Sure, I was disturbed by what I saw, but it didn’t seem that impressive at first. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an impression it made. This is disturbing footage that needs to be seen.