Tuesday, February 17, 2009

'Jesus Camp'

My first thoughts after watching "Jesus Camp": Geez, that was unsettling.

Filmed in 2006 during the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Samuel Alito, "Jesus Camp" follows three children to a summer camp at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. There they are taught about the need to stand up for their faith and for righteousness in America, and to reclaim the nation for Christ. The "Kids on Fire" summer camp is led by the Rev. Becky Fischer.

This is one creepy movie.

I feel that creepiness in part because I'm a former Pentecostal myself, having joined the Assemblies of God in 1989, about a year after my own spiritual awakening. I don't recall seeing anything as extreme as what I saw in "Jesus Camp," but I definitely saw the tendencies. Watching the movie was like looking into a mirror and seeing in its reflection all your inner workings when you're accustomed only to seeing your outward appearance.

Evangelicalism generally and Pentecostalism particularly stress the importance of an emotional born-again experience, where the person awakens to a keen sense of their sinfulness and unworthiness to stand in the presence of God.

This isn't just an intellectual assent to "Yes, I've done wrong in my life." In the Pentecostal church especially there is pressure to make it an emotionally driven affirmation of wretchedness. You have to feel that the building is on fire and there is no way out, that the water is rising and you are running out of air, that there is a gunman about to blow the brains out of everyone you love -- and it's all your fault.

To be fair, I'm exaggerating a bit, but less than some of my Pentecostal and evangelical compatriots would like to think. Altar calls, as they are called, are emotionally driven affairs, given while the music is playing softly and a preacher you've taught to respect greatly because of his ministerial office, gently and repeatedly implores people to accept Christ.

A typical appeal goes something like this: "I know you are out there. You've been coming to church for years, thinking you're following Jesus, but deep inside, you know you aren't. You've been fooling everyone, even yourself, but not God. And now he wants you to make it real. Every head is bowed, every eye is closed. If you'd like to accept Jesus as your savior, raise your hand."

That's a lot of emotional manipulation for adults, but it's unconscionable to subject children to it, especially when you consider that the message Jesus and the Apostles brought to the world wasn't "You're going to hell," but "Follow me."

So while it was weird to see a mullet-haired boy named Levi saying that he had become a Christian at the age of 5 because he "wanted more out of life" -- I guess the Cartoon Network and Oreo cookies just couldn't fill that void -- it was distressing in the extreme to see children, some seemingly as young as 6 or 7 years, brought to tears by this church pastor over their sins.

Children do have the same human nature as their parents. Anyone who has had a child between the ages of 2 and 4 knows how selfish, angry, and even cruel they can be. But honestly, is it necessary to indoctrinate children, using the same psychological techniques of breaking down and rebuilding that get used for brainwashing adults? The term "abuse" gets abused a lot these days, but I don't think it's much of a stretch here.

(And Fischer is aware of what she is doing. Watch the movie and you'll see her working on a PowerPoint presentation for maximum impact, complete to picking a blood-drooping font for the Bible verse "The wages of sin is death.")

Fischer also repeatedly appeals to the example of Islamofascist camps run by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, where children are taught to hate and kill Jews and Christians. Her argument is that it's necessary to do the same with our children, in order to save the world. That's not a comparison I like, personally. In addition to the Islamophobia she encourages with blanket statements about Islam, Fischer is also suggesting that the proper response to Islamofascism is christofascism. I wonder if she appreciates the irony of using the same justification that terrorists use in defending her ministry.

I could go on, as many others have, about the false correlation of Christianity with conservatism; about the children who are taught bad science in the name of Truth; and the generally unsettling attitudes being inculcated by groups like this. (I will say I was amused by the boy who confided to his breakfast table that he watches Harry Potter movies when he visits his father. It generated the same reaction you might have expected had he produced a copy of Playboy.)

It's a frightening thing to see a large group of children being indoctrinated into militant paranoia, but that's essentially what this movie shows. I don't think it is an entirely objective perspective on evangelicalsm, but it is an accurate depiction of what goes on in a vocal and active subset of evangelicals here in America.

A friend tells me that when she watched "Jesus Camp," she felt like she was watching a documentary of her own childhood. I can't claim that, and I'm glad that my children can't either. I teach Evangeline and Rachel, rather than indoctrinating them, and I encourage them to ask plenty of questions not just of their Sunday school teachers, but of me as well. I don't have all the answers, and my hope is that they will see that from the get-go, and not be crushed when they discover that themselves in years to come.

But for children like Levi, Rachael, and Tory, unpleasant discoveries are on the way. They don't know it all, and their parents don't either. At some point they are going to learn about a much larger world outside their church doors, and hopefully the damage done by well-meaning evangelists won't overwhelm them and leave their faith in ruins.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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