Reporting From the Front Lines Of Radical Christianity
She certainly looks enrapt by the Holy Spirit. Her arms are outstretched above her head, fingers splayed as if in welcome. She stands with her head tilted back, her blond hair flowing down her back, eyes wide open to the sky. Tear tributaries run down her cheeks from wet eye pools. Her lips move rapidly, her mouth sculpting an unknowable language as she speaks in tongues. She is a well-scrubbed, Midwestern American, surrounded by her peers doing the exact same thing. And they’re all about 9 years old.
If you’ve never lived in the Bible Belt or grown up knowing anybody who identified with the thermonuclear sincerity of Caucasian American Pentecostal Christianity, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp may very well hit you in the chest like a supersonic train. The filmmaking team behind The Boys of Baraka ("Back From Baraka," Film Fest Frenzy, May 4, 2005) again look at the social acculturation of young people, this time turning their cameras on families of an evangelical sect, Pentecostalism, in the nation’s heartland. These kids are primarily homeschooled--in a subtitle, the movie contends that 75 percent of all homeschooled kids in the United States are evangelical Christians--where intelligent design trumps evolution, where saying the pledge of allegiance means to the Christian flag. These kids have been "saved" since they were little--typically 4 or 5 years old. They are also some of the more self-confident and engaged young people you’ve seen on-screen in recent memory.
Nine-year-old Rachael says that when she was younger she thought the most fun job in the world would be a manicurist--"a person who paints nails," as she says--because she could sit all day and tell people about the Lord with some nice, relaxing Christian music in the background. Round-faced, wide-eyed, and irresistibly congenial, she doesn’t look awkwardly self-conscious when walking straight up to a young woman in a bowling alley to tell her that Jesus loves her. Ten-year-old Tory is a ball of perpetual wiry motion topped with a curly sprig of flaxen hair. Clad in a pair of white tights, shorts, and a my dad is in the army T-shirt, she bops around her toy-strewn room waiting for her favorite part of a song so she can get down to dancing--for the Lord, not for the flesh--before telling the filmmakers, "My favorite kind of music is Christian heavy metal rock ’n’ roll." She then immediately proceeds to bust a rather impressive move swinging one leg in a circle underneath her as she hops over it with the other one. And young Levi, a freckle-faced boy with a Norman Rockwell cherubic face, short dark hair that parties into a rat tail in the back, and a sunny Southern drawl--think Lucas Black circa Sling Blade--is a young preacher in training, possessing an agile gift for gab and a charismatic personality that draws other kids, and some adults, to him.
All three--and many more--spend some time at the Kids on Fire children’s ministry summer camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D. Pastor Becky Fisher started the camp in 2001 because she wanted to see "young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I want to see them as radically lay down their lives for the gospel as they are in Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, all these different places because--excuse me--we have the truth."
You can see where this is going: If you don’t passionately believe that we need to prepare our children to wage a spiritual and actual war with Islam, the adults in Jesus Camp may feel like the most shocking Americans since Lynndie England. Bookended by Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation and Samuel Alito’s judicial confirmation, Camp squirrels itself into a national political platform--aided indelibly by scenes of Fisher trotting out a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush for the kids to thank for being "Christian friendly," a man in a T-shirt that reads life who leads the kids in prayer chants for righteous courts because "one-third" of their "friends didn’t make it here" to be alongside them (a presentation complete with 7-week-old fetus dolls), and a visit to Washington that includes a prayer group in front of the Supreme Court building. Air America’s Ring of Fire Christian radio show host Mike Papantonio shows up every so often to serve as "sensible" foil to what he deems Christian extremism, even engaging Fisher in a telephone debate. But the contentious squaring off feels a bit forced, as if the filmmakers felt the need to remind viewers that born-again hard Christianity trucks serious political currency these days. Numerous subtitles pop up to offer clarifying factoids about evangelical Christianity, and at especially intense moments a swell of anxious instrumental music scores the proceedings, making them feel like momentous moments in an action thriller.
Thing is, such editorial touches are wholly unnecessary. Serious kudos to Ewing and Grady for not framing Fisher, the kids, or their families as wing-nut mental cases: Fisher, in fact, couldn’t feel more genuine in her beliefs. Besides, much of what Ewing and Grady capture here is bracing in and of itself; it doesn’t need cinematic spice. When Fisher sermonizes about sin to the kids, she pauses as if in aside to remark, "Let me say something about Harry Potter." She then turns on the fear-of-God-warning voice and intones, "Warlocks are enemies of God. And I don’t care what kind of hero they are, they’re an enemy of God, and had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death"--a chilling outburst made even more creepy by the cavalcade of applause that greets it. Even more unsettling is the strange knots your stomach forms when some young boys start saying one of the fellow camp kids looks like Harry Potter and another admits he’s seen the movies with his dad.
All of which makes the fine-tuned, heavy-handed touches feel so infelicitous. Jesus Camp is a fascinating look at the mundane lives of a very specific sect of Pentecostalism in the Midwest, which Ewing and Grady graciously shot with professional respect. What are odd are the postproduction decisions that shaped the movie into its weirdly benign end result. It feels like the filmmakers weren’t sure who the movie’s audience was--and that they needed to identify one. Hence the caution heeded when navigating the footage in the editing room. Nondiegetic music helps brand images into the mind, but the sight of a roomful of 9-year-olds crumbling to their knees in tears under the weight of their own fear of letting their world down doesn’t really need any assistance. And though not quite as flagrant as Michael Moore’s ego trips, Jesus Camp is a movie that asks you which side are you on--without wanting to stand for anything itself.