Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady’s ‘Jesus Camp’ (2006)

01Mar07

Documentary films such as Jesus Camp preclude the need for horror films for anyone who espouses a political agenda anywhere left of neo-conservative. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary about Evangelical children’s ministry offers a bad news insight for moderates and liberals, but also offers a fairly kind presentation of Evangelicals. I can understand that some Evangelicals would resist this portrayal of their branch of Christianity because the subjects of the film are Pentecostal. Not every Evangelical service involves speaking in tongues and falling into trances. I think that Ewing & Grady could have been a little more explicit about their subjects being Pentecostal/charismatic — one of many forms of Evangelical Christianity — but I thought that Evangelical beliefs and lifestyle were well represented by the film.

Jesus Camp excels at portraying the power of this movement of Christianity. Though the glossolalia, trances, and very active worship services may be off-putting to some viewers, one is able to see how affecting and powerful that form of worship is for these constituents. If someone who felt uncertain about God or religion attended such a service, I can imagine them being at least intrigued if not involved by the style of worship. As one little boy notes in the film, God is not something that you can see or touch, but charismatics’ interaction with God is very visible. Even if viewers do not believe that the people in this documentary are actually communicating with God, they cannot dispute that the act of trying to communicate with God is very powerful for these people.

Ewing and Grady entered this project without an agenda, political, anti-Christian or otherwise. Their approach to their subjects is very matter-of-fact and, ultimately, very caring. They take time to present Becky Fischer as three-dimensional: a moment in the bathroom when she sighs that doing her hair everyday “makes [her] so exhausted,” a declaration that she could not enjoy heaven if she did not dedicate her life to telling other people about the love they could find in Christ. Even if one does not agree with Fischer’s message, one can see why she is so effective as a children’s minister. Ewing and Grady also use subjects that come off as very intelligent. The child subjects especially are unnervingly mature in their speech. The only subject that appears demonized is Ted Haggard, but the directors allow him to hang himself, so to speak, with comments that he directs at the camera operator and one of the film’s young subjects. Even Levi, a true believer himself, finds Ted Haggard upsetting.

Jesus Camp raises the issue of indoctrination or brainwashing explicitly, but more subtly the film addresses notions of child abuse. Sheltering their kids through homeschooling, exposing them to ministry like the “Kids on Fire” camp — are these parents guilty of child abuse? Does the viewer support their actions as protected by freedom of religion? Should the government support these parenting techniques for the same reason?

I admire Becky Fischer for recognizing young people’s ability to handle big issues. I agree that youth are often underestimated intellectually and emotionally. However, I don’t think that Fischer is showing as much respect for these young people as she could. She respects them enough to share with them the Pentecostal view of sin, abortion, “witchcraft,” etc.; but I think that the ultimate display of respect would be engaging them in discussion that involves examining multiple viewpoints of such issues. Fischer’s lectures smack of manipulation, and the abortion dialogue gives umbrage to a complex topic.

Jesus Camp has been recognized with both an Academy Award and Independent Spirit Award nomination, and these nominations are most definitely merited. Al Gore powerfully demonstrated an inconvenient truth about the environment in his Oscar-winning documentary, but Ewing and Grady present an equally revelatory truth in their film: Evangelicals are preparing and poised to gain control of the political and cultural climate of this country. What are you going to do about it?

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