March 5, 2007

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp (2006)

This Oscar-Nominated documentary was more engaging than I expected it to be, at times touching and poignant. The difficulty is in the focus on the children, who have the same energy, hopes and fears that many children do as they approach double digit age.

Tori likes to dance, but wants you to know that she, too, sometimes has to catch herself when she’s dancing for the flesh rather than for God. Rachael is a very bright girl who imagines that working in a nail salon would be an ideal job for her because she could reach people with her message when their walls were down. Levi feels the power and attention that comes with being a charismatic speaker and likes the feeling of God speaking through him.

I was surprised at how honest the film was. Of the people depicted, only Ted Haggard disapproved of how he was portrayed (I expect it’s because he doesn’t like looking in a mirror, and he’s kind of a jerk). Clearly, these people believe deeply and the film is no threat to that belief because it portrays what their doing: spreading that belief any way possible.

One lasting impression is the passion and intelligence of these normal kids, and that the ministry is so frank in its use of that energy.

Indeed, as Becky Fischer, the leader of the child ministry says, these children are truly useful in their culture war. The comparison between these children and the indoctrination of Muslim children in madrassas has been criticized, but that comparison isn’t voiced by the filmmakers, it comes directly from the described motivation of the camp organizer.

Looking out at the crowd of kids, though, I really did wonder how much the message sticks in the long term. While there was a general demonizing of Harry Potter, one child laughs at meal time that his mother won’t let him watch it, so he watches at his father’s house. This sort of thing is precisely the focus later on, as the children are urged to reconcile their sinful behavior of acting one way in church and another way among their friends, prompting buckets of tears and reaching out to God.

I recommend this film. I couldn’t help but like the kids. You do get the feeling that, just as they are told, they are destined to make their mark on the world. The moment when Levi meets Haggard, the young and budding preacher may feel like he’s peering into his future. Haggard gives him the advice to “go with that cute kid thing” and by the time he’s older he’ll have some real content, simultaneously belittling him and giving us a peek behind the curtain. Young Levi’s smile is frozen oddly at the moment he receives the crass, petulantly jealous advice. Does Levi know there is something phony here, or does he just feel a hitch in all the positive energy that’s been flowing his way? More importantly, what does Haggard have to fear from the attention this little kid gets; what’s his motivation to criticise the boy who just told him his favorite subject to preach on is “faith?”

Maybe, at a base level, the liberal boogeyman is not what these people fear most. Instead, they fear the energy of the a young generation which is born eager to seek and learn and question. Children are ready-made to change the world with their imaginations unbounded by manufactured shackles. New life finds its own way. This fearful energy becomes something to be bent and harnessed, since it cannot be denied.

Posted by James at March 5, 2007 1:04 PM
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Hmmm, maybe I will rethink my decision to avoid this one. I'm sort of surprised by some of what you wrote. When I was a child, certainly harnessing the energy of children was not on the agenda, only bending it was. Speaking as an ex-Southern Baptist, I can't tell you the number of times I was suspended from Sunday school, and my parents got 'that call'.

And the Haggard thing is going to make me roll my eyes, I'm sure of that. I heard someone on the radio call his wife a saint- I don't think 'saint' so much as 'dumb as a box of rocks'. Sad.

Posted by: Cindy at March 5, 2007 2:29 PM

Sounds like Haggard is doing his best to turn a bright and charismatic kind into yet another cynic. "Go with that cute kid thing" indeed.

Posted by: Julie at March 5, 2007 3:55 PM

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