Monday, February 19, 2007

Jesus Camp

Just got back from Medicine Hat where I had a visit with friends. They have a wonderful gift for hospitality and a lovely home. I love it when I take the time to go up and hang out with them. So we did a lot of talking and some eating and played with my dog. And we watched Jesus Camp. Wow. Is that an experience.

This documentary, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary and probably has a good shot at winning. It has been well received by most reviewers - Michael Medved being one of the exceptions. It focuses on the children's ministry of Becky Fischer, a fundamentalist Pentecostal pastor and three children who attend her "Kids on Fire" camp in North Dakota. The intent of the camp is to convict the children of their sin, encourage them to commit themselves to Jesus and then encourage them to have an experience of the Spirit. In doing so they whip the kids up into a frenzy.

The reaction of many people to the film is that it confirms their worst fears of the Religious Right and their indoctrination of children. By looking at some of the controversy around evolution, home schooling and abortion it does illuminate some of the culture wars going on in the States. Medved and some other critics have criticized the film for what they perceive as its heavy-handed anti-evangelicalism. Interestingly though, I have read that the people depicted in the film aren't unhappy with the documentary. They don't think they've been portrayed in a negative manner. As a Christian I am disturbed by some of the comments I have read that suggest that this is how Christians see the world. I thought the children's sincerity was clear but that doesn't mean I agree with most of what they have been taught. The folks in this film certainly don't reflect the views of many of the Christians I know. But I have talked with Christians who would agree with them. Ewing and Grady haven't made this stuff up.

If it is honest in its depiction of Fischer's ministry then can it be accused of being anti-evangelical? One problem with the film is that doesn't distinguish between different kinds of evangelicals or clarify that the people depicted in the film come from one particular strain of American Pentecostalism. So the problem may be more in its lack of nuance than its misrepresentation of Jesus Camp.

I was disturbed by the scenes of children whipped up into a frenzy of tears and lament for their sins. But I was mindful of a speaker I heard once who said most people have had significant religious experiences as children yet the church often treats them like they aren't real Christians until they are adults. Watching the film I kept thinking that there had to be ways we could share our faith with our children and encourage them in their expression of their faith without sharing Fischer's theology or tactics.

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