Decoding Jesus Camp

Levi is a young preacher in the "army of God" depicted in the film Jesus Camp.

Oh, I was ready for a fierce reaction to Jesus Camp. Something really extreme--like wanting to cast a demon out of my 27-inch TV. Or declaring that Oprah is the Antichrist.

I'd seen the trailer for this new and controversial documentary, and I knew exactly where the thing was going. The directors would try to draw a parallel between militant Islam--the shrieking Palestinian kids with toy suicide bomber vests strapped to their chests--and right-wing Pentecostals who jabber in tongues, stick gospel tracts under people's noses and talk about enlisting in "God's army."

The camera dwells ominously on little kids in camo and war paint, acting out a music-and-motions number about becoming a part of a godly generation, a new army of righteous doers hoping to influence their culture. (I think that's what it was about, anyway.) It hovers over a kid shaking and trembling on a church floor, in the grip of some real or imagined spiritual force. It cuts away sharply when a youth minister hollers: "This means WAR! Are you a part of it or not?"

One of my colleagues had described as "horrifying" a scene from the film in which little kids prayed in tongues before a cardboard cutout of President Bush. Another friend, who was raised Pentecostal, told me, "You are going to be MAD."

So I saw the documentary on DVD, in the privacy of my home. And I thought: Ho-hum. What's everyone so up in arms about? The answer to that after the jump.

Jesus Camp's directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, tout their film as a "first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America's political future." Now that is the thing I find most shocking: that this is a "first-ever" look. American media, where have you been all these years? Alternative press, what happened to enterprise, pulling in other perspectives? Could it be this is the "first-ever" because there are virtually no Pentecostals in the secular media, much less the alternative press? (Really, alt-press folks, let's extend this beyond Pentecostals. I can count on one hand--with one or two fingers left over--the number of theologically conservative Christians of any tradition that I've encountered in the alternative press in 13 years in your midst.)

I am astonished by the breadth of the disconnect: Most media people are clueless about the faith tradition--evangelical Christianity, which includes Pentecostals--that drives one-fourth of the American populace to one extent or another.

Jesus Camp, for those unacquainted with all the fuss about it, follows a group of Pentecostal kids--some as young as 6 and 7--as they journey to North Dakota for an intensive Bible camp where they do some of the usual kid-camp things, like walk in the woods and tell ghost stories in their cabins, as well as participate in kiddie worship services led by a portly youth minister named Becky Fischer. The services include skits, dance, pantomime, singing and speaking in tongues, which sounds suitably freaky to anyone unfamiliar with Pentecostal practices, especially when little kids are doing it.

Fischer, who obviously has a great rapport with children, also prepares her campers--many of whom are home-schooled--for the culture wars they'll encounter in the outside world, the daily assault on their most cherished beliefs. It's clear that Fischer and her cohorts stand solidly on the right concerning the hot-button issues of the day: abortion, prayer in the schools, and so on.

One thing the directors of Jesus Camp do well is portray the kids sensitively. They've done a fantastic job, in fact, of getting these kids to open up--especially Rachael, a big-eyed girl who dreams aloud of saving the world for Jesus. Ewing and Grady end up focusing on kids who are unusually fervent and expressive about their faith; I wouldn't say they're the norm. The documentary is marred, though, by edits of scenes and conversations that end up contributing to a very slanted whole. The directors believe these kids are being brainwashed by their religious elders. Having been to Bible camps not too different from the one in Jesus Camp and sitting on evangelical pews all my life, I beg to differ.

Just so you know, I am a Pentecostal, though I have been exposed to many other Christian traditions. So I have the advantage of understanding how outsiders view Pentecostalism as well as insiders. (What is a Pentecostal? The Jesus Camp media kit actually has a very serviceable description: "Pentecostals and Charismatics...are distinguished by their emotional expressiveness, spontaneity in worship, speaking or praying in unknown tongues and acts of healing. Charismatics often characterize themselves as "Spirit-filled" Christians. Out of over 100 million evangelicals in the U.S., 30 million of them are Charismatic or Pentecostal. It is the fastest-growing movement in world Christianity, and includes church groups such as the Assemblies of God, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and the Pentecostal Holiness Church.")

I find nothing shocking whatsoever in Jesus Camp. I have heard these worship songs, seen ministers and kids just like these, witnessed scenes in which a bunch of children were "filled with the Holy Spirit" and began speaking in tongues all at once (saw that at a Charismatic Catholic gathering, no less), and have also listened as theologically conservative Christians like those in Jesus Camp groped for some way to engage the culture at large without compromising their beliefs. Nothing about this is exotic or strange to me. It's everyday Pentecostal life. Sometimes I too look at our culture and want to run away screaming and pulling out tufts of hair. The Apostle Paul recognized that followers of Jesus Christ would struggle with that tension: being part of this world but not of it. Being called to live godly lives at the same time we're required to "follow peace with all men," as much as is possible.

Stephanie Morris, a Bible Girl contributor, saw Jesus Camp at the Magnolia Theater (the film's also being distrbuted by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures) and heard people gasping at certain scenes, or when statistics about evangelicals were flashed on the screen. She'll provide her own perspective on Jesus Camp in the next few days, so stay tuned. What's clear from reviews, though, is that many viewers find Jesus Camp to be a shocking expose of some hidden segment of society that is just shades away from being a sinister, violent force of change in our country.

And that, to me, is just plain silly. Are Pentecostals weird? Yeah. I'll concede on that point. I used to think they were weird too. But dangerous? No way.

Seen any Pentecostal mobs lately? Heard about a wave of violent crimes involving holy rollers? Observed them in the woods drilling with assault rifles, assembling an "army of the Lord" to take over America? Yeah. That's what I thought.

Since Pentecostals are mystifying to many of our readers, I thought I'd decode a few scenes in Jesus Camp. Don't want you to be so scared about the Pentecostal hordes that you wet your britches, 'cause I might be sitting in that theater seat next time.

The kid on the floor, trembling and shaking, chest heaving. No, the boy isn't having a seizure. The kids in this scene have been introduced to the "presence of the Holy Spirit," and people respond to this in a variety of ways. Have so throughout history, in fact--many of the same phenomena have been observed during the various waves of Christian revival, especially since the advent of the Pentecostal Movement in the early 1900s (that is the most statistically significant Christian revival of the modern era--resulting in some 500 million adherents in the world today, the majority of them in Third-World countries). Yes, we can physically sense the presence of the Holy Spirit sometimes. It's very hard to describe, but it's something that engages most of the senses and often follows or accompanies passionate worship or prayer. I've seen many people weep uncontrollably when they sense the Holy Spirit. Some fall to the ground and begin shaking. Some respond to it by dancing or singing joyously.

All the talk of God's army and the war imagery. The "army of the Lord" is spoken of in a metaphorical sense throughout Scripture. It has nothing to do with physical violence. Jesus does, however, speak of his "kingdom" advancing forcefully and violently. This is always understood to be figurative language. Many Pentecostals such as myself have never carried or owned firearms precisely because of our beliefs; the Bible clearly states that the weapons of a believer "are not carnal," and every Pentecostal, including the kids in Jesus Camp, fully understands that.

The fact that so many of the families in Jesus Camp are right-wingers. Many, and probably most, evangelicals voted Republican in the last two elections. But it's not the blind allegiance you might think it is; there is a variety of opinion among evangelicals concerning the Iraq war and other issues. Black evangelicals, in particular, resent being lumped in with the right wing. Nonetheless, there are many evangelicals whose views closely align with the families in Jesus Camp. They believe our culture has degraded to a sickening degree. Whatever their personal political views, they're offended by the hatred directed at Bush, because the Bible instructs us to respect all of our government leaders and pray fervently for them. (One thing I can't help you with is their suspicion that global warming is a left-wing conspiracy. Why would Democrats want the planet to be any warmer than Republicans would?)

I'll leave to Stephanie Morris the praying-in-tongues scene before the cardboard cutout of Bush.

Jesus Camp ends with a beautiful and evocative image: Big Becky Fischer is emerging from a carwash, where her car has been scoured clean by a million soft lashes. She looks silently at the "STOP" signs that lead from the carwash into the vast outside world. Yeah, I get it: She's ready to roll. Against your candidates, against your popular culture, against the freedoms you hold dear. And you better stop her.

I know I'm supposed to be shaking in my shoes.

But, come on, it's just a bunch of holy rollers. They want to win your heart for Jesus, because that's how they've found their peace. They want their kids to grow up with some semblance of innocence. They vote, because they have a right to vote.

That's all. You can stop shaking now. --Julie Lyons