Friday, April 06, 2007

Movie Notes: Jesus Camp

As someone whose career will involve forcing American kids to read books against their will, one of the first things that struck me about Jesus Camp was how rarely I saw anyone in the film actually reading the Bible. Most of the children in the movie seemed to get their religion from evangelical preachers, skits, puppet shows, cartoons, and songs. For some reason, I had just assumed that religious camps involved a lot of time spent hunched over books. Actually, the Pentecostal youth preacher Becky Fischer, who is the center of the film, commented on this. It's fascinating to see how a tradition rooted in textual analysis copes with the decline in reading in America. It's also interesting to think that Becky Fischer and I have in common a devotion to trying to get young people to read great books.

To be honest, that's about all we have in common. As I watched the film, I tried to imagine how a born-again Christian might react to it. Jesus Camp hearkens back to those older documentaries that just showed you people doing the things they do without attempting to convince you of some argument. Unlike the wave of what I call "Bitchumentaries" that have followed in Michael Moore's wake, Jesus Camp didn't rely on decontextualized snippets of people saying stupid things, Candid Camera style sabotage of conservatives at their places of employment, or endless commentary from Noam Chomsky. In fact, aside from a few scenes of a liberal radio host arguing with Fischer, we don't even hear from the other side. This is evalgelical Christians in their natural environment teaching their children a very politicized form of evangelical Christianity, with no narration or commentary. Fischer has claimed to appreciate the film, as have a number of born-agains, and I can see why they would. Like any work of art, this film is a litmus test and reactions will vary wildly.

In fact, the only thing that might well trouble evangelicals about this film is how decontextualized it is. These are evangelicals au naturelle. In other words, the things they do might seem strange to us, but they believe they are acting in reaction to social ills that they percieve in American culture. In other words, the film shows them reacting (badly, I'd say) to cultural vulgarity, abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, war, and so forth; however, it never deals with the reality of these things. Maybe these people are paranoid, and maybe they're right. It's hard to say.

I would say that a lot of how you react to this film will depend on how you feel about using children to fight adult political battles. Personally, I find it manipulative and offensive. The use of traditional brainwashing techniques- abusive language, long public sermons, ostracization, repition of simplistic phrases, singing, endurance tests, and so forth- to make young children into soldiers in your army is more than a bit chilling in this day and age. The obvious comparison, and one that Fischer makes herself, is to those videos of Palestinian children with fake bombs around their waist. However, I also doubt that any of these kids are going to strap on bomb belts. There is a difference between making kids blow themselves up and making them stand in front of the Supreme Court with signs refering to something like abortion that they can't possibly understand.

That said, it's astounding how deeply involved these people are with politics. Apparently, the days in which born again Christians wouldn't even vote because they didn't want to be involved with the issues of the world are long gone. It's pretty hard to tell if these Christian Republicans are more Republican or more Christian. To be honest, I still have no idea why so many of them were convinced that it's a Christian viewpoint to argue that global warming doesn't exist. And at one point, Ted Haggard is shown claiming that evangelical Christians determine who wins elections with a glee that can only be described as pure hubris. The old question: "Do they do something because it is pious, or is it pious because they do it?" seems to apply here. Clearly, these people have no intention of rendering anything unto Caesar when they have the chance to become Caesar themselves.

1 comment:

patrick said...

i appreciate that the makers of Jesus Camp let the people interviewed do all the talking; over all, there is some useful truth in this flick... as long as it's taken with a grain (or maybe a bucket) of salt