America’s Jesus Camp

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Jesus_camp I just saw the intensely disturbing and profound Indie film Jesus Camp. While the movie received a lot of attention, it lost its first place accolades to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.

The documentary is engaging because it is NOT just a line-up of talking heads and interviews. The film follows evangelist minister Becky Fischer and a handul of kids from the “Kids On Fire School of Ministry,” a charismatic Christian summer camp near Devils Lake, North Dakota.

The images take you into their heads, their parents heads and into Becky’s head, as they switch back and forth between footage of the camp and a children’s prayer conference held prior to the camp at Christ Triumphant Church, a large charismatic church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

They also show a visual of their visit to a Ted Haggard sermon, where the children later have an opportunity to meet him.

The children they showed in ‘christianity’ training were between 8-10 years old and some were already advanced enough to be preaching sermons and teaching their peers mantras while they looked up to the heavens, “God, I am here to be trained. I am here for an education. I’ll say what you want me to say. I’ll do what you want me to do.”

Unlike a christian summer camp I attended in the Northeast over twenty five years ago, they spoke in tongues and brought a life-size cut-out of President Bush onto the stage, where the children were asked to thank him and pray for him.

Ours too, like this much more evangelical version of it, believed that ghost stories were things of the flesh, of the devil. It was disconcerting on many levels to see the methods they used to ‘train’ children for God’s army……

Some parents send children to a ‘christian’ camp and want them to be subject to training for God’s army and others, like my grandparents simply wanted their children and grandchildren to avoid drugs and alcohol and thought a christian camp was a safer choice. Many in my childhood community did not come from evangelical families. In many ways, it was a status thing.

A private christian camp was perceived to have ‘safer counselors’ who were likely not boozing it up every night. Perhaps they also felt the camp might have more comprehensive athletic and artist programs than their public/YWCA/Girl Scouts equivalents.

The difference between many of the kids from my camp experience is that while some may have moved into a life of permanent faith, most did not and it was simply a part of their education, in the same way a catholic school is often part of an education. Or running off to a kibbutz for the summer after college.

According to stats claimed in the movie, 43% of evangelical christians become ‘born again’ before the age of 13. Says Fischer, “I want as many kids in this country committed to Jesus and christianity as there are kids committed to being Muslim. We have to stand up and take back the land.”

We also learn that 75% of home schooled kids are evangelical christians and according to Mike Papantonio, an attorney and radio talk show host based in Florida who at one point during the movie, interviews Fischer, 20% of Americans say they’re evangelical christians.

A mother of one of the children says, “My husband George and I are going to have to answer to the Lord about how we raised our children. God told me that I need to teach them about character.”

Parents and ministers from these communities taught children that evolution is wrong and warlocks are enemies of God. Says Fischer, “In the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death.” She encourages the kids not to celebrate warlocks and not to be phonies in the Army of God.

They weave in strong messages around cleansing, of which water, like many religions is used to symbollically wash away their sins. They also weave in even stronger messages about abortion in a session where they hand finger-sized rubber babies, which the children tape to their hands and the word LIFE is plastered over their mouths.

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady and edited by Enat Sidi, the film left over a dozen of us piled in a room on the edge of our seats, at times in disbelief and at times, jiggling our feet to sometimes interesting christian rock music that played throughout.

The discussion that followed had less to do with ‘religion’ and fundamentalism as it had to do with the aspect of community. In other words, what evangelical leaders like Hilter, Stalin, and modern day religious leaders Oral Roberts and Ted Haggard do so well, is tap into the loneliness and isolation that people continuously feel in a world that no longer makes sense. Whether people have immediate family or not, most need to feel as if they are part of a community — or more.

Why this was a significant part of the discussion had to do with the logic and culture behind cults in general, which religious ones fall into a ‘cult’ category and which ones do not. By understanding the logic and people’s NEEDS of a particular culture anywhere in the world, perhaps we can better learn how to dismantle the ones that are there to divide rather than unite, kill rather than create peace and so on.

Even in independent urban centers like San Francisco, New York, London or Paris, where there may be less reliance on churches and ‘clubs’ as central community hubs, people crave belonging so much that continues to flourish as new members add esoteric niche groups to the system, and online social networks are on the rise across multiple age groups.

Obviously the ‘need’ for that kind of community versus a fundamentalist cult with a larger mission in mind is less immersive. While frightening on many levels, the eerie and often quiet joy of the movie was its visceral passion, conviction, humanity and commitment, qualities that so spend a lifetime trying to achieve.

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