My previous entry on Ava Lowery’s “What Would Jesus Do?” reminded me that I haven’t written a longer review of Jesus Camp (IMDB), which I caught at Silverdocs a few days ago. As I mentioned in my initial review, I found myself watching Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary about an evangelical children’s camp through the lens of my own childhood experiences of attending similar evangelical churches and church youth camps, something that makes writing about this film somewhat more difficult. I do think that Ewing and Grady have crafted an insightful documentary that will provide its audience with a compelling depiction of evangelical culture, especially as it lays out in terms of educating children into that culture, but I would have liked to see a little more consideration of how children process–often in vastly different ways–what they learn from their pastors, their parents, and their Sunday School teachers.
Jesus Camp opens with a car driving down an interstate highway somehwere in “flyover country,” the sides of the road littered with fast food restaurants and chain stores while on the radio, we tune in to various AM radio talk shows where the hosts are conversing about national politics, notably the announcement that Sandra Day O’Connor had retired from the Supreme Court, with the radio hosts enthusiatsically hoping that an anti-choice candidate will be nominated in her place. The radio broadcasts establish the idea that these evangelical children’s camps cannot be separated from the larger “culture wars” that, for better or worse, have remained a major theme ever since the 2004 elections. Eventually we are introduced to the documentary’s central subjects, Pastor Becky Fischer, a children’s pastor who creatively teaches children Bible lessons using toys and other props, and three children, Levi, Rachael, and Tory, who plan to attend Fischer’s Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Fischer has a charmismatic stage presence, and the children who attend her services are clearly spellbound as she narrates Bible stories and tells the children about her camp. During these scenes, Levi, especially emerges as a central figure. Articulate and pleasant, Levi–shown in the middle photo on the film’s official website–responds to many of Fischer’s questions, expressing enthusiasm for attending the camp so that he can become a more dedicated member of “God’s army.”
Fischer’s summer camp provides the backbone of the film, but we also encounter Levi, Rachael, and Tory in a variety of learning contexts. In several scenes, we see the children being home-schooled by parents who want to shield their children from public schools, with one mother teaching the creation story and dismissing evolution as “just a theory,” adding that “science doesn’t prove anything.” Elsewhere, we see another pastor instructing the children to reach their hands towards a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush so that they can pray for him in ways that are clearly politically inflected (though to be fair, it was not uncommon for the churches I attended to pray for political leaders regardless of party, although this was well before the emergence of the Christian Coalition as a political force). This pastor is especially interested in recruiting “warriors,” metaphorically speaking, in the fight against abortion, and in fact, later in the film, we see many of these children on the steps of the Supreme Court handing out fliers calling for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Children also emulate their leaders by “witnessing” to others–Rachael somewhat nervously walks up to a stranger in a bowling alley to share her faith–or by learning to preach, with Levi delivering a short sermon at the camp. We also see Tory who enjoys dancing to Christian rock but worries about the sin of “dancing for the flesh.” All of these scenes suggest that the children are absorbing their lessons without really questioning them, and many of the children seem very eager to please the adults in their world, but to a degree they also seemed to suggest the children were trying on a role, figuring out something about themselves while participating in the camp and its related activities.
The only opposing voice to the conservative evangelical subjects of Jesus Camp belongs to (liberal) Air America host and Christian Mike Papantonio, who is shown taking phone calls and commenting broadly on evangelical Christianity. The scenes with Papantonio are beautifully filmed, showing him in a darkened Air America studio, the camera panning across to show him in the room broadcasting alone, while an on-air exchange between Papantonio and Fischer effectively tied the two worlds of the documentary together. While Papantonio’s comments about the sometimes troubling mix of religion and politics are helpful, the scenes also had the effect of implying that Papantonio was himself alone in his more progressive version of Christianity, which is, of course, hardly the case, but I’m also unsure what would have worked better here. During a Q&A at Silverdocs, one of the filmmakers addressed a similar question and explained that they conisdered showing a progressive church but felt that it would have provided a distraction from the specifics of the Kids on Fire camp, and I think they’re right about that. But at the same time, I did find myself wondering exactly how the children were processing their experiences at “Jesus Camp,” because in my experience what you see at the camp is probably significantly different than what you would see at soccer practice, say, or in some other context. Like Andrew LaFollette, commenting on IMDB, the most compelling scenes for me were the ones when we see the children alone. We see glimpses of that when a group of children are talking about Harry Potter (before they are reminded that Harry Potter “would have been stoned to death” if he’d lived in Old Testament times), and I wanted to see more of these moments where children were making sense of their world outside the “Jesus Camp” context because I think we’d see a much different picture of evangelical culture, one that is far more complicated and far less homogenous than what we see in the film. I would have also liked to have seen Jesus Camp depict other aspects of the Kids on Fire camp. Like most evangelical summer camps, Bible lessons only entail one (significant) part of the camps, and some of my strongest memories of the camps are playing softball and participating in other outdoor activities. On the whole, however, despite some reservations, I think that Jesus Camp raises some important questions in its depiction of these evangelical children’s camps and their relationship to political activism.