- compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2006 1 Jan
You've never seen this in a movie before—young children speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor, apparently under the power of the Holy Spirit. And what is more, they're dressed in camouflage, to represent their identity as soldiers in God's army. They're asking God to fill the U.S. Supreme Court with "righteous judges." They're protesting abortion. They're shouting prayers for President Bush while they lay hands on a cardboard cut-out of his likeness. And—don't tell Al Gore—but they're being taught that global warming isn't a problem at all.
Jesus Camp is not a drama or a comedy. It's a documentary, made by award-winning filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who follow the experiences of three young children—Levi, Tory, and Rachael—as they attend the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The camp, directed by Becky Fischer, encourages children to embrace Christianity through programs of intense instruction and charismatic worship.
Some Christian media personalities are speaking out against the movie, but for differing reasons. A few accuse the filmmakers of trying to discredit Fischer and her camp, and they rush to the defense of the film's subjects, saying that their methods of worship and education are to be celebrated. Others are criticizing the film by saying that this documentary footage severely misrepresents Christianity, and that it has been framed to draw viewers into viewing Christians as lunatics.
CT Movies editor Mark Moring expressed that very concern his weekly newsletter, and now Rich Tatum, a Pentecostal who is upset about how his denomination is portrayed in the film, has written a commentary for CT Movies titled, "Brainwashed in the Blood." Also at CT Movies, some readers are beginning to sound off about what they've read and heard.
An uncredited writer at MovieGuide calls it "a sarcastic documentary that paints evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, and politically concerned Christians as very shrill, warlike, and dangerous." The same writer questions whether radio personality Mark Papantonio, who plays a prominent role in the film, and his callers are Christians at all. "Mark claims to be a Christian. Let us pray that he be filled with God's Holy Spirit and be delivered from the evil demons that have made him so hateful toward the Christian leaders of America." The article concludes by telling readers how to contact Magnolia Pictures with comments.
Even one of the film's cast members is responding. Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, who makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, wrote a letter to all 42 NAE denominational leaders that read, in part: "I am concerned that we are seeing the initial attempts to characterize Evangelical practices as extreme and, in some cases, similar to the practices and beliefs of Islamic Fundamentalists. No doubt, we all need to learn to communicate the Gospel more clearly in our globalized world, realizing that our words can be interpreted very differently than intended because of the evolving global situation ….
"I didn't like [Jesus Camp] for two reasons. (1) It portrayed the training of kids at the camp as militaristic, extreme, and scary and (2) It forces non-Charismatic evangelicals to say, "That's not us, it's them!" My concern is that the movie will reverse the growing respect that has been growing between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Evangelicals for the past three decades, and that those on the far left will use it to reinforce their most negative stereotypes of Christian believers. … It's one more 'documentary' that seems to miss the point intentionally."
Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles is surprised at the uproar. In a statement, Bowles says, "We're frankly surprised and a little disheartened by the efforts of prominent members of the evangelical community to clamp down on Jesus Camp. Whether or not the children and camp depicted in the film represents the 'mainstream' of the Evangelical movement is beside the point: they exist, the film documents them, and the subjects feel they've been treated fairly. Why a community that's so quick to attack discrimination from secular Americans would then turn and do the same to other Evangelicals is unexpected, to say the least."
What do Christian film critics think of the film? So far, very few have published reviews.
Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily) doesn't take sides on whether the film is fair or not, but he does recommend the movie. "Jesus Camp could be part of a provocative trilogy of similar documentaries that include The Education of Shelby Knox and Hell House. All peel back a layer of American Christianity and reveal a rawness that is simply worth watching and certainly worth discussing afterward. No matter where you stand politically or theologically, Jesus Camp has something to offer. You're guaranteed not to leave indifferent."
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) write, "When a documentary explores a subgroup of a large contingent and implies that this defines the whole, then it is appropriate to call 'foul.' This is the case in Jesus Camp. … The implication is made that Pastor Fischer is a prime example of Evangelical Christians' beliefs and practices. This is not only untrue but it also leads to a pervasive misunderstanding."
Film Forum will link to other Christian press reviews as they are published. Meanwhile, read the CT Movies interview with the filmmakers, conducted by Peter T. Chattaway.
Not many mainstream critics have reviewed it yet, but those who have are giving it good ratings.from Film Forum, 10/12/06
Brett McCracken (Relevant) writes, "[T]he argument of Jesus Camp is pretty familiar: Evangelical Christians are radically conservative, gleefully anti-intellectual, flag-waving Dubya lovers who brainwash their WASP spawn in hopes of raising up an army to usher in a theocracy or the apocalypse, whichever comes first."
from Film Forum, 02/01/07
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says of this Oscar-nominated documentary, newly released on DVD: "Most critics insisted after the theatrical release that the documentary was 'very balanced'—especially after Fischer herself reportedly said that it was an accurate representation of her camp.It's clear, however, that everything from the creepy score to the choice of a liberal (as opposed to an evangelical) commentator were intended to sway the audience against this kind of teaching. … 'Jesus Camp' will likely drive home not only the polarization between believers and non-believers, but also how truly splintered we are as Christians today."