DVD Release Date:  January 23, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  September 15, 2006 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for some discussions of mature subject matter)
Genre:  Documentary
Run Time: 87 min.
Directors:  Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Actors:  Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio, Ted Haggard

“Jesus Camp” is the kind of film that frightens everyone – and I’m not talking about the horror-movie, Halloween-esque score that accompanies this documentary, which was created by the acclaimed directors of “The Boys of Baraka.”  I’m talking about the kind of content that has everyone up in arms – whether liberal, evangelical, charismatic or non-Christian.  But, especially non-Christian.

After a brief introduction to their Midwestern hometown – complete with the requisite shots of flags, religious signs and fast-food restaurants, as well as a sparsely edited interview with a home-schooling mom who sounds just a little too fanatical to be true – three Missouri ‘tweeners prepare for summer camp.  Rachael, 9, Levy, 12, and Tori, 10, are all very devoted Christians – just like their parents.  Tori listens to alternative rock with Christian lyrics and likes to dance for the Lord, but worries that sometimes it comes “from the flesh.”  Rachael shares her faith with strangers.  And Levy, who wants to be a preacher, confesses that he became a Christian because he was “bored” with what life had to offer.  “I want the meat,” he says.

The three head off for Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, to “Kids on Fire,” a summer program directed by Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s pastor.  There, they engage in free-style charismatic worship and listen to passionate sermons about everything from the wages and temptation of sin (aided by a stuffed animal, to illustrate how an adorable cub quickly transforms into a dangerous lion) to the perils of Harry Potter.  In another, extended sequence, the children are also taught about the evils of abortion, using plastic dolls modeled after unborn fetuses at various stages of development.  Toward the end of the film, the children go on a road trip to Washington, D.C., where they demonstrate outside the Supreme Court, mouths taped shut.  They later go to Colorado Springs, where they visit Ted Haggard (who had yet to be exposed for alleged drug use and an affair with a male prostitute).

In between scenes of “Kids on Fire,” the filmmakers interject the on-air opinions of Mike Papantonio, a talk show host on Air America, a radio channel with liberal activist hosts like Janeane Garafalo.  Papantonio, who claims to be a Christian, is a liberal Methodist and a board member of Air America.  During extended sequences in which he provides the only commentary of the film, save for Fischer’s, he insists that Fischer is creating a “new brand of religion.”  Having apparently seen the footage of the camp scenes in advance, he goes on to say that “Right now everything they do they say they do in the name of God: that we need to go to war in the name of God; we're being told that George Bush, of all people, is a holy man who's been anointed with the job of creating a Christian society – not just in America but all over the world. … There's this entanglement of politics with religion. What kind of lesson is that for our children?"

Of course, to any evangelical, it’s clear where Fischer’s heart is.  "I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam,” she says.  “I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the gospel."  As “radical” as that sounds – especially to those outside the faith – it comes directly from Jesus.  “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can't be my disciple,” writes Luke, quoting his master. “Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can't be my disciple.”

So obviously, Fischer loves Jesus and wants to teach kids to do so as well, by embracing an intense commitment to holy living as well as the political activism that characterizes her own faith.  The problem is that Fischer violates a number of biblical injunctions with her teaching.  She allows the children to pray in tongues throughout the worship service, for example, without an interpretation.  This does against New Testament teaching as well as Pentecostal worship practices about the correct use of that spiritual gift.  Fischer also appears to endorse little Levy as a preacher – despite the fact that he is too young to possibly meet the biblical prerequisites for character or calling.

Fischer further sets herself up for misinterpretation when she holds up a cardboard cutout of President Bush and extols his virtues, insisting that the children pray for him.  Fischer does not tell the kids to “worship” Bush – as most film critics have said – and no where does she even imply it.  Not only that, but as Christians, we are commanded to pray for our leaders.  When the kids lay hands on the cutout, however, it does create a rather bizarre impression.  And if educated journalists assume that the kids are being told to worship Bush, might the kids not think the same thing?

Likewise, Fischer’s warlike dances, which include face paint and camouflage clothing, send an equally disturbing message – especially when combined with Fischer’s talk about mimicking terrorists.  Evangelicals will no doubt understand the many biblical metaphors and allusions she is using, and instinctively know that these words are meant to be applied in a spiritual sense – not a physical one.  But others are left to shudder.  It’s a culture clash, to be sure, and Fischer is hardly “seeker sensitive.”

"Democracy is designed to destroy itself," she explains, "because we have to give everyone equal freedom."  This implies that Fischer is against democracy, which is probably not the case.  But when the film is edited so that Fischer doesn’t explain that kind of radical-sounding statement, it’s hard to assume otherwise.

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.  Even Christians who share Fischer’s theology may be uncomfortable with the charismatic worship – which includes children crying and rolling on the floor.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that soon after the film’s release, Fischer was forced to close the camp because of threats and vandalism.

“Jesus Camp” is an interesting look into a subculture that represents, in one form or another, in whole or in part, a growing number of Americans.  Whether you agree with Fischer’s ways or not, however, “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.

AUDIENCE:  Teens and up

DVD EXTRAS

  • Deleted scenes
  • Directors' commentary

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Language/Profanity:   None.  
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:   None.
  • Violence:    None.