Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jesus Camp

I am a Christian and have been so all of my life. I am a pastor and have been so for 40 years, a Presbyterian type. My social views are liberal; my faith, pietistic. As a friend put it, “You’re a liberal with a personal relationship to Jesus.”

It’s all been good, and it’s all been real, which is why “Jesus Camp” breaks my heart and frightens me.

It’s a chilling tour of an American underground. This is the way it is for millions of “evangelical” Christians – I hate to surrender the term “evangelical” to them, but it’s been so badly tainted by their ownership of it and the media’s use of it, that I guess it belongs to “them” now.

They have a misconstrued and an inaccurate view of American history and the role of religion. They believe in a Golden Age for America, and now it’s all been lost because of political and religious liberals, epitomized in two “evils” – abortion and homosexuality.

They possess an overwhelming sense of being right, and through their networks and megachurches, their sense of entitlement to the faith is reinforced constantly. With homeschooling and summer camps, they’ve isolated their young and fill them with a self-righteous spirit that sees the world “out there” as evil. As one mother put it, “there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who love Jesus and those who don’t.”

This kind of bi-polar thinking distorts everything. As H.L. Mencken put it: “For every hard question, there’s an easy answer. It’s just happens to be the wrong answer.”

This kind of Christianity thrives with “easy answers.” Admit but one nuance, one variation on a theme, and the house of cards collapses.

If you see this documentary, be sure to watch the deleted scene - Ted Haggard’s sermon. The man seems demented, or at least, utterly full of himself. He plays to the camera – like a dunce, a fool. I couldn’t believe just how silly – or manic - he seemed, yet he was pastor of a large church in Colorado Springs and a Presidential advisor.

When a young camper named Levi (a very bright young man) has a chance to meet Haggard, the boy is awed, but Haggard is cynical and dismissive of the youth, questioning him for “lack of content” and being young, he can work “the young thing” to build a crowd. Later on, he’d get the content. You could see the hurt in Levi’s eyes.

Thankfully, the wave of evangelical influence has crested; the house of cards is collapsing. Haggard is gone. Falwell and Kennedy are dead. Dobson is slipping to the margin. The new pastor of New Life Church is sounding different themes.

Technically, “Jesus Camp” succeeds in portraying Becky Fisher, the founder and preacher for the camp in Devil’s Lake (Ironic?), South Dakota, as a genuine person, with a coherent vision, utterly devoted to the children. Though Haggard appears to be a buffoon, and some of the parents ooze self-righteousness as if they’re on drugs of some sort, Becky Fisher comes across with her own kind of integrity and intelligence. She’s the real thing, for sure.

That’s what good documentary work is all about!

For a great review, see Steve Almond’s: http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=761

Steve writes from the perspective of Judaism, and one of the documentary makers, Grady, is Jewish.

They note in the interview what a fascinating relationship this form of Christianity has with the State of Israel and Judaism.

All in all, an important piece of work, a major contribution for anyone one who loves documentaries and a must-see for anyone who’s religious, especially Christians.