In 2006, the film, Jesus Camp hit the silver screen generating controversy right and left. Filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady probably only meant to show a fair and balanced documentary about a significant segment of the American population which lives the mainstream culture but knows little of the evangelical one. Liberals saw the film as an expose of a malevolent and dangerous under-culture existing among us. Many Christians saw the film as a manipulative attempt to make them look bad. Some people on both sides of the divide recognized the nuanced approach that let the complexity of the charismatic culture reveal itself.
The main characters of Jesus Camp are Becky Fischer, a charismatic children’s minister who presides over a conference and then a camp and three of the children who stand out and are focused on: Levi O’Brien, a 12-year-old boy sporting a mullet, 9-year-old Rachael Elhardt and 9-year-old Tory Binger. Another child, Andrew Sommerkamp, bravely admitted he had a hard time believing in a God he never saw or knew much about. The film doesn’t show the believers giving Andrew much attention or help. Becky Fischer wrote a book called Jesus Camp my story about her experiences with the film and the complex series of events surrounding the story.
I am an atheist and I find some of the pet issues embraced by this community seriously wrong-headed. The issue most strongly focused on was abortion. I must confess I can’t really understand what all the fuss is about. If God created life, why can’t he create new lives to take the place of the ones who are aborted? Nature is profligate. She creates life in abundance and it is axiomatic that much of that life is snuffed out early. Every gardener knows that killing is necessary to make a garden thrive. Weeds need to be pulled or they will suffocate the plants the gardener wants to grow. Snails and other pests must be killed or otherwise discouraged from feasting on the life the gardener is nourishing. To be hands-off and to respect all life equally is to enable the jungle from taking over. Not that a jungle is a bad thing. But mankind managed to develop into the dominant species by taking control over agriculture. Why is childbirth an exception? Primitive people who don’t have the technology of abortion have their own primitive form of birth control. Some expose to the elements infants they can’t or don’t want to raise. Really poor communities have no choice. The “pro-lifers” are fond of the word “murder” with all its emotional connotations. Of course, “murder” is a legal term referring to the unlawful, premeditated killing of human beings who have been born. Animal rights people also misuse the word “murder,” accusing all carnivores of murder. Becky Fischer objects strenuously to the idea that her community is “political.” But ideas like “pro life” (really pro-birth) has political consequences. One of the extra scenes on the DVD shows a group of children driven to a “pregnancy crisis center” to pray for the ending of abortion. This center is right next door to a Planned Parenthood. These centers are notorious for misleading pregnant girls and women into thinking they can get abortions there only to reveal once it’s too late that they don’t do that sort of thing. It’s fair enough with both store-fronts side by side. A girl who wants an abortion can go next door to Planned Parenthood. But the Right is very serious about snuffing out all options for abortion. In ten years, will that Planned Parenthood still be there? Not if “pro-lifers” have anything to do with it.
The film began with a radio announcement that Sandra Day O’Connor retiring from the Supreme Court, clearing the way for President Bush to appoint a Justice who wants to repeal Roe vs. Wade. Becky objected to the timing of that announcement. It seems Justice O’Connor’s retirement came after the kids did an intense prayer (I would call it a working) to end abortion. Becky considered this a miracle and wished the film had depicted it as such. Another miracle that didn’t make it to the film was the stopping of a serious storm that had been heading right for the camp.
As we can see, the supernatural plays a great role in the lives of these evangelicals. As a former Wiccan, I was amazed to see some of the prayer activities the group did which very much resembled the kind of Wiccan magick we used to do. Becky assembled a large number of coffee cups. She had the kids write on the cups things they wanted to eliminate such as “corrupt government.” These cups became what Wiccans call a “poppet,” an object used to represent another thing they want to work magick on. Then they worked up a cone of power with a lot of energetic chanting and movement culminating in the shattering of the cups with a hammer. The sight of such a familiar kind of ritual warmed my heart. I saw that these Christians did the same fun rituals we used to do. Ironically, they are very much against Wicca, Witchcraft, magick, calling up spirits, or anything they would label the occult as long as it wasn’t specifically Christian.
Pentecostals and charismatics work very closely with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does many things pagan-invoked spirits do. The Holy Spirit enters the Christian and causes him/her to speak in tongues. No offense intended to them but it reminds me very much of Voodoo where the spirits enter and possess the mambo or hougan and speak or act through him/her. Many Christians are against speaking in tongues, perhaps for that reason. I find it interesting and colorful. Children Becky ministers to learn how to speak in tongues, make prophesies, hear the word of God and heal the sick. I can easily see how these empowering activities make Christianity much more compelling than sitting in the pews singing hymns. As Rachael said, the latter kind of churches are “dead churches.” Becky also mentioned that Christian churches are losing members to paganism and drug use because the hunger for the supernatural hasn’t been satisfied. The kids Becky leads are empowered in a very exciting way. They are made to see themselves as the center of a vital drama; actors, not onlookers. “Boys and girls can change the world?” she intoned. “Absolutely!”
At the Conference, a troop of kids perform something called Breathe Prophecy. I couldn’t help noticing how precise and focused every kid was during this performance. It was dramatic and musical and militant. This is presumably one of the spectacles that have liberals worried. Later, at the camp, a group of kids wearing camouflage uniforms with their faces painted like warriors chant. “V I C T O R Y! That’s the soldier’s battle cry!” Having read Howe and Strauss, I am reminded that these kids are Millennials. Levi calls his generation a “key generation.”
The scenes of the kids’ home lives and interactions with their parents show a lot of harmony between the generations. What surprised me most was the fathers. They had very gentle auras, even the one who was a marine and about to go overseas. I wouldn’t have expected such gentle men. I thought they would be very macho. But it wasn’t so. Overall, the main impression of this culture is cohesiveness. People have remarked at the passion of the kids. I would add to that, a unity. People predicted that when the kids grew to be teenagers, they would change. To our surprise, this didn’t happen.
So why didn’t I join up? I little matter of disbelief. I just can’t and down even want to believe that a God who created as as imperfect beings who can’t be good enough to deserve to go to Heaven would judge unbelievers so harshly that he would caste us into the lake of fire for all eternity. Call me a humanist but I don’t really believe anyone deserves such a fate, no, not even the worst of us. And yet they believe that even really good people go to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus. What about people who lived before Jesus was even born? Well the Catholic Church came up with a pretty good answer, Limbo. Unbaptized babies, ancient Greeks and Romans and everyone else who didn’t have a chance to believe in Jesus could go there. But the Church has abandoned that doctrine. One priest explained to a friend of mine that everyone who earnestly seeks to do the good as he understands it, even if he’s wrong, is basically a good Catholic regardless of his beliefs. I’ve also heard Catholics deny that statement. And Becky’s lot would definitely deny it. Calvinists actually believe God knows who is going to be damned before he even creates them. So God creates people for a destiny of eternal damnation. That is the most evil thing I could ever imagine!
I don’t believe anyone deserves Hell. We are finite, mortal beings. What can we possibly do to deserve infinite, eternal torment? If I, with my finite understanding, can believe in forgiveness for all sinners, how can God, who is purported to be Love, be less merciful? It just doesn’t compute.
Christians point out that God made a “perfect plan that none should perish,” meaning Christ dying on the cross. But why isn’t his sacrifice for everybody, regardless of their beliefs? Of course, the people who never heard of him or who lived before him are paid an enormous injustice. Christians never seem to want to explain this enormity. They wax indignant at abortion but accept eternal torture of the undeserving with equanimity. And even those who heard about Christ and still don’t believe shouldn’t be punished for honest beliefs. How can any God be so evil. Yes, I said evil and I meant it.
Becky wrote, “You were born for God. You were born for His pleasure out of a love no human being can understand.” That’s quite right. I don’t understand such a “love.” “God has a plan for your life. It is completely intertwined with His desire to have a friendship with you.” Be his friend or perish?
“It’s actually not true we are ‘all God’s children.’ What is true is we are all His ‘creations.’ He indeed made all of us. But to be a legitimate son or daughter of the Most High God you must be ‘adopted’ into His family. The only way this can happen is through His Son Jesus.” My earthly parents were more flexible and forgiving than this being of so-called infinite love. People say Donald Trump is a narcissist. He is nothing next to this “god.”
- 10 Years Later. The Guardian
- Where Are They Now? Hollywood.com
- Oh No, they Didn’t.
- Kids in Ministry International. Becky Fischer
- Becky Fischer Facebook.
- Jesus Camp. My Story, Becky Fischer
- Jesus Camp. IMDb
- Insanity is the New Normal. The Rise of the Christian Taliban
- The Religious Right cares about control, not morality.
- My Anthem – Rachel from ElementBismarck on Vimeo.