Indie documentaries come and go by the dozens. And to be honest, I really don’t pay much mind to most of them. It seems to me that these so-called objective films merely serve as a vehicle for moviemakers to grind axes under the guise of journalism. From Fahrenheit 9/11 to Supersize Me, editors boldly select the footage that best backs their position and offer little room for alternative interpretations. However, in spite of the obvious agendas in the “docu-tainment” genre, one cannot walk away from these films without a sense of responsibility. They move us emotionally. We are forced to ask, “What do I do with this new information?”
The major movie theatres in my town didn’t play Jesus Camp earlier this year (which also comes to stores on DVD in January). I had heard that they were going to show it, but for some reason they pulled it from the playlist. I suspect that the Jesus Camp filmmakers underestimated the influence of the American megachurch. Nevertheless, even the loudest preacher can’t keep a small independent theatre from showing what it wants to. So I found myself standing in line with a buddy at the local indie theatre.
My friend and I got two of the last five tickets and squeezed into the packed room. As is the custom at this theatre, the owner stood up before the showing and gave a brief explanation of coming films and introduced the feature. “They even got Ted Haggard in this film blasting homosexuals and everything,” the guy said. My friend and I shared dark looks. The owner went on to comment that if we weren’t giggling then we should watch the news more often.
Then reality hit me. Here I was—a Pentecostal seminary student—sitting in a crowd of cynics who were hungry for more ammo to shoot at fundamentalist Christians and George W. Bush. As the film began, I sank further and further into my fold-down chair. I felt like an insecure teenager at a party with all the cool kids laughing about band nerds. Little did they know that I played the clarinet.
When my seminary friends asked what the movie was like, I usually begin by saying that it would not have been that bad had I watched it with a group of Christians that understood youth camps and participated in highly emotional altar calls. Other than the footage of 50 children reaching their hands out towards a cardboard cutout of our President, most of the abuses were familiar to me. But since I did not watch it with sympathizers, I found myself developing a tangible stitch in my side. Had there not been an intermission half way through, the stomach cramp would have certainly killed me.
The film’s agenda echoes the sentiments of many talk show hosts—even conservative ones. The makers of Jesus Camp seem to feel the need to warn our nation about the impending doom that zealous right-wing Christians will inevitably bring. Therefore, they go straight to the roots and paint a picture of Christian families indoctrinating their children into this fundamentalist ideology. To put it bluntly, they seemingly fear Jihad Jesus soldiers. And with the footage they compiled, they actually create some startling justification.
The problem is context. I get the sensation that the producers of the film do not appreciate the nuances and diversity in Pentecostal movements, let alone Evangelicalism as a whole. In contrast, I grew up in these environments and deeply understand the Christian culture that those cameras were invading. Because I understand, I easily recognized their sincerity and passion to put their convictions into action. I know why they seek holiness and Spirit empowerment. The reason I know is simple: I seek the same things.
During the intermission things got interesting when I bumped into an acquaintance that I knew was not a Christian. He asked what we thought of the film so far. I decided to be honest and gave him a one-word answer: gut-wrenching. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I quickly shifted the conversation to what he thought about the film as an outside observer.
I was prepared to hear him wax eloquent about the ignorance of those hillbilly Christians or why Republicans would destroy the social fabric of our nation, but I was delightfully surprised. He shrugged his shoulders and admitted that the film really didn’t surprise him that much. Not satisfied with his answer, I dug in further. “So, what is it like to watch these folks? I imagine it would be a bit like watching National Geographic cover the rituals of an obscure African tribe.” He smirked and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a lot like that.”
I just wish Jesus Camp would have included a narrator to explain the rituals—why they speak in tongues, why they despise abortion and why spiritual experience matters so much to them. But explaining the rituals would mean that the filmmakers were trying to help people understand. Creating harmony is most certainly not their intention. If anything, the filmmakers remind me of the people they criticize—drawing a line in the sand and pointing fingers at the weirdoes on the other side.
In the end, my embarrassment was short-lived. Once I left the theatre, I remembered the occasionally endearing nature of the camp director, Becky, and how she gave her life to teaching kids. Sure, her methods sometimes troubled me, but she certainly did not deserve the onslaught of criticisms following the film that eventually bullied her into closing her camp down. And while I’m willing to grant the Jesus Camp makers some validity in their critical observations, I would be a fool to think their form of indoctrination was more compelling than Becky’s simply because they know how to cut and paste digital video.
I can see why some Christians fear the ramifications of this film. It gives onlookers a negative peek into our world of Christian culture. This simply means we should evaluate where we are irrelevant to culture and ensure that the Good News does not get too jumbled up with our political aspirations. However, if one truly believes that God revealed Himself in Scripture and that his Spirit now leads him/her, with what authority does the Jesus Camp cast judgment? Ultimately, it is just one worldview versus another. Therefore, what started out as a humiliating cramp in my side proved to be a reminder of the huge chasm between the world and God’s Kingdom and that I should probably be more mindful of how many people are watching me.