Anjie was coming in late from Milwaukee. I was going to be up past midnight anyway, so after a long day of writing and doing taxes, I settled in to watch a documentary I’d heard lots about, a film I’d frankly been dreading. Jesus Camp, a film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, chronicles a group of Christian children under the tutelage of a Pentecostal Children’s Minister at one of the summer Bible camps for young people that are so ubiquitous in Evangelical culture. Evangelicals (and lots of other groups) understand that the future always lies with the children, and that by and large, by the time kids are seven or eight, belief systems are deeply embedded, written on hard drives that will later be difficult–but obviously, not impossible–to rewire. Jesus Camp is about one means of going after the “early programming” in hopes of creating culture change, in hopes of “reclaiming America for Christ.”
For a non-Christian watching this film, this must seem strange. Shots of 6, 7, and 8-year-olds being “slain in the Spirit” (lying on the floor and wriggling like a student in an acting class enacting bacon frying), or standing with hands raised toward a life-sized cardboard cut-out of George Bush, all of them shouting various prayers for guidance (for the President) and for “righteous judges”, or the absolutely gorgeous (from a filmmaker’s point of view) shot of basketball-sized tears that pop out of the angelic child that adorns the cover of the DVD case. These are kids whose higher rational functions have not kicked in, and yet here they are, in utter rapture over…well, something.
My heart went out to the blond boy who confesses he has a hard time believing all this God stuff. He’s pretty tortured because he can’t quite buy into the rapture he’s doing his best to whip himself into. Tough situation for a kid: his peers reaching enlightenment all around, and all he can manage is a headache. Fortunately, what looks to be a four-year-old girl takes compassion on him, hands him a box of tissues. He takes it, never opening his eyes.
I don’t know why I’m being a bit…tacky? I don’t really mean to be. After all, there is much in this film I recognize and believe. The basic tenets of the faith are there: the centrality of Christ as Lord, prayer, sanctity of life (which, in this instance, I’m not using in the pro-life political sense), the unique and special nature of each human being, all loved by God. There’s the seriousness of sin, the reality of evil in the world, the power of repentance, holiness, and even, in moments, peace and joy.
What’s missing, of course (and it’s tragic and skewing) is grace, humility, and compassion for the people of the world who don’t see life this way. For Becky Fisher, the Pentecostal Minister at the center of Jesus Camp, Christ is an Old Testament hammer, not a New Testament cross. Fisher’s starting point is the war metaphor of the Apostle Paul (useful, but far from the only Pauline images of spiritual life) and she brings it to bear with great weight, a la James Dobson’s Focus on the Family point of view. And if you take that as the launching pad, metaphorically speaking, there’s a certain sense in it. On an actual battlefield (admittedly I’ve never been on one), with redcoats and radical insurgents rushing at you with bayonets or AK-47s, there’s not much time for nuanced thinking about the chest you’re plunging your own bayonet into. Think too much and you’re done, dead on the field, riddled with bullets, or as the case once was, punctured by nails and a spear. You may be thinking compassionate thoughts about the poor sucker who wasted you, but you’re dead and he’s not, and now he’s running on down the field looking to kill another idiot just like you. Compassion cost you your life.
There is a war on, of course. But the war is in the human heart. That is common knowledge for all of us—nothing bizarre or irrational in that: secular self-help books line up by the hundreds in testimony in any Barnes and Noble. War may not be the most helpful metaphor, but if you’ve ever wanted to be “better” than you are (whatever that “better” may consist of—love, kindness, compassion, etc.) but you keep running up against “temptation” (those things in your own heart that prevent you being “better”), then you know something of the “war.” But no one metaphor can capture the fullness of the reality. Here’s the truth: in America, what’s “true” and perhaps more to the immediate point, what’s “good” is up for grabs, and anyone who doesn’t think so just isn’t paying attention. In our post Judeo-Christian culture, we are morally unmoored: better yet, we are barnacled onto a ship that—sans God—can rationally be sailed in only one direction. An atheistic cruise can be about nothing more than self-preservation, self-interest, and self-pleasure no matter how much altruistic verbiage gets batted around. I think this is one reason House works so well. In a godless world, his way to live is the best way. Tell the truth, take no prisoners, leave compassion for the weak (though talk about it when it’s politically expedient). The weak will be dead soon.
And sadly, Jesus Camp illustrates another war: Christians fighting amongst themselves. Just who is this Jesus we follow? What is the nature of the kingdom he preached? What is at the core of his morality? Some hold to what the surface of the Gospels seem to say, some toss the words out and cling to whichever “Jesus” makes them feel good, and others don’t bother with Christ, but try to live “good” lives as long as it’s feasible. And of course, there’s always the problem of heaven, hell, and what to do with this aching in our heart after origin, destiny, meaning, and love. As the Ecclesiastes writer said, eternity was placed in our hearts. And my goodness…what about the word “freedom?” Freedom, love, good…all words we’re fighting for, words that are part of the American political and spiritual battles. Language has meaning—unless of course, it’s lost shared understanding, which is the case.
So, Jesus Camp. Yes, I want my kids to know God, to seek Him, to seek out what He’s doing in the world, and what He wants to lead them to. Yes, I believe God loves us, speaks to us (though not in vibrating sound waves around my ear—though, I suppose he could), knows us, cares about us as we understand caring to be. I know I don’t want my children to see people who walk non-Christian roads as satanic, evil, and less human than themselves. I want my kids to do just what Jesus called us to—love each other, and the people of the world, just as He did.
There’s more to talk about, much more. But it’s nuanced and long, and calls for cups of coffee over days and days.