'Jesus Camp' documentary likely to raise hackles

The San Diego Union-Tribune/September 10, 2006
By Sandi Dolbee

There is talk that a soon-to-be-released film about the mobilization of evangelical children will give Al Gore's global-warming epic a run next year for Best Documentary Oscar honors.

While “An Inconvenient Truth” delivered an environmental gut punch to its audiences, “Jesus Camp” is a gut-wrencher of another kind.

There is, for example, the boy who believes he is part of the “key generation to Jesus coming back,” the girl who dreamily intones, “I feel like we're training to be warriors – but in a much funner way,” and the star of the show, a Pentecostal children's minister, who declares that democracy, in which every person is given an equal voice, is “going to destroy us.”

“Jesus Camp” (rated PG-13) already has drawn honors from New York's Tribeca Film Festival and the SilverDocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Md. It's due to open to wider audiences beginning Sept. 15, and by the time it's released in San Diego Oct. 6, you can expect the buzz will have built to a crescendo.

The documentary focuses on the Rev. Becky Fischer and her “Kids on Fire” summer camp held in North Dakota. The Christian retreat is more boot camp for spiritual warfare than a kumbaya marshmallow roast – and the children the film follows definitely get the message, as we see them later handing out conversion pamphlets and praying for an end to abortion in our nation's capital.

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who teamed up on “The Boys of Baraka,” a 2005 documentary about inner-city Baltimore kids sent to a school in Kenya, say they weren't out to take sides in “Jesus Camp.”

“We want to present the people in this movie and the lifestyles they live in a neutral way so the audience would have to make those decisions on their own and not be handed a point of view on a platter, which sort of lets everyone off the hook in a way,” Grady told Religion News Service.

However, she did say in the interview that she was raised Jewish, though she considers herself more spiritual than religious. Attempts to convert her by her film's subjects were handled “delicately.”

In the movie, countering commentary is supplied through clips of Mike Papantonio's Air America Radio program. His snippets are like a Greek chorus, sounding the siren cry of warning, particularly over the dangerous distinctions between education and indoctrination of children. “Oh man,” he says at one point, “the more I hear about this, it just gets crazier and crazier.”

Magnolia Pictures, which is distributing “Jesus Camp,” was so worried about the movie's image of neutrality that it unsuccessfully tried to withdraw it last month from Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival.

“Due to the subject of the documentary, we want to guard it from being associated with any group or agenda that may influence viewers one way or another,” Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles said in a statement. “One of the great strengths of the film is that it doesn't come with any prepackaged point of view. It shows an honest and impartial depiction of one faction of the evangelical Christian community, something I believe that both Christians and non-Christians alike can appreciate.”

The festival went ahead and showed two screenings – both of which reportedly were sold out.

Fischer, the children's minister, predicts in interviews that liberals will be “shaking in their boots” after seeing the 85-minute film, while Christians will learn “the importance of disciplining children in the Christian faith.”

Fischer also said she hopes people will “look past all the political mumbo jumbo,” which may be wishful thinking, considering the powerful impact of scenes like the one of children praying for a life-size, cutout of President George Bush.

“Jesus Camp,” meanwhile, joins three new books by journalists putting conservative, born-again Christians under a cultural microscope.

Perhaps the most notable of the books is Lauren Sandler's “Righteous” (Viking; $24.95), in which she travels around the country to write about young evangelical adults intent on converting America to Christ through everything from mega-churches to skateboard festivals. It is due to be released Monday.

More sympathetic treatments can be found in Jeffery Sheler's “Believers” (Viking; $24.95) and Mark Pinsky's “A Jew Among the Evangelicals” (Westminster John Knox; $14.95). Pinsky's book came out last month; Sheler's is due out Sept. 18.

This film and the new books, in their own ways, point out that this is not a movement to be dismissed.

For the Christian right in general, and evangelicals in particular, the issues are a matter of life and death. Regardless of whether you agree with their stands, what this movement is doing – and wants to do – affects everyone. As Grady told Religion News Service: “it should be taken very seriously.”

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