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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Jesus Camp (review)

For Christ’s Sake

“Had it been in the Old Testament Harry Potter would have been put to death!” So screams ultraevangelical Christian minister Becky Fischer, shaking with rage and something like ecstasy, and she’s not kidding and she’s not being ironic. She seems unable to discern reality from fiction, her own nightmares from the fantasies of a lunatic. Forget Texas Chainsaw Massacre if you’re looking for a horror movie: Fischer is enough to scare the crap out of you, this woman who would get off by putting a made-up kid wizard to the stake.
Non-Christians are “sick,” insists another scary preacher here — and he’s almost scarier than Fischer, since he’s just an 11-year-old kid — but Jesus Camp, from documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, leaves you with the distinct impression that its subjects are the sick ones. Camp is not a diatribe or a polemic, and it doesn’t pretend to suggest that all Christians are like those depicted here — all it does is turn a camera on people who are proud enough of their actions and beliefs to talk candidly and openly about them for the camera. This is a subculture that is trying its damnedest to become the culture, regardless of what the rest of us want. People like Fischer are gunning for the rest of us, and she, at least, is happy to put us on warning; she is delighted that “extreme liberals” might be “shaking in their boots” to see what we see here. I’m not sure how Fischer defines “extreme liberal” — probably someone who loves Harry Potter but would have aborted him as a fetus just for fun; watch for the fun antiabortion prayer circle! — but it’s hard to imagine what American who values the things that were once considered part and parcel of America, like the right to be left the fuck alone to believe whatever you want to believe, wouldn’t be enraged, terrified, and maybe brought to tears to see what supposedly responsible adults are doing to their own children in the name of a god… and in the name of their own aggrandizement as they attempt to make over all of us in the image of their harassed, belittled, and brainwashed children.

Fischer is contemplating nothing less than a cultural overthrow of America. She wants a United States in which Jesus is president, if he isn’t already; the scene in which she has all the little kids in her ministry praying to — not for, to — George W. Bush is but one of the many dreadful spectacles here. It’s the kids that makes Jesus Camp so unbearable: Fischer, who ministers exclusively to kids, is preying on the intellectual and physiological vulnerabilities of children, as their parents are, too. The kids are isolated, homeschooled by uneducated mothers who believe “science doesn’t prove anything” (as one tells us while she makes dinner in her modern kitchen well-equipped with the accoutrements of modern technology, as the kids watch a Bible DVD in the air-conditioned living room) and sent to Fischer’s Jesus Camp, where Fischer ridicules the children for being children, for wanting to have fun, leads them in Two Minute Hates against all things secular, and turns them into little automatons, trained monkeys who regurgitate chapter and verse robotically without appearing to understand what they’re talking about. (In another instance of irony that no one onscreen seems to appreciate, Fischer’s Jesus Camp is held in a North Dakota town called Devil’s Lake.)

And then there’s the praying. The little kids with their arms raised in the air, swaying back and forth, eyes rolling back in their heads, tears streaming down their faces, jibbering in tongues, for Christ’s sake.

Well, yes, actually: for Christ’s sake. Fischer is building an army — she is quite explicit about this; this is not an interpretation on the part of the filmmakers or the viewer — of kids for Christ, people who would, she is very happy to say, “lay down their lives for the Gospel.” She likens them, in all seriousness, to Palestinian suicide bombers, and as much as she deems all Muslims “enemies,” she respects how they radicalize their children. And this must be done — turning the kids into an army — because she wants her beliefs to be public policy. She vilifies science and prays over computers and has not an inkling of her own hypocrisy and ignorance. It’s mind-boggling.

I’ll be the first one up against the wall in front of Jesus’s firing squad when Becky Fischer’s terrifying kids take over the country, but still: Thank god I’m an atheist.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for some discussions of mature subject matter

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Harley

    Hmm. For some reason I’m reminded of the episode of the Simpsons when all the teachers are on strike and Jasper is among the many townsfolk who fill in as subs. Instead of teaching the children anything he simply stands at the front with a paddle and basically tells them that if they so much as breathe “that’s a paddlin’.”

    Then he gets his beard caught in the pencil sharpener.

    Thank the cosmos I’m agnostic.

  • Dave

    Man, this is the kind of shit that gives us rational christians a bad name. I am a christian and sometimes I am loath to admit it because people assume christian = crazy Bush worshiping fearmongering manipulate people into believing you kind of person. Which I am not, I take to heart the messages of say… I dunno? Love and peace and acceptance of others and etc. that is presented in the Bible (I could look up specifics but I am sure you don’t care, but I assure you it’s there and these folk are ignoring it). I would never push my beliefs on anyone else, if asked I will explain or if pushed I will stand up for myself (just like anyone else).

    I guess I am just tired of all these sick, sick individuals giving people like me a bad name.

    Sorry for using your space for venting.

  • MaryAnn

    Who can argue with “Be nice to everyone”? Unfortunately, there’s tons in the Bible itself that contradicts that (the whole “bringing a sword” thing, for one). And it’s real easy to believe in and live by “be nice to people” without all the supernatural baggage that goes along with that in religious traditions.

    In my experience, very few Christians actually emulate the Jesus of the hippie-prophet mythos. Very few of them actually act like they really believe the things they profess to believe, in fact.

    But I don’t mean to impugn you with this, Dave, just making some observations…

  • People like this embody the characteristic that gets on my wick the most in the whole world: they *want* to be martyrs. Oh, sure, they want to be the dominant culture, but even if they actually achieved that they’d still be bellyaching about how the evil Jewi – erm, I mean, liberal – media is out to get them, and the ‘activist judges’ trying to uphold the constitution, and how terrible it is that some news stations try and uphold objectivity rather than just giving in and turning into a right-wing screed, whine, whine, whine.

    There was a jarring moment in Richard Linklater’s otherwise good adaptation of A Scanner Darkly where Alex Jones (playing himself, I suppose) is tasered by fascist cops and bundled into the back of a van. I kept thinking about that sequence, because it’s not actually a nightmare scenario; Alex Jones would love to be kidnapped by the Feds, because it would validate his life. It would validate everything he’s ever said, and people would listen to him and believe him. Every time I hear him belch out his latest undigested paranoia, I keep wondering whether he cries himself to sleep at night over the fact that he’s not in Guantanamo Bay.

    As for Jesus Camp, it’s not out over here yet, though I do like this review: http://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2006/jesuscamp2006.html. The reviewer and commenters basically agrees with everything the camp leaders say in the film, but they can’t shake the feeling there’s something wrong with it…

  • Dave

    Oh, no worries, like I said I was just kinda venting and I appologize for it. I tend to focus on Jesus’ message because He even says that the old stuff is canceled out with Him. I guess what bothers me is that these folk claim to be working in the name of someone and then outright contradicting them, it would be like me preaching in your name (isn’t that an absurd notion ^_^). One of the things that I have found, as you have and made a point to mention, is that I really am in the minority.

  • shrike

    When I find myself in the company of these type of people, I am reminded of the great Mark Twain –

    “I like the weather in Heaven but prefer the company in Hell”.

  • Kenny

    In University I started seeing a girl from my course. We were doing a degree in biology, studying evolution, when she revealed her devout Christianhood. She’d joined an alternative church and firmly believed that she could speak in tongues.
    She argued with the lecturer, in front of a fair number of our fellow students, that she should be allowed to answer an exam paper based upon her beliefs and not the established (scientific) University curriculum. (Everybody not Christian was evil.. EVERYBODY)

    I can sort of see where Becky Fischer came from.. how she might have been as a young woman,..
    I liked the girl for a lot of reasons, but when anyone challenged her beliefs she’d go up in flames. I’m an atheist.. and she didn’t like that. At. All.
    I avoided saving.. lucky me.. but your review kinda made me wonder what my ex would have thought of the movie. I can sorta see her nodding and taking notes.

  • Alec

    ‘Thank god I’m an atheist.’

    Begging your pardon, but come the hell on Mary-Ann.

    Any psycho can preach the ‘evils’ of reason, observation of reality and sanity in the name of any cause – God, religion and evangelists have no monopoly on madness.

    The more zealous Soviets were devout athiests, and many were more than content to see the world dead rather than (remember the stories of the Doomsday ships and their contigency plans for the End) ‘corrupted’. After all – if there is nothing higher or later to answer to but the here and now, any inhumanity is justified as merely curious bipedal animals slaughtering other biped animals.
    Oh, but you’re not THAT kind of athiest, right :)
    As most any Godfearing person I know would reel in horror at the film and events you describe. Anyone who understands the scripture of any doctrine of faith from any part of the world knows such an endeavor as Godless.

    Was it not the irresponsible application of materialistic science that brought us the threat of Atomic oblivion you have so often stated overshadowed your childhood? Science advances, whilst the humanities are left in the dark ages.

    I would posit that man’s travails will never be over till philosophy and science are properly remarried, as they should have never been divorced.

  • Robert Fisher

    Alec, she’s a film critic – she’s probably quoting
    Bunuel. Chill out and go see the Milky Way.

  • MaryAnn

    Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve never seen a Bunuel film.

    After all – if there is nothing higher or later to answer to but the here and now, any inhumanity is justified as merely curious bipedal animals slaughtering other biped animals.

    If you say so. Of course people behave in all sorts of atrocious ways and use all sorts of atrocious philosophies to justify or explain their behavior. But atheists who do so do not blame their behavior on the supposedly necessary placating of a mythical daddy-figure.

    But as usual, the stubborn refusal to see that “understanding scripture” involves so much interpretation also results in a refusal to appreciate the endeavor as pointless. If different people can honestly interpret the Bible to mean fundamentally opposite things, then what good is it? And anyway, why do you need a threat of retribution in the afterlife to behave like a decent person? Why not just do so for the obvious benefits that accrue to us all when we do?

    Obviously, your usage of the Internet seals your approval of “materialistic science.” But that’s the beauty of science: it works whether you “believe” in it or not. Religion, rather miraculously, stops “working” the moment you stop believing. Try it — it’s really refreshing to stop feeling like a scolding deity is watching over you 24 hours a day, even when you’re masturbating.

  • lunarangel01

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, since it hasn’t come out to the indie film theater here (I hope it does). However, I found a new article on it now that this whole Ted Haggard scandal has erupted.

    http://movies.yahoo.com/mv/news/ap/20061106/116285010000.html

    It interested me because I didn’t know that he was in it. I recently moved to Colorado Springs, and have been to the New Life Church ONCE, not because I believe the crap they spew, but because a friend invited me, and I appreciate how important his spirtuality is to him. I’m not a Christian myself, I’m spiritual but don’t believe in organized religion. As I recall, that place scared the bejeesus out of me. I felt like an alien in a place that I didn’t belong. Now, more than ever, I’m starting to understand why that place set off all the warning bells in my head at once.

    This is some of what the article says about it…

    “The Rev. Ted Haggard has been fired amid allegations of gay sex and drug use, but the evangelical leader can still be seen at the height of his powers preaching to thousands and condemning homosexuality in the documentary “Jesus Camp.” …..

    “Jesus Camp” also shows Haggard speaking to an aspiring young preacher named Levi, asking him whether people listen to him because he’s a kid or because he has something to say. His advice: “Use your cute-kid thing until you’re 30, and by then you’ll have good content.”

    Grady said that when she first heard about the accusations against Haggard, “I was shocked but I was not surprised in any way because he did come across as somewhat of a hypocrite even in our movie in a smaller way, of course. He was so cynical in that exchange with that child in our movie, it was odd and it popped out.”

    Haggard also leads the audience in praying for President Bush to select a Supreme Court nominee who supports their beliefs (it would end up becoming Samuel Alito) and later brags about the rapid expansion of evangelicalism.

    “It’s got enough growth to essentially sway every election,” Haggard says with a smile. “If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election.” ”
    -Yahoo News

    And now… I REALLY understand why I was completely creeped out by that place. They didn’t do anything that crazy when I was there, but I could see them doing it.

    In any case, truth is stranger than fiction, and I’m wondering how this whole scandal is going to affect the evangelicals (because he was the leader of the evangelicals)… My guess is: not much. Most of the people I know who actually attend that church tend to look past any sort of reason (not all of them, but many), and chances are, things will continue the same, if not stronger than ever.

    So yeah… Just thought I’d inform you of some of the goings on surrounding this movie.

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