Jesus Camp: Narrow is the way and rusty is the gate

Jesus Camp may already be seen as something of an artefact. In terms of its location in American cultural history, there is now a liberal Democrat in the White House (though some argue, of course, he’s not the liberal saviour many thought him to be); it may be thought that there’s less urgency to the struggle with the Bush years a memory.

Or maybe not. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party loom heavily on a confusing electoral horizon. Whatever happens over the next weeks and months, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the American political and cultural landscape will continue to be spoken of in religious accents for a long time to come. If that analysis is correct, then Jesus Camp is just a hint of what we can expect to hear much more of.

It’s a documentary (and a beautifully shot one – scenery and colour shimmer and shine, computer lights glow effervescently) about an evangelical Christian children’s pastor and the camp she runs for children in classic middle America. She’s Becky Fischer, and she’s a formidable person. Interwoven with interviews and footage of the camp and children, we listen in on a talk radio host, a Christian appalled by the tenor and tone of the religious right’s tactics. The film climaxes with a (presumably) staged phone conversation on-air between him and Becky. He ends shaking his head in disbelief and numb with anger.

So we see a model of children’s work where not only do the children pray in tongues and campaign against abortion, but they talk of finding that their non-Christian friends provoke a ‘funny feeling’ in them. Evolution is a lie; there’s only one sort of church that God likes to go, the children tell us. The young people are told that Harry Potter should be stoned to death (which, you may argue, is tricky for a fictional character).

What to say? Cards on the table – I’m a Christian, I’m a church pastor who, in the UK at least, would be placed in the evangelical/charismatic portion of the church. I don’t like labels for reasons this film makes clear. People like Tony Campolo – for a long time a bearer of the evangelical label – have now begun to call themselves ‘Red Letter Christians’ (referring to the editions of the Bible which print the words of Jesus in that colour). We also need to say this: a film is edited. There’s no intention to show Becky Fischer and team in a good light; Jesus Camp is designed as a hatchet job, and that it does very well. But it’s hard to imagine there’s nothing good about her and her work. It should also be made clear that an ‘outsider’ looking in is always going to be confused and a little alienated. It’s a little like walking in on a large family gathering where you know no-one.

But. Surely I can’t have been the only one left thinking of clanging cymbals and resounding gongs when I’ve seen this? As the children speak with all the freedom and conviction of those learning a new language from an audio tape, there was little or nothing to suggest that these were children who knew their pastor loved them. They were targets, numbers to be moulded, shaped and sent out. What’s going to happen when life goes wrong? When they experience more of the walk of Job? Towards the end of the film, the children and parents take a trip to Ted Haggard’s church, one of the poster boys of the American Christian right. They meet him and shake his hand; and we hear Haggard talk of how God knows what we do in private. Not long after the release, revelations came out of Haggard’s alleged use of male prostitutes and crystal meth. These were largely uncontested, Haggard resigned and underwent counselling. You couldn’t make it up. The heart of many Christians will break for public pain and children not taught to love or be loved  – instead we poignantly hear of Becky’s love of ‘the American lifestyle’. The idea of America as a Christian country is spoken of as a given, not a debate to be had. The heart of the outsider is surely left cold with indifference to a brand of religion that has tongues of men and angels, but none of the love Paul urges as of prime importance in 1 Corinthians 13; but also hot with fury at the face of American religion to a world left unaware of the subtlety and honesty of faith exercised by so many with integrity and conviction.

A more contemporary translation of Paul’s passage on love in 1 Corinthians describes those who exercise supernatural gifts without love as ‘the creaking of a rusty gate’. No matter the editing and the shaping hand of a director with an agenda, never has healing and quietening oil been so desperately needed.

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

From the outset, this didn’t look good. Why revisit a film, characters, a story from 23 years ago? The original Wall Street was of course an era-definer, a masterpiece of a sort that got right to the rotten heart of a moment in the history of Westernized society. You could, of course, say that now we’re all living with the inevitable consequences of that, still struggling to comes with a new economic reality, balance that with the needs of emerging economies … all this means that never has there been more of a need to return to the source of the ‘greed is good’ mantra. But, of course, it looks like creative death and speaks of a career on the slide. You don’t return to the scene of old triumphs like this unless your box office is flatlining and your ability to get a project off the ground is dead in the water.

That may not be entirely fair, but it’s how it looks. So the good things: Oliver Stone is no Aaron Sorkin, but he does have a capacity for making you feel more intelligent – spinning complex ideas into fast-moving plots which you don’t follow entirely, but somehow manage to keep enough of a handle on it to make you feel better about yourself. Michael Douglas may be treading water, but he does tread this type of water better than anyone else; no one does slimy grin and wink better than him. That’s about it, though.

There are at least 3 films in here – a love story/family drama; a drama-documentary on the economic crisis; and a morality tale for our times on big business and the climate meltdown. Not even a conspiracy theorist or a story-teller of the stature of Stone can pull all that together. It’s a film that is so much less than the sum of its parts that you can’t help but think you must have fallen asleep at the crucial moments: but you haven’t … as I said, it’s all quite gripping. It just doesn’t add up. And the ending – it’s just an attempt to sugar-coat a pill that’s now so bland as to be irrelevant. It’s a shame really. A few things would have helped. Cut the film free from the baggage of the first. Tell a new story, in a new context – and focus on one theme. You don’t need to cover everything in order to say something. Wall Street should have been put to bed. Now it’s a sleeping giant.

80s Revival: A Team and Karate Kid

The prophet Bono once said ‘You glorify the past when the future dries up’. I know what he means. How many times have you heard it said in an organization – be it political party, family, church, sports club – that ‘…it was so much better when….’? We look back to a previous time and think – give me that over the uncertain and empty future any time. It would be easy to say that of a time when we see new releases like The A Team and Karate Kid within days or weeks or each other. I’m sure that’s what the marketing men are banking on – parents and dating couples alike raising eyebrows wearily at how modern films are just no fun, remember how good these were back in the day….let’s see how the new one is. We like to glorify the past – nostalgia sells, and sells well.

That, though, would be a little simplistic. There’s a theory that in fact there exists only a small limited number of plots, with variations on the different themes – a big book published not so long ago lays its bets at the number seven. Every book, play, film or series sticks to one of these templates. If that’s true – and to be honest, looking at the evidence closely, it’s unarguable – then all the makers of these two films are doing is being more honest. Why draw wool over the viewers’ eyes? Make it easier for everybody, and tell them which of the basic plots they are selling.

These are two very different films. The A Team has none of the charm of the series, little of the wit and even less of the plot. It’s lazy and flung together with a cheap Iraq backdrop as a vague attempt at contextualization. It’s hopelessly miscast for just about everybody – and I really have yet to see an action film in which Liam Neeson really carries it off (don’t even start me on Taken). Using the title it does it no more than cynical manipulation, a desperate attempt to piggy-back on misremembered childhood Saturdays.

Karate Kid is, though, somewhat better. It just works. There’s nothing that different to the original – what needs to be updated has been, and the old film is gven loving nods in cute references which will be picked up by adults accompanying children to the cinema. It is, though, the film’s central relationship that carries it so well – Jackie Chan is in fine form as the mentor. Jaden Smith in the title role is very, very good. He carries the physical transformation from insolent sulking child abroad to young man in the making with conviction. He has an easy screen presence who is not far away from overshadowing his off-screen father’s. There’s nothing new in this, but if the seven plots theory is right then for storytellers there really is nothing new under the sun anyway. I’m not sure why it needed to be set in China (other than the odd shot of the Birds’ Nest stadium), unless it’s short hand for ‘far-off’ these days. Which is fine, unless of course you live there. Or nearby. If you’re being literal, it should be called Kung-Fu Kid – but then no one would see it. It might have been better off set within American borders, and then used as a metaphor for pluralism, multi-culturalism or something else. Then it would just have been a bit odd.

Mostly, though, this is just good fun – with a young boy who is good enough to make you forget just how bad a performance his screen mother puts in. Nothing new under the sun? Maybe. The challenge then, is to reinvent well enough to make us forget that. Not easy – but true creativity is found where there are limits as opposed to endless open spaces of resources and ideas. On that basis, the new Karate Kid is a creative piece of mass-marketing to be applauded and enjoyed, especially at the expense of The A Team.