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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