Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Jesus Camp movie

Rachael, future theologian

I saw the documentary film Jesus Camp for the first time this past weekend. I'd have to say I was disappointed in it, mostly because it lacked the kind of commentary that would put the things it was showing into meaningful perspective. It starts off and ends with a talk radio DJ who is obviously particularly concerned to maintain a healthy separation of church and state, expressing his dismay as a Christian that the Christian Right is promoting causes and attitudes which he doesn't find consistent with the faith.

Then there is a segment on Christian home-schooling, showing a couple of mothers teaching their kids at what would not pass as an acceptable professional level in a public school.

The main part of the film is devoted to a religious summer camp for kids. The idea seems to be to give us an image of a Christian subculture that is creating an environment in which kids are trained to be fanatical Republican Christianists when they grow up.

But the film fails to make the point. It doesn't even have any professional educator or psychologist talking about what the long-term effects of training like that received at the camp may be. I recall myself attending a week-long Protestant summer camp in Texas when I was 11 or 12 where the lead minister taught that it was a sin to kiss before marriage. This notion never affected my own behavior in the slightest. And that's pretty much all I remember about the religious lessons there.

It would also have helped a lot if the film had included any discussion of the Pentecostal tradition. Because the church camp shown was a Pentecostal camp. In fact, the way the movie is constructed, it could be read as a non-Pentecostal Protestant polemic against Pentecostals. If the movie showed what Pentecostal denomination or national group with which this camp was affiliated, it didn't register with me.

Pentecostals share many theological beliefs with non-Pentecostal fundamentalists. Some of the particular aspects of Pentecostal worship look disturbing and even bizarre, especially speaking in tongues and exorcism ceremonies. Exorcism has its own particular risks because of its intensity and because it encourages people to stigmatize psychological and psychiatric problems and may even exacerbate them. Any such rituals that assume direct supernatural intervention in emotionally intense form can promote some primitive superstition.

They didn't get into exorcism in the film. They did do speaking in tongues, also known as "ecstatic utterance", which is essentially making random sounds something like baby talk. Long-term practitioners develop their favorite "tongues" phrases. Fundamentalists (who are often described as excluding Pentecostals despite their similarities) tend to regard such practices as scary, maybe a bit crazy or more than "a bit" crazy, or even Satanic. It doesn't seem to me that the filmmakers were being fair to either the Pentecostals or their viewers by not including some background explanation of this. Tongues-speaking may an unfamiliar practice, but it's a fairly simple ritual. And so far as I'm aware, no more harmful than other more conventional rituals which the especially devout may invest with great emotional significance.

And there are some aspects of Pentecostal practice which deserve to be appreciated. Since the Pentecostal trend began in the early 1900s, they have always allowed female ministers, for instance. No particular racial diversity was in evidence at the church camp in the film. But the Pentecostal tradition began as one that embraced both blacks and whites and that aspect of the tradition has been in evidence throughout its history, though there certainly are all-white Pentecostal churches.

Pentecostals are also known for lively music, dancing, and emotionally expressive worship. Yes, even among white people. Jeremiah Wright was tut-tutted by Big Pundits for his humorous suggestion at the National Press Club this year that predominantly white churches have a somewhat less spirited musical tradition than predominantly African-American ones. An observation which would surprise no one familiar with the brands of church music in question. Elvis Presley grew up in a Pentecostal church singing their brand of gospel music. In fact, that's where he learned to sing. And even in his rowdiest rock-and-roll days, he had gospel singers as his backup.

That aspect came out - at least for viewers who had some better idea of what they were watching than the information the film itself provided - when one bright little girl in the film named Rachael says (around 43:00):

So far, camp has been awesome. I love being in the presence of God. God is not in every church. There is such a thing a-, they're called, as a, - certain church, they're called "dead churches". And the people there, they sit there like this. [She assumes a stiff pose]. "We-worship-you-God, we-worship-you-God", [relaxes her pose] they sing, like, three songs, then they listen to a sermon. Churches that God likes to go to are churches where they're jumpin' up and down, shoutin' His name, and just praisin' him, they're not acting, they're not quiet, "we-worship-you", they're "Hallelujah, God!", y-, you know. And-, And depending on what-, how they invite him, He'll be there or not.
I believe we have a theologian in the making. Kid's got a point. I can imagine that "God likes to go to" churches where they've got some lively music and a bit of expressive spirit.

There was a scene at the camp where the kids were encouraged to adore a cardboard cut-out of our Dear Leader Bush standing in front of an American flag.

I did worry about some things that were shown in the camp scenes. There was some pretty heavy guilt tripping and talk about Satan being out to get them. The film doesn't give much information on some aspects of the camp that viewers make would need to more of an evaluation. How long were the worship and teaching sessions, for instance? How much real play time and exercise time did the kids get? Long sessions with repetitive chanting have a different effect that more brief sessions of singing and preaching or some sort of skit.

There also seemed to be a wide range of ages. The youngest looked to be as young as five or six. The oldest looked around 11 or 12, though there seemed to be some teenaged camp counselors. The lessons opposing abortion don’t strike me as being particularly edifying.

The film is particularly known because one segment toward the end features Ted Haggard preaching against homosexuality. This was before his adventures with a male prostitute came to public light.

Also near the end, it shows demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court in Washington singing, "Nothing But the Blood of Jesus" on a cold day to train kids on political actions. Their version of that particular song provides a good example of the kind of white gospel singing that Jeremiah Wright was joking about at the National Press Club. And it shows the kids being actively involved with the protests.

Again, it's hard to know what to make of all this in the absence of any expert commentary, or even just commentary to provide some background information. But how much does even an 11- or 12-year-old kid really learn from going to a political protest? I don't think there's anything wrong in the abstract about taking kids to a political demonstration. In fact, it probably teaches them a lesson about citizenship.

But the conclusion that the film invites us to draw, that kids who grow up with religious homeschooling and and going to summer "Jesus camp" are likely to grow up to be good authoritarian Republicans. But there are actual studies on authoritarianism and on the development of political allegiances generally. Do they support the conclusions suggested by the film?

It's always easy to criticize a documentary for what it does not say. But silences can also be important. In this case, the context is seriously lacking. I mentioned earlier I didn't think this was fair to either the Pentecostals depicted or to the viewers. I should also mention in closing that it's not fair to homeschoolers either.

I believe that states need to regulate home schooling well and have some ways to verify that the kids are getting at least the minimal education they need to compete in the world on a reasonably equal basis with those who go through public schooling. But there's nothing inherently wrong with home schooling. A majority of those who home school their kids in the US are doing so for religious reasons. There is a large and vocal minority in the country's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), who want the SBC to formally oppose public schooling for Baptist children. But there are also home schoolers whose motivations have more in common with the hippies of the 1960s than with present-day Christianists. They believe that they can create a more favorable environment for learning for their kids than they would experience in public schools.


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