Jesus as Commander in Chief: a Look at the Documentary “Jesus Camp”

One nation, under God

As a teacher in an American public school, I stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag with my students every morning. When it’s over, I sit down in my desk chair, and separate church and state. I focus on my curriculum, teaching about reading literature, writing arguments, and learning language. I very rarely consider how America as a nation of Christian principles in its earliest of years.

It’s when my tenth graders read early American literature, including works by the PuritImage courtesy of amyisvip@blogspot.comans and pastors from the Great Awakening, such as Jonathon Edwards, that I am reminded of America’s Christian roots. As we read the “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” sermon aloud together, the students are quick to note the fire and brimstone quality od waiting eagerly to drop those who are supposed to be his children to their eternal life amid furious flames? They can’t sof the text. They passionately point out that it sounds scary and intended to make listeners feel guilty. A wrathful God? A Geem to wrap their brains around it. They get the figures of speech, but they don’t get how anyone could have believed it. They don’t get how anyone could have been moved to act on behalf of someone seeking vengeance. I see their point, and then I suggest that we cannot pull this kind of sermon out of its original context and into our time period because our societies, lives, and ways of thinking are so vastly different.

After watching Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, I’m not so sure I can make that claim anymore, at least not in good conscience.

I watched Jesus Camp at the recommendation of a classmate, Jess. When she learned I was doing research on religion, she told me it was a must-see. I was so intrigued that I watched it within a day of her lending me the DVD.

The documentary follows a children’s pastor (Becky Fisher) of a Pentecostal Evangelical church and three attendees of her summer camp, Kids on Fire (which has since been shut down). Becky Fisher, however, was not in the first five minutes of the film. Mike Papantonio, of the Ring of Fire radio show, though, was, and to say he left me confused would be a gross understatement. He began talking on air about “these guys” who are following some new brand of religion and generating war in the name of god.

I wondered:I thought this was about Jesus. Why is he talking about jihad?

Turns out, Papantonio wasn’t talking about Islamic radicals; he was speaking of radical Pentecostal Evangelicals who are building an army of Republicans in the United States. What a claim to make. I knew instantly that this was a documentary about extremes. The directors were creating this spectrum straight out of the gate by juxtaposing Papantonio with Fisher, who spoke next, encouraging the children to whom she preached, “This is a sick old world. Get your tools, and fix it.”

What tools, exactly Ms. Fisher? Surely she couldn’t mean the hand grenades and machine guns of 5 year old Islamic soldiers to whom she compared her own congregation by stating a desire to see Christian children being as radical as the young in places like Palestine and Pakistan who are willing to put their life on the line for their God. The war imagery continued when later in the film as Fisher posed questions, including this antagonistic example, “Take these prophecies, and do what the apostle Paul says. Make war with them…This means war. Are you a part of it, or not?”

By thphotoe looks of the camouflage face point on the children dancing and chanting to worship music, they most certainly are. They even recited choreographed battle cries: “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. That’s the Trojan battle cry.”  This camp seems to be a boot camp, turning out soldiers who will save America and bring the nation closer to God.

Kids. Guns. War. I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to become angry with the film. Kids stood, gaping, at their pastor. Tears streamed down their faces as they were reminded of the dangers of sin, and classic childhood heroes, such as Harry Potter, were condemned as they would have been had their stories been a part of the Old Testament. I was reminded of Edwards’ “Sinners” sermon. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what good could possibly come from making children cry in church. What good could come from making children fear the God who is supposed to love and forgive them?

Then I remembered. I remembered the extreme spectrum the filmmakers set out to establish at the start of the film. This film was not to speak for a nation. It was not meant to speak for Christians across the U.S. It was meant to reflect the practices of one community–to inform.

While I disagree with many aspects of the teachings portrayed in the film, I think it was valuable to watch, as does Rotten Tomatoeswhich gives the film an 87% fresh rating. The documentary presented radicalism in a non-aggressive, non-threatening way to viewers. We tend to hear about radicalism the most in relation to groups with ties to Islam.  This is not to say that Evangelical Christians are radical terrorists, but, as mentioned above, there are striking parallels in the language used. Rather than fear Evangelical radicals the same way Americans fear radical groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, we can benefit from recognize the power of doctrine on a young mind.

I think we, as a nation, tend to be scared of what we don’t know. Not every child is given the same choice we might be. Jesus Camp gives us the opportunity to know and understand before we make blanket judgments.

A Research Proposal Update: It seems as though I’m going to church, but I won’t be alone.

About a week ago, I posted a research proposal explaining how a short conversation and a seemingly simple question sparked an internal philosophical and theological debate in my mind. I think I was so excited and taken by the possibilities of all there was to explore in terms of faith and spiritual journeys that I moved further away from the focus I intended to search for.

A week, and some guidance (the kind of this world, not that of the other-world) later, and I feel confident that I have adjusted my research intentions to a focused, interesting, and thought-provoking topic. I will be examining others’ spiritual journeys to and from God.

To study these journeys, I would like to conduct personal interviews or research in paper/electronic archives with people in various stages of spiritual discovery. This could include a young person who has no association with faith, a young person discovering their faith through schooling or with the help of his or her parents, a reformed believer who may have turned away from God at some point in his or her life only to find the way back, an adult believer who never stopped believing, a spiritual leader (i.e. a priest/pastor/Reverend/minister), an adult who turned away from God and decided he or she was a nonbeliever, an adult who changed religions, and an adult who was never raised in faith.

Katy Perry, for example, might be an interesting figure to look into for starters because her father is a minister. She was raised a Christian, but she no longer believes in heaven, hell, or God in a traditional Christian sense. I could research through paper and electronic archives why and how she may have adjusted her spiritual beliefs. Then, I could compare Perry’s experience to a similar experience of person to whom others might more easily relate. Again, this is just one example, and I would also love to be able to speak with and work with members of my local and surrounding communities for a more thorough, relatable perspective on the topic.

I think it would also be interesting to participate with or engage in the religious practices of those I meet and talk to. For example, attending the church services of an adult who had turned away from the church but found his or her way back to God might help me understand why they were drawn back to a religious lifestyle. Perhaps the messages shared at his or her church are particularly relevant and appealing to the specific age group. Perhaps he or she really enjoys being able to use different media to build a relationship with God rather than listening to a priest read from the Gospel and then give an instructing lecture about the passage.

I feel as though doing this might ultimately lead me to consider my own personal beliefs. In addition to helping me understand what I think about faith and its various aspects, the research will enable me to write an interesting, comparative feature article or editorial article about church, faith, and religious practices in the 21st century.

I would still like to try and publish on an online media source aimed at my age demographic, particularly Relevant Magazine because the research will still be grounded generationally.

So–what exactly will be my first course of action?

At the suggestion of Bill Wolff, I think I’ll begin by listening to Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, the first segment of which she performed for TED in 2006.