Overview/Rating/Length: A documentary of an evangelical christian summer camp in North Dakota, run by passionate children’s minister Becky Fischer. Rated: PG-13; Magnolia Pictures; 85 minutes.
Honestly: It’s easy to watch Jesus Camp expecting to feel horrified while enjoying your own sense of superiority, comfortable in the fact that you’re smart enough to believe in evolution and well read enough to feel that the Bible says too many contradictory things to be taken literally. I recommend, however, approaching this film as its creators did: as objectively as possible, given the strength of your current beliefs. The documentary focuses on one camp, and one children’s minister in particular (Becky Fischer), whose goal is to create an army of evangelical children. The ministry is focused on connecting with the spirit and defeating “enemies” through evangelism and the power of faith. These enemies take on different names – muslims, liberals, atheists, satan – but the children are taught that they are out there, actively persecuting believers in Jesus Christ.
Now, now: As I said, it’s easy to watch this film expecting to feel horrified. What’s interesting, however, is that what you take away from this film depends entirely on what you bring into it. By that I mean that an evangelical Christian could watch this film and see it as displaying everything good about evangelical Christianity in America today, while your run of the mill liberal could watch it and see it as displaying everything bad about evangelical Christianity in America today. The footage, the editing, the lack of narrator or talking heads – all of it is so honest that you are left with only your own interpretation. In fact, this is exemplified in an interview toward the end of the documentary, when a critical radio host tells Ms. Fischer that what she’s doing is indoctrinating children, and giving them no choice – when learning should be all about choice, in his opinion. Ms. Fischer responds by agreeing with him almost entirely. It is indoctrination. She just doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Just as the two participants in that conversation say the same thing, but represent opposing viewpoints, so two viewers of this film could see the same footage, but come away feeling vastly different about Jesus Camp.
But forget all of that: The most interesting thing about this film is not Ms. Fischer, but the children attending this camp. The best part of this documentary, in my opinion, is the artful juxtaposition of scenes of child’s play with scenes of worship gatherings. The film shows children learning organically – exploring caves, telling each other ghost stories, playing make-believe – and then shows them parroting what they’ve been taught by their parents and their ministers. Levi, an enthusiastic boy, marvels at a bug he’s spotted with a flashlight in one scene, but also gives a “sermon” about keeping Satan from pushing you off of your course and away from God’s plan for you in another. Rachael mentions that she gets made fun of often, and does not have many friends – expressing an anxiety that many children feel – but is also shown handing out pamphlets to strangers, telling them God has a plan for them. You realize, in watching, that these are children full of potential, just discovering their world, playing as children do… but this play also includes mimicry, and over time that mimicry becomes belief, as they turn into adult evangelical Christians, just as Ms. Fischer intends.