Film Review

Child Warriors for God

Jesus Camp

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Magnolia Pictures,
85 minutes, 2006.

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader
The Public Eye Magazine - Winter 2006

Pastor Becky Fischer, Director of Kids in Ministry International and the subject of Jesus Camp, a riveting documentary about a weeklong summer program for Pentecostal/Charismatic youth, hopes people will see that her message is about piety, not politics.

"It's about the importance of disciplining children in the Christian faith," she told the film's directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, in a post-production interview. "My hope is that viewers will be able to see the obvious truth which is children are capable of understanding, feeling, being an enthusiastic and powerfully effective part of extreme faith in Jesus Christ."

Some call it being a radical Christian.

For Fischer, who was herself saved as a young girl, it's simply about repairing society. As a Pentecostal, she and her followers nurture a direct, born-again, relationship with God. And part of that, she exhorts, is speaking out. "Boys and girls can change the world. I can lead kids to the Lord in no time at all. They are so open. They are so usable in Christianity."

The North Dakota camp, located in, ironically, a town called Devil's Lake, trains kids to preach, prophesize, and evangelize. It supports them in taking the next step in their faith, whatever that might be. During the course of daily worship, they are encouraged to speak in tongues, a hallmark of the sect's form of prayer, and the film captures them as they mumble, and occasionally shriek. Their passion is apparent, if incomprehensible to secular viewers. Fischer and other adults join the cacophony, making sounds sure to unsettle film watchers who have not seen this kind of worship.

But as odd as it is for many people to see hundreds speaking in tongues, Fischer never loses control, easily pulling the kids back into the real world when she decides they've had enough. It is like watching orchestrated pandemonium. Fischer's hand is heavy, and her oversight constant, because she knows the stakes are high: 43 percent of the 100 million Americans who claim to be born-again report being saved by age 13. "One-third of the 6.7 billion people in the world are children," she continues. "So where should we put our focus? Our enemies train kids to use rifles and machine guns...We want kids to lay down their lives for the gospel... We have to stand up and take back the land."

Despite assertions that the movement is apolitical, reclamation clearly involves supporting President George W. Bush. At one point in the film, a cardboard cut-out of GWB is placed on stage in front of an American flag. "Tell him, ‘Welcome President Bush. We're glad you're here.' Speak a blessing over him. Tell him, ‘We want one nation, under God,'" Fischer urges.

The prayer -- if there are objections they are not articulated aloud -- is followed by a fire-and-brimstone speaker, an inspiring (though to us unidentified) middle-aged man wearing an anti-abortion tee-shirt. "Before you were born God knew you," the elder thunders. "You weren't just a piece of tissue, a piece of protoplasm, whatever that is. You were created by God. Isn't that incredible? But since 1973, up to 50 million babies never had a chance to fulfill God's plan for their life [sic]. God had a dream for these babies, just like He has a dream for you." The preacher then holds up a cardboard box filled with tiny plastic dolls and puts one in each child's hand. A prayer to end abortion has voices soaring as they beg the Almighty to do their bidding. Some kids, boys as well as girls, cry, tears streaming down their mournful faces.

Other prayer vigils are equally intense. We watch as Levi O'Brien, a 12-year-old from St. Robert, Missouri--one of three children the film follows and already a gifted preacher -- prepares for his own sermon. Saved at five, he tells the filmmakers, "It's not me up there. It is, but it's not. I don't write the sermon, God writes it," he says.

One adult lambastes Harry Potter -- "You don't make heroes of a warlock [sic]," -- while services on different days hammer away at ethics. "Some of you are phonies and hypocrites," Fischer charges. "You do one thing in church and another when you're with your friends. If that's you, come up here and wash. Say it. NO MORE. Name what you need to be forgiven of." Again, tears fall as confessions are offered.

"It's really hard to do this," one boy admits. "It's hard to believe in God. You don't see Him. It makes me feel bad, but sometimes I don't believe what the Bible says."

The strength of the documentary is capturing moments like these. The filmmakers provide a window into a world their intended audience probably knows little about. But while they provide on-screen analysis of the conservative political values the adults promote in their evangelizing, they provide little perspective on the "Jesus camp" as a religious phenomenon. For instance, you would never know that Pentecostalism is embraced by many African American Christians who are not George W. Bush supporters. You might assume that every evangelical Christian is a conservative Bushite.

Another of the film's few flaws it that it only shows the kids when they are participating in organized events. Despite the fact that virtually all of these kids live in a born-again Christian bubble, they have heard of the cultural icons celebrated by non-evangelical youth. Whether it's musicians, film stars, or sorcerers, they have some inkling of a broader world. For this reason, Jesus Camp would have benefited from a few shots of the campers hanging out with one another during non-scripted activities. Similarly, despite a voiceover informing viewers that the kids participate in sports and other typical camp activities, we see nothing of them in these contexts.

What we do see, however, is poignant and frightening. It is disturbing to see adults try to politicize those who are so young in the name of instilling values. One wonders whether these kids will remain true believers or will leave the fold. What's more, if they leave, what scars will they bear as a result of their upbringing?

"The intensity you see in these kids is incredible," Fischer says. She sees the camp as a defining moment in participants' lives and is convinced that what they've learned will be the basis of a lifelong morality.

Despite her confidence, the jury remains out. I, for one, am hoping that Ewing and Grady will turn their cameras on O'Brien -- and his peers -- a decade from now to hear what they have to say about religion, politics, and the Reverend Fischer.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist, and coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.

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