Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Jesus Camp" Reviewed

"His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping."
-- Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (1955)
The late short story writer and novelist Flannery O'Connor once said, "My audience are the people who think God is dead."

O'Connor was herself a devout Roman Catholic. Most emphatically, she did not think that god was dead. Yet, when she wrote with sympathy and dark humor about the violent extremism of primitive Southern fundamentalists, the purposes and vision of her art often were misconstrued by reviewers, academics, religionists, and sometimes even her own family.

The grotesque, tormented fanatics she wrote about 'cannot possibly exist' was a common complaint in her time. She invented them simply for exaggerated effect, others suggested. The Protestant rural South that O'Connor depicts is 'demented', some argued; if the deranged people of whom she writes exist at all, fellow citizens of Milledgeville, Georgia, claimed, they certainly are not found in any numbers.

If those criticisms of Flannery O'Connor's work had any small merit then, they surely do not now. America has caught up with Flannery O'Connor's fiction. Doubters have only to see Jesus Camp, now playing at Gulf Breeze Cinema 4.

The film, as Kirsten A. Powers efficiently describes, is a documentary "which chronicles a North Dakota summer camp where kids as young as 6 are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in 'God's army... .'" Without benefit of narration, we simply see and hear what can only be described as brain-washing techniques used by adult evangelicals on their own adolescent children.

They home school them against evolution. During church services they lead prayers to a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush. Before meetings they recite a 'pledge of allegiance' to a flag resembling the pop-culture version thought to have been carried into the Christian Crusades. And, at summer camp the children are dressed out in camouflage and practice military maneuvers with wooden swords while giving Heil Hitler-like straight-armed salutes.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady abruptly begin the film Jesus Camp in a nondescript Missouri motel meeting hall off an interstate highway exchange. It's the kind of room that might easily be the site of a weekend company training session for Xerox repairmen. Instead, we see it filling with dozens of suburban soccer moms and their adolescent children whom they've hauled along for a weekend Play-and-Pray that apparently doubles as a recruiting session for "Kids on Fire," a fundamentalist summer camp.

The camp, we learn soon enough, is run by Becky Fisher in a remote part of North Dakota. Fisher is a Pentecostal minister of the charismatic variety that talks in gibberish called "tongues" and lays hands on people to "heal" them. She would be right at home in an O'Connor story.

A woman of gargantuan girth, Fisher is seen early in the film haranguing the children and their mothers about the evils of modern America. Among these she includes, without hint of irony or self-awareness, people made "fat and lazy" by too much fast food. Secular humanists in the audience will laugh. The true believers in Fisher's audience would not even see the reason.

As Fisher explains candidly to the camera, her church is training the children to be religious warriors who will "take back" the U.S. government. They are using, she says, techniques pioneered by Muslim religious extremists. 'Except," she adds with a smile, "we're right."

Before going to camp, the documentary invites us into the neat, average-looking suburban homes of some of the children's families. 'We don't believe in evolution,' Levi, a 12 year old boy recites for his mother by rote during a home schooling session at the kitchen table. Then he adds, unprompted, 'Galileo was right to renounce science, too.'

A cute ten year old girl dances to "Christian Rock" so frenetically in her pink-on-pink bedroom that she works up a sweat. Then, she worries aloud that some who see her may mistakenly suppose she is "dancing for the flesh" instead of for god.

The boy Levi could be a stand-in for Francis Marion Tarwater, O'Connor's troubled orphan in The Violent Bear It Away. Tarwater's crazy grandfather had prophesied that he would become a prophet in his own right and this haunts the boy throughout the novel. Levi hankers to become a minister, too. At camp we see him assiduously practicing his sermonizing skills, measuring each new phrase he has thought up for its emotional impact on a future audience. ('Use your youth until you're in your thirties,' Rev. Ted Haggard advises him, 'and by then you'll have content.')

The view we are given into this seemingly normal exterior world with an appallingly primitive spiritual core is not entirely monochrome. At camp, one articulate eight or nine year old openly confesses his doubts about god and the bible because, he says, there seems to be no evidence for either of them whatsoever. He is quickly shamed. After Becky Fisher sternly says, "We don't have phonies in the army of God," the boy winds up tearfully confessing to the sinful bent of his intellectually curious mind.

In the absence of any narrator of the film, Pensacola's own Mike Papantonio -- an Air America talk show host as well as a prominent local lawyer -- provides the only counterpoint to what we witness. In occasional cut-aways, we see him in the studio from time to time declaiming on the air against Jesus Camp and, near the end of the film, debating or interviewing Becky Fisher -- it's hard to tell which.

The film's subjects, however, more often than not expose their own fallacies. Therein lies any fun for the audience.

Nowhere is this so more than when the film makers follow some of the Jesus Camp families on a pilgrimage to the Rev. Ted Haggard's megachurch in Colorado Springs. You can see a cutting from the documentary for yourself on YouTube.

In the film, Haggard interrupts a sermon to stick his face into the camera and make inappropriate jokes about 'knowing what you did last night' and pretending to demand blackmail to keep 'your secret.' Embarrassed when he saw the scene later on celluloid, Haggard accused the film makers of having had "an agenda" -- which Ewing and Grady vigorously denied.

We don't have to wait for End Times to know how this one turned out. Haggard resigned from the church a little over one week ago after admitting he was a "deceiver and liar" who was "guilty of sexual immorality." It was he, not the filmmakers, who turns out to have been burdened by "a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life."

Secular humanists will find in this film ample proof of the rank hypocrisy that seems endemic to the current crop of religious revivalists. But they will also see a powerful spiritual commitment to changing American political and public life -- by marrying their church to our government. It seems to be a spirit as imperishable in their lives as it is antithetical to the American tradition and constitutional law. No matter how many of them may be unmasked as hypocrites, sinners, or cynics, one comes away from this documentary convinced they will persist... and persist... and persist.

As Neva Chonin wrote in her review of "Jesus Camp" for the San Francisco Chronicle, "The film offers one answer to why the country's Evangelical minority packs such a political wallop, and it's frighteningly simple: They're efficient -- and ruthless."

The real-life Jesus Camp closed last week (not the movie). supposedly a casualty of the documentary. But don't think for a moment the camp "counselors" have quit. Any day, now, they'll be coming toward the "dark city" near you.


pissed off patricia said...

Why isn't this considered a cult and why aren't those parents in jail for child abuse?

Oh, and Fred wanted me to thank you for explaining things to him in terms he could relate to with ease. :)

Davei said...

As one of my mentors used to ask, "What will the preachers do when the devil is saved?"

Flannery O'Connor knew more than most, and she did capture the medieval darkness of the isolated little commnities in the South where fear reared its ugly head with such frequency.

I have made a pilgrimage to her house in Milledgeville, and I think her wrting is brilliant.