Jesus Camp (documentary)

Oh, what an unfair documentary is “Jesus Camp.” Unfair and riveting and alarming and highly watchable — but outrageously unfair. It’s the kind of documentary where you assume the subjects didn’t know what the finished product would look like when they agreed to be filmed. That, or they subscribe to the philosophy that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The general topic is evangelical Christians, or what most of us call fundamentalist Christians. Specifically, the subject is Becky Fischer, a stout, friendly pastor in Missouri who runs a youth Bible camp every summer. She and her parishioners are Pentecostals, or what some call “holy rollers,” where the services are marked by speaking in tongues and by loud singing, praying and weeping.

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the film is concerned with how powerful evangelical Christians are becoming in this country. Ted Haggard, a superstar pastor from Colorado, meets with Pres. Bush every Monday, we’re told. Haggard tells the filmmakers that his people are numerous enough that “if the evangelicals vote, they determine the election.” All he and his fellow ministers have to do is get the word out on how they ought to vote.

Here’s a statistic: 75 percent of home-schooled children are evangelical Christians. We meet one, a sweet 12-year-old named Levi who is one of Fischer’s kids and who sports a most unfortunate mullet haircut. Levi’s mom teaches him at home; one scene has her instructing him on how global warming is only a myth. (I have enough trouble understanding why global warming is a political issue. How did it become a religious one?) I don’t want to get into the home-schooling thing and how most of the kids who go that route turn out to be socially retarded freaks, but here’s strong evidence that going to a real school and being exposed to a variety of ideas, and not just your parents’ doctrines, is a GOOD thing.

Levi tells Fischer he was “saved” at the age of 5, when he decided he wanted more out of life. At 5 years old he was already dissatisfied with his spiritual welfare? Fischer asks. Yeah, he says. And he’s been happy ever since.

We’re allowed to see quite a few of Fischer’s religious gatherings, which always culminate in fervent wailing and praises. The children, most younger than 12, are just as passionate in their ululations as the adults are. The images are eerie, unsettling — and then you realize the filmmakers have put spooky ambient music on the soundtrack to enhance the effect. Is that necessary? Wouldn’t these activities have seemed strange enough without the addition of music?

I’m torn on whether stacking the deck this way is good filmmaking or bad. It certainly helps make the filmmakers’ point, but it’s obviously not very evenhanded as a documentary technique. It makes me less inclined to trust the film. For every scene where someone says something narrow-minded, eyebrow-raising or bizarre, I wonder how many scenes were omitted in which the person seemed perfectly sane.

What strikes me about the kids at Fischer’s Bible camp is how INTENSE they are. They get caught up in the enthusiasm of the prayer meetings and wind up sobbing with sorrow over their sins, or crying out in desperate pleas to have a transcendent spiritual experience. But they’re KIDS. What sin could a 9-year-old possibly have committed that would require so much abject remorse? How deeply could a 10-year-old truly desire to be “saved”?

It seems to me that much of the behavior is imitative. They’ve been taught that this is what Christians do, so when the adults speak in tongues and mourn loudly while repenting, the kids do the same thing, whether they have anything to repent of or not. And when the adults talk about this sinful world and how our leader, George W. Bush, is such a great Christian and we should support him, the children echo their sentiments — even though, let’s be honest, the children have no idea how sinful this world is or whether Bush is a good Christian or what America needs.

The film is a little scary at times, scary in the way it shows fundamentalist Christians as zealous automatons, scary in the way that apparently a lot of fundamentalist Christians ARE zealous automatons. Radio commentator Mike Papantonio is the film’s voice of reason, a Christian who provides contrast to the evangelicals’ zealotry.

But there’s a tinge of sadness, too. Never mind whether the children are being taught good principles or correct doctrine. I’m a Christian (one of the boring kinds, without the screaming or in-tongues-speaking), and I absolutely support the idea of teaching kids about Jesus and how to live good, Christian lives. The sadness is in how these kids seem so single-mindedly ardent, not like kids at all but like tiny grown-ups, saying grown-up things.

Fischer and her fellow youth ministers want to train their young people to be as dedicated to Christianity as Muslim kids are to Islam. Look at what’s going on in the Middle East, they say. These kids will strap bombs to themselves and walk into public squares, all because they believe their God wants them to. We don’t want our kids doing THAT, exactly, but that level of commitment and devotion is enviable.

Or is it? Where do you draw the line between teaching children solid values and turning them into too-serious mini-preachers? If the film is any indication, these kids are missing out on the fun parts of childhood. They’re not being allowed to just be kids. Is that really what we want?

B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; PG-13, 'some discussions of mature subject matter,' according to the MPAA -- but with no profanity, violence, sex, or nudity, there's no reason it shouldn't be PG.)