Concluding Thoughts on ‘Jesus Camp’

This film has certainly lead to some very interesting and deep analysis. By applying my experience of viewing the film to so many different religious themes I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the documentary. While I was, and continue to be, appalled at what happened in the documentary, I can now understand where those feelings come from. Additionally, I now recognize the importance of understanding the context of a culture before analyzing it’s tenants. I enjoyed this film very much, and I hope that others are able to understand my opinions on the matter.

‘Jesus Camp’ (2006) Promotional Poster, Photo Source: Magnolia Pictures

Faith and Sin in ‘Jesus Camp’

Perhaps two of the most profound themes from Jesus Camp are faith and sin. Much of the controversy that formed as a result of the film stemmed from its focus on what the children were being taught. Several scenes show children crying from the intense emotions that are being invoked by the various preachers by placing the burden of right and wrong on 6 year olds. An age group that is not particularly renowned for a firm grasp on personal responsibility and devotion to a higher power. In this next blog post I will be analyzing how the film displays faith and sin through the children at the camp.

Faith is central to everything that the evangelical movement teaches in Jesus Camp. This is especially emphasized in regards to maintaining one’s faith when presented with alternative realities, as is the case for many of these children. Fischer is often seen reminding the children that they must stay true to their faith at all times, even though there are other, more attractive alternatives. She goes so far as to claim that the Harry Potter series is witchcraft and that no true believer should read the books.  This notion that a true evangelical christian must have complete faith in their own teachings, and distrust any other alternative, is reinforced constantly. When Fischer is questioned about her faith, she simply states, without question, “well we have the truth!”. Often the biggest hurdle that any religion, political belief, ideology, etc. has to overcome is convincing people to take the leap of faith. This feat is much easier to overcome when your subjects are impressionable 8 years olds, which is the point of jesus camp in the first place.

The importance of sin is also heavily emphasized in the film. Again, I have to stress that the target audience of these teachings are young children who are particularly susceptible to persuasion. Sin is effective with children because the idea of “good” and “evil” is so easy to understand, even at a young age. With age typically comes a much richer

A graphic representing the many forms of sin.

understanding of the complex nature of good and evil due to the discovery of the grayness of each concept. However, children do not possess the mental capacity to process information in such a way and therefore are easily manipulated by those whom they trust. This is not necessarily a bad thing all the time – teaching right from wrong is important. But, more important is one’s definition of right and wrong.

In addition to examining the pursausive power of sin, it is also important to look towards the different forms it takes. John Portmann speaks about the importance of the degrees of sin in his article, “Sin Fatigue: The Dilution and Demotion of Sin”. In his article, Portmamn suggests that it essential to determine the intentions of one’s actions when determining the severity of one’s sin. Portmann refers to intention as the, “most effective touchstone of sin, the most useful way of gauging wrongdoing”. Portmann’s view is reflected in our legal system, where the severity of one’s penalty is often related to the intention of the perpetrator. You may be thinking, “How does this relate to Jesus Camp?” Well, what we see at in Jesus Camp is a radical form of evangelicalism because Fischer blurs the lines between the severity of different sins. She does not seem to believe in varying levels of sin, and instead tells the children that they will be damned to hell if they do not follow every single word of God at all times. People can be easily manipulated through fear, and Fischer cranks the fear up to 10 at all times.

‘Jesus Camp’ and Violence

In recent history, there has been much debate over the violence caused by extremist religious groups across the world. Many atheists, such as Bill Mahar will frequently blame religious people for allowing a harmful dogma to continue. But, many religious people will often respond that they are not violent, nor does their religion teach them to be violent. Watching Jesus Camp, one certainly gets more of an impression of the former argument. But what differentiates a violent and nonviolent religious practice? It turns out that the answer is based on the way one views good and evil.

One’s view of good an evil greatly affects their sense of duty to take action. Sharon Nepstad discusses how one’s view of good and evil influences their course of action in her article, “Religion, Violence, and Peacemaking”. For example, Nepstad makes the following statement:

When religiosity is mixed into the process of constructing an enemy, it can intensify the conflict. If people believe that they are carrying out a divine mandate, they may be less willing to negotiate, since the devout will not compromise the will of God.

This view is seen in Jesus Camp as Becky Fischer is seen repeatedly stating that their mission is God’s mission, therefore they must be willing to die for the righteous cause. There is clearly a relationship between how uncompromising one is in their duties and the belief that their mission is derived from the divine. This would then suggest that religious views, which believe their mission is God’s will, have a much higher potential to become violent in their endeavor. Thankfully, we do not see that in the film; however, there is certainly a sense of endorsing violence when necessary.

How My Reaction to ‘Jesus Camp’ Proves the Themes Within it

In my previous post I explored the plot of the film, and I left off on the notion that my personal bias greatly affected my interpretation of the film. Well, that is primarily because I am not viewing this film from the narrative truth, but rather from a factual truth, and because I not a member of this church. First, I would like to expand on what I mean by ‘narrative truth’ and then discuss how I am ‘the Other’ when it comes to this film.

Narrative truth is essentially the subjective analysis of someone’s experience told from their perspective. In other words, it does not necessarily conform to what is factually true, but rather what is true to the individual. For example, if I were to read a text message from a friend that read, “Ok.”, I might interpret that as a passive aggressive response. In reality, it may be that everything is just ‘ok’, but I will continue to believe my individual interpretation is correct. What is really crazy, is that even if that person were to inform me that their intention was not to be passive aggressive, I may still believe it was, because that is how I felt. Barrie Wilson talks about narrative truth in his journal article, “Big Fish: Understanding Historical Narrative”. In the article, Wilson states that the concept of narrative truth poses, “hermeneutic problems…On the individual level”. Individually, how can someone discern their own truth from the supposed objective truth when it conflicts with their own experience. In fact, one participant from the camp, Andrew Sommerkamp, argued that while, “Some people would say that it was all fake, but when I look back on it, our belief in it had made it real. It really taught me the power of belief.” (The Guardian) Sommerkamp’s experience in the camp illustrates the powerful effect of one’s individual narrative, and how that shapes the world around them.

Individual narrative is also tied to this idea of ‘the Other’ because it perpetuates the idea of an exclusive experience among a culture. Wilson also speaks of a “cultural” narrative in his article, pointing out that entire groups of people can have shared perceptions of the world around them. I think his point is particularly highlighted by the fact that Fischer helped to promote the film after its release because she, and many other evangelicals, found the film to be, “a fair representation of their culture” (The Guardian). This was really hard for me to believe at first, because the film appeared to be such a blatant condemnation of their faith. But, I came to realize that my reaction to the film proves that I am an outsider to their religion. An example

This image illustrates the idea of being ‘the Other’

of how my lack of personal experience greatly affected my point of view would be all the scenes in which they “speak in tongues”. Before watching Jesus Camp I had no idea that it is a normal practice in evangelical Christianity to let the ‘word of the Lord flow through your mouth’. So when they started speaking in tongues I thought they were all just crazy! This is just one way in which my lack of cultural understanding prevented me from understanding their point of view, and perpetuated my ‘other-ness’.

Essentially, Jesus Camp shows the profound effect that an individual narrative can have on one’s perception of the world, and how that perception can foster an exclusive atmosphere.

‘Jesus Camp’ – What and Why?

I have chosen to analyze various religious themes the film, Jesus Camp, for my blog assignment. Specifically, I will be exploring the use of narratives, faith, sin, myth, and ‘the Other’ throughout the film. However, my first blog post will be focusing on the plot and purpose of the film, Jesus Camp.

Basically, this film is a sort of docu-drama that investigates the right-wing evangelical movement in the United States, more specifically at a summer camp dubbed ‘Jesus Camp’. This movie was filmed during the Bush Jr. administration, which was a time that was particularly advantageous for the evangelical movement in the US due to President Bush’s personal support. The

Becky Fischer in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. Photograph: Loki Films

camera follows the life of several children as they are exposed to the teachings of an evangelical children’s minister, Becky Fisher, during their time at the camp. There is also a radio interview that is played intermittently throughout the movie, which features a host, Mike Papantonio, sharing his views on what he perceives as an increasingly conservative and dangerous evangelical movement. The movie is essentially a ‘behind the scenes look’ into the evangelical movement, and attempts to expose a number of unusual practices. These practices range from bizarre, to innocuous, to down right terrifying. The intention of the directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, appear to be to highlight the more radical side of the evangelical movement.

The purpose of creating Jesus Camp was, in my opinion, primarily to reveal the frightening practices of the radical evangelical movement. While the directors claim that the movie does not attempt to instill a particular point of view, it is hard to believe. In one scene, Fisher is seen explaining to the children that she wants them to be willing to lay down their lives for the cause of christianity, which is something she believes the children in the Middle East are being trained to do for Islam. These kids are younger than 12. There are plenty more scenes throughout the movie that show the harsh treatment of children at this camp, the blatant homophobia of their movement, and the psychological impact of these teachings. Another scene shows Fisher asking the kids to wash away all of their sins, and refers to those who act differently outside of church as, “Phon[ies] and hypocrite[s]”. Most of the children begin immediately crying and repenting for their sins, and are obviously in great distress over this accusation. This scene is another piece of evidence that many Liberals cite as evidence of child abuse at this camp, and it sparked a great deal of “outrage” according to a Guardian post from July 2016.

However, this is just my personal reaction to the film. I will readily admit that I am a left leaning individual, who is not very religious personally. It is important to reflect on one’s own biases when examining a controversial film, such as Jesus Camp. I will explore why this important, and how my personal bias illustrates the themes of narrative and ‘the Other’ in Jesus Camp in my next blog post!