Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Jesus Camp"--Horrified Differently than I Expected

For years now, I've heard all sorts of buzz about the movie Jesus Camp. I resisted seeing it for many reasons. I suspected the documentarians had an agenda--and now, after seeing it, I don't see how commenters could say that this movie was neutral. It reminded me a bit of the movie Religulous, where I thought that the moviemakers were basically shooting fish in a barrel. It's easy to mock these people at extreme ends. It's harder to understand them.

I wasn't as horrified at the actions of the grown-ups in the film, although there were moments when I just shook my head. Their theology is not my theology, and I'm grateful that I was raised by rational Lutherans.

The movie reminded me of my own childhood, however, in that I went to a Presbyterian elementary school, and every Friday we went to chapel. Each Friday in chapel, we had the horrors of hell described to us, and we were urged to invite Jesus into our hearts to avoid this fate. Every Friday, I offered a sincere invitation to Jesus. And then again, several times in the following week, just in case Jesus had been to busy to set up housekeeping in my heart when I asked him. After all, dozens of other kids had been asking at the same time on Friday that I was. What if Jesus hadn't heard me?

It's been a long time since anyone asked me if I was saved. When people used to ask me that (some day, ask me about the fundamentalist scene at my high school in Knoxville, Tennessee), I used to say, "I'm the most saved person you know."

My parents, of course, had no idea that any of this was going on in the 5th grade. You don't traditionally think of Presbyterians as being Hellfire and Brimstone folks.

And I grew up in the 1970's, where there were all sorts of cults and very strange stuff, and not all of it at the margins. So what these folks were doing at Jesus camp didn't seem so very threatening to me. They seemed motivated out of love, not out of all the other reasons people work with children.

No, what horrified me was the children, not in what they said, but in the fact that these filmed depictions will last forever. And I'm sure that their parents signed waivers and are probably very proud. Still, it felt very exploitive to me.

I think of all the things--perfectly above-board activities--that went on at church camps of my youth, at lock ins and retreats, in Sunday School. I wonder what would have happened if a documentary filmmaker had taped us and spliced the tape to give the impressions that he/she wanted to give. I wonder how I would feel as a grown up. Even though we don't have the last names of any of the children, those depictions could haunt them. I'm glad that my parents would not have permitted the sale of our childhood in that way.

At the end of the watching of Jesus Camp, I felt dirty in all sorts of ways. I felt ill at some of the ghastly theology espoused by these people. I felt sick at the way that their ghastly theology wound itself around politics. I felt distressed at the way these children had been used, first by the female minister and later by the documentarians. I felt most anguished that for many people, their view of Christianity won't go any further than these folks in the movie. And that Christianity is not the sole depiction I want people to ponder, even though it often seems to be.

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