Becky Fischer believes children can fix a "sick old world." They just have to get on fire for Jesus.
Fischer, an ordained Pentecostal minister, founded the "Kids on Fire" camp toward that end, and now that's the subject of a fascinating new documentary, "Jesus Camp," which opens in select theaters today.
"Jesus Camp," by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Loki Films, will catch its audience with two hooks. The first is an intensely personal look at charismatic children "hooking up with the Holy Spirit" (as Fischer calls their speaking in tongues and other emotional behavior). They study, pray and preach with an uncommon fervor.
The second hook is the filmmakers' narrative framework involving politics and religion. The children in "Jesus Camp" don't just speak in tongues and talk about getting right with God. They also wear camouflage for church performances, chant for righteous judges, demonstrate against abortion, and talk about why global warming isn't really a problem.
One of the youngsters featured in the film, 12-year-old Levi, is home-schooled, and we get to listen in on a science lesson taught by his mother.
Mom: "One popular thing to do in American politics is to note that the summers in the United States over the past few years have been very warm. As a result, global warming must be real. What's wrong with this reasoning?"
Levi: "It's only gone up 0.6 degrees."
Mom: "Yeah, it's not really a big problem is it?" She then tells Levi: "It's a huge political issue, global warming is. And that's why it's really important for you to understand it."
Ewing and Grady didn't set out to highlight the mix of religion and politics, but during filming two Supreme Court seats opened up. Other evangelical hot-buttons continued to be pressed in the media, and the filmmakers couldn't ignore what they had in the can.
They opted for both hooks and brought the politico-religious element to the forefront by incorporating Mike Papantonio, renowned lawyer and radio talk-show host on Air America . Papantonio, a devout Methodist, is cut to repeatedly, talking on air about "this entanglement of politics with religion."
So it goes, with Fischer and company motivating children to "take America back for Christ," and Papantonio arguing that evangelicals are whittling away at church-state separation.
In addition to Fischer, the filmmakers found three "Kids on Fire" camp attendees to focus on: Levi, Rachael and Tory, all about the same age and all "on fire" in one way or another. Levi wants to be a preacher—and in fact preaches one night at camp. Rachael has big plans for personal witnessing opportunities—like working in a nail salon with "relaxing Christian music in the background" so people are open to Jesus. And there's Tory, who likes to dance for God, not the flesh (though she says it's tempting).
"Jesus Camp" is shot through with the American flag and sprinkled with Bush imagery—notably, a life-size cut out that is brought into church so he/it can be prayed over. "He has surrounded himself with spirit-filled people," says the woman in charge of the cardboard Bush.
The middle third of the movie concentrates on the camp—with its "JC in the house" hip-hop music, mug-smashing to symbolize breaking the "power of the enemy" in government, and various other visually engaging demonstrations of what it means to be on fire.
The first part, of course, sets up the big issues and personalities, while the last part really reinforces the mix of religion and politics—though it must be said Fischer and company don't see their activities as "political" at all.
On the one hand, Ewing and Grady give us Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who tells us that "if the evangelicals vote, they determine the election." The filmmakers balance Haggard with Papantonio, who preaches over the air to that "we've been asleep at the wheel as this conservative, political, fundamentalist element has gained too much control and power in this country."
"Jesus Camp" could be part of a provocative trilogy of similar documentaries that include "The Education of Shelby Knox" and "Hell House." All peel back a layer of American Christianity and reveal a rawness that is simply worth watching and certainly worth discussing afterward.
No matter where you stand politically or theologically, "Jesus Camp" has something to offer. You're guaranteed not to leave indifferent.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some discussions of mature subject matter.
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Cast: Becky Fischer; Mike Papantonio; Levi O'Brien; Rachael Elhardt; Tory Binger.
The movie's official Web site is here.