I watched Jesus Camp for the first time last night, and I've been mulling it over ever since. It was a really strong film, very thought provoking and well crafted. I often take exception to portrayals of people of faith in film, since I usually suspect that the filmmakers were trying to get a certain type crazy and editing with delight and much laughter to arrive at it. This one felt very different, and I got the feeling that the filmmakers were sincere in what they showed and which bits of personal interviews they used.
These are bright kids. Levi, perhaps the film's child protagonist, instantly struck me as a good, articulate, hugely intelligent force. Even today, I keep thinking, "That kid's going to go far," and I want him to. I'm cheering him on. He seemed deeply decent, and to be working daily to live his faith.
The adults in the film present a more complicated portrait. I believe fervently that parents not only should be allowed, but are obligated to teach their children about the world, what is right and what is wrong, and what makes a good person and a good citizen. Children, after all, have their whole adult lives to work out whether their parents were saints or sinners, idiots or geniuses, or the million bits of gray that shade the in-between places where most of us live. And when parents do their jobs right, I think that their adult children generally conclude that their parents weren't perfect but gave them enough to make do in a confusing world.
That being said, the camp director and staff were not presented as people teaching their faith to their children. The camp itself, at least as portrayed in the film, was a center of indoctrination, of challenge (not that kids don't need some of that), where an ethos of spiritual warfare was being taught and enacted. Parts of it absolutely made me think of ancient ecstatic pagan faiths, where the frenzy of the crowd fed on itself and became the proof of the presence of the god being worshiped.
I think one of the questions that the filmmakers wanted the audience to ask itself is whether these kids are being used, and given the language of their elders in reference to them -- that they are the greatest generation of Americans to rise yet, that they are destined to win the country for God -- I think the answer has to be "yes." But aren't kids always used for something? At best, they are used as vessels for the lost dreams of those who came before. At worst, it's much, much worse. This kind of use seems strikes me as idealistic and positive, despite my disagreement on the issues. They are raising these kids up and elevating a form of their higher minds. That's not a bad thing.
What stung about the film was the intolerance of the faith being shared. It's one thing for a kid not to understand that each person is playing his or her role, and to lack to the tools to be gentle about all the ways we stray from our callings. It's another thing entirely for non-related adults to endorse the idea that people who are (not all that) different are the enemy. I don't just mean Muslims, or the pro-choice, or gays. I mean other Protestant denominations and other worshipers who are perhaps less prone to the frenzy. There was great judgment in the film, and a heavy handedness about this difficult art of living that ultimately served to remind me to be more gentle: with myself, with the people I love, with strangers I might come across.
That's the only antidote I know for the exclusionary, warfare-oriented faith shown in the film. Be more open, more loving, make more attempts to understand myself and the people I meet, and work harder to live whatever wisdom I've come across in these years so that I can live more truly, and those around me can take whatever works for them and add it to their toolboxes for life. Jesus Camp's depiction of faith is one where God is revered as a counterpoint to evil man, and some elevated among us are locked in an eternal war with the rest of us.
I fall on the side of all these people God created, their daily struggles, and the ways that life can obscure what is true about us. And when I come at things with love and compassion and a gentle hand, I have learned that things become more clear, for me and for them. The Evangelicals can play act their wars against sinful humanity and pray for the end times to twist them loose of this mortal coil. I'm engaged in the renewal of living every day. It's no wonder that I don't know anyone like the people in the film. What would we possibly have to talk about?