Not a week ago, I found myself unable to say what the best movie of 2006 was. That's no longer true -- nothing I saw last year moved me as much or made me laugh as hard as Jesus Camp. Holy shit, do I love it. In retrospect, I can't believe I waited till DVD to catch it -- I guess maybe I thought it would be too disturbing? It is in parts, but it's also hilarious, an effectively absurd peak into a world I'd never enter. (The speaking in tongues! The worship of cardboard cutouts of the president! The anti-warlock diatribes! The apple-cheeked proselytizing! Fuck what I said about Intervention, this is some mondo shit.)
The moment I realized that I loved Jesus Camp occurred 15 minutes into my first viewing, when the extremely Lisa Whelchel-esque home-schooling mother of the ape-draped principal character Levi looks over to her son's friend during a "lesson" and says, "Did you get to the part on here where it says that science doesn't prove anything?" Ha!
Ha! A creationistic good time! What's not to love?
[Spoilers abound from here to eternity. For God's sake, please see the movie for yourself instead of letting me ruin it for you. Also, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion had a profound influence on my rationale regarding a lot of what I say in this post. In other words: my views are probably better stated elsewhere. But isn't that always the way?]
The freak-show factor is high in Jesus Camp -- I like to think that the way these people carry themselves is a product of many factors and that they in no way represent the Midwest, or Christians for that matter, as a whole (the titular camp, actually called the Families on Fire Summer Camp, was in North Dakota and has since closed). Regardles, here are a few of the superficial things that I found gawk-worthy:
Who needs a budget when you've got God warriors banging sticks?
This loop is sort of a lie -- this move is part of a larger dance that, unlike the gif, doesn't seem to ever repeat itself. It is extremely interpretive as only movements to a song called "Kickin' It for Christ" could be. I detect a strong "Who Let the Dogs Out" influence. Frankly, the people in Jesus Camp (Pentecostal evangelists) have so many damn rules, I'm shocked that they're even allowed to say, "Kickin' it" or "homey." You know, Jesus probably wouldn't, so...
Here's another dance:
This little girl is into "Christian heavy metal, rock and roll." It must be some heavy shit if a 10-year-old can get down like that to it. Just in case that it isn't clear that she's dancing for Jesus, Tory schools you on her moves: "When I dance, I really have to make sure that that's God, because people will notice when I'm just dancing for the flesh. And I do that sometimes, and I must admit that I really need to get over that. So, I'm not the only one who makes that...people out there, you're not the only one who makes that mistake." I find it very reassuring that a 10-year-old is right there with me with each godless grind. But really, what does "dancing for the flesh" even mean? Are there times when Tory like busts out gets bucknasty? I don't even want to hypothesize on what that means practically, seeing as she's 10. Not that I fault her -- I figure it's better to be bizarre than lame. Whatever she needs to do to keep from resorting to the "Who Let JC In" lameness above her should be praised.
Levi's hair and smugness
At one point, Levi, another principal character, is referred to as the "young man with the long hair." The split-level nature of his 'do, however, makes this a half truth. Also, that smug look on his face above comes from telling someone that he became bored with everything at 5-years-old and thus accepted Jesus as his savior. Yeah, because repeating the same prayers, sentiments and general dogma every single day as per your religion isn't boring or anything. Whatever! Also, Levi seems extremely impressed with himself about all of this, as though he's used to impressing others with such a reveal. Self-righteousness at such a young age -- imagine that!
Here's a better look at his hair, because it really is amazing:
Do you think if someone told him it was serpent like, he'd cut it off?
Just repeat "this generation," "I believe" and "God" a lot. So easy a child could do it!
...and really why wouldn't a child do it when she's applauded for merely chanting, "No more!"?
You know, this little girl is actually more articulate than Ted Haggard, as we're about to find out. (The MP3 above makes a good ringtone, btw.)
Becky runs the titular camp and otherwise rants. I'm going to talk more about her later. For now, realize that this composite of Divine, Jo Anne Worley, a patron at that pulled-pork restaurant they opened during the later years of Rosanne, Large Marge and a dyke on a bike is asking the audience what they think of her appearance. She is doing so in a "Ha ha, I'm fat...no but really, I'm hot, right?" kind of way.
And speaking of that pride (do Pentecostal evangelists not care about the seven deadly sins?), it's very convenient that someone who's part of a group that seems to collectively balk at the notion of global warming would be such an aerosol addict.
Count the number of times she sprays her head. It's unbelievable. How much you wanna bet she had that hairspray shipped from Mexico just to ensure that she'd be releasing CFCs into the ozone layer, whatever that is.
Becky gives these prop-filled sermons that are definitely corny, but pretty smartly constructed, since this generation is "so visual" (so, class, if you're taking notes: biology does not evolve, but epistemology does). At one point, she's in the closet (her props one!) and she's explaining her different lessons. After a jump cut, we see that she's holding...
...a sickle and a model of a heart. No explanation is given or needed. It's so morbid that I love it in the same way that I love reading The Passion of the Christ as torture porn.
Well, really, this singing. It's supposed to signify she's touched and all, but I can't help but wonder why God didn't endow her with a nicer melody. Or some conditioner, for that matter. Uh, Becky, could you get Mexico on the phone, please?
The Bush worship
During this scene, the children are told to talk to cardboard. "Talk to him, say, 'Welcome, President Bush. We're glad you're here.'" Toward the end of the film, Becky makes some barely reasoned mention of not having a political agenda in her ministry (or whatever you want call what she does). This is actually true, because an agenda has to be thought out, planned and articulated. How is that even possible when the chance of tongues busting out lurks in every corner?
This little girl
I think she's trying to whistle in response to something someone said from the pulpit, but I think I detect some cynicism shining through. Love that!
So hahaha, different cultures are funny and zealous religious people lack a certain cosmopolitan polish and style. This is amusing enough, and key to the documentary's appeal, but what I find most helpful about Jesus Camp is its fairly straightforward way of illustrating these people's set of beliefs (which can be hard to wrap your head around in the first place if you don't take part in their way of worship -- it's to the credit of directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady that we get such a tangible idea of what goes on in these people's heads). And here's why I don't feel bad for insulting these people on any level, superficial or ideologically -- they're paradoxically self-righteous. They seem to feel that willful ignorance (from homeschooling to keep kids away from non-Christians to denouncing the warlock that is Harry Potter) is not only right, it's the only way to be. I don't care if you want to worship a teapot in outer space -- that's your business, but if you make it mine, I'm going to have a comment. This isn't an attack on religion or religious people (not that I can't help, as a gay man, to be cynical toward what so many people use as an excuse for hatred). What I take offense to here is the way that people base their beliefs on a poorly translated book and then think everyone who prefers logic is wrong. At times it's like refusing to carry an umbrella solely because of what the weatherman said yesterday, and disregarding the fact that it actually did rain today.
"If you look at Creationism, you realize it's the only possible answer to all the questions," says that home-schooling mom who holds her children's world view in her clutches. But, I wonder, why does there have to be one possible answer? Isn't the universe too awesome for that by evangelist God's standards, anyway? Isn't there supposedly stuff that he just doesn't want us to know? Isn't there some cliché about wisdom meaning not knowing (or, is that too Buddhist)? It only follows that a sign of great ignorance is being too ignorant to know that you're ignorant.
"I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ, as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying dowin their lives for the gospel, as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places. Because we have, excuse me, but we have the truth." Speaking of condescending! I find this intolerance as inexcusable as racism. Does this fairly articulate woman not realize that religion is a birthright? That the religion you're born into will most likely determine what you believe for the rest of your life? Believing that what you're born into is the only right way is as foolish and scary as, say, believing that blue is the only right eye color. If Becky were born in Iraq, she'd likely be an ardent Muslim. I suppose the answer to that from Becky's kind would be that God chose Becky to be born into Christianity. Why, then, I wonder, would God choose anyone to be born into Islam or Judaism? Why wouldn't he just deny those heathens the right to reproduce? Oh right, there's no answer for that, because it's a logical question!
Having your head up your religion's ass leads to woefully embarrassing flashes of being out of touch like this:
(In response to being videotaped and otherwise getting attention, as she does): "It's almost like being on the cover of Rolling Stones!" We have a word for this pop-culture cluelessness in my world: blasphemy.
This guy, on top of having no bones about showing the pre-pubescent young and impressionable his crotch, on top of referencing protoplasm in his anti-abortion speech and then following it with, "...whatever that is," on top of carrying around fetus models in a jewelry case...
...on top of all this, astounds further by complaining, "Since 1973, up to 50 million babies never had a chance to fulfill the dreams God had for their lives. That's sad isn't it?" So, like, dreams of poverty and neglect (neglect that can easily spill over into a nonreligious upbringing)? Did God eat something weird before he went to bed when he dreamed that up?
And these kids just parrot everything back, this sense of senseless entitlement and intolerance. Like bitching about "dead churches" and looking down their nose at the way people choose to express what is essentially the same system of beliefs. Again, the intolerance is absolutely infuriating.
Ted Haggard, in an outtake included on the DVD bonus features, does some anti-Catholic ranting himself. But he proves himself to be an asshole in the film, too. First of all, his routine seems to be based in humor, which would be a fine hook were he capable of saying anything remotely funny.
Sample Haggard joke: "I have a 10-year rule about dating. For those of you that married someone 30 years older than you, I hope he dies, so you can get his money." If he weren't preaching to the converted, you'd be able to hear crickets chirping or, more likely, locusts rattling.
Even further into his asshole existence, he and many others in the film seem so wrapped up in dogma and principle that they utterly fail when it comes to anything, anything in the realm of the practical (case and point: his sex life).
When Levi introduces himself and tells Haggard that he likes to preach, Haggard seems to feel threatened. By a child. "Is it your content, or is it because you're a kid?" he asks Levi on his appeal. When Levi says he doesn't know, Haggard says, "Yeah." It's almost as though he's such a cockface that he can't help but undermine his organization's objective to create future zealots.
And speaking of that...
...this is what they do to protest abortions. They shut up! How is that going to get the message to anyone? Note to Jesus Campers: people who disagree with you would rather you didn't yammer on and on about converting then and how wonderful you are because of your religion. If you're willfully shutting yourselves up, you're actually rewarding them. And when you reward them, they do more of the desired behavior. In other words: abortions for all!
The fairness exhibited by Ewing and Grady is what inspired me to put together this post in the first place -- it almost feels necessary to point out absurdities that Ewing and Grady don't. For example, in one of the deleted scenes, one of the parents weakly explains that their children aren't forced into practicing religion. Any reality show editing team would have kept this scene in tact and intercut it with imagery like this:
Ewing and Grady prefer to take the high road. It's admirable and really good for discourse, but I wonder just how high the road is. The only anti-gay sentiment we hear in the entire 90 minutes is that now-famous "I think I know what you did last night," spiel from Haggard, which, as usual, doesn't make very much sense anyway. Furthermore, it's soft stuff compared to the, "God hates fags," sloganeering that easily tumbles off the lips of the indignantly ignorant. I wonder how much of that type of stuff Ewing and Grady had to cut to make for a easier viewing experience. Certainly, they cut plenty that would have clearly highlighted the extreme wackiness that this zealotry yields: deleted scenes contain a 42-year-old father talking about volunteering to go fight in Iraq (he says he considers it an "all-expenses paid military trip"), Rachael, another principle character, telling the camera she's endowed with the gift of prophecy and some more demon talk. I understand leaving this out to a point, but I what I don't quite understand is how Ewing and Grady gush about their subjects on the movie's commentary. Yes, interpersonal communication does a lot to sway opinions -- bonding with someone for however brief a time can make you unshakably biased. Still, the point when you tell me that you're endowed with the gift of prophecy is the point when I look start looking at you cockeyed and never stop. And yet, they lavish Rachael with praise, going as far as to call her "so articulate"...
Even though she tends to ramble incoherently. She's young, I don't expect much, but I certainly wouldn't call her articulate or note that she talks like an adult. Although, maybe you get used to hearing nonsense babbled all around you when you're filming at an evangelical camp in North Dakota. Maybe Rachael does talk like an adult, though that's more of a reflection her older counterparts than actual praise for Rachael.
Becky also gets major compliments from Ewing and Grady. During one of her speeches, they call her "skilled."
I tend to disagree. She tells the kids, during that speech that, "The devil goes after the young, those who cannot fend for themselves." An utter lack of self-awareness aside, what she's using primarily here aren't skills, but fear. That isn't a great feat -- in fact, it's totally cheap.
They also compliment Becky for being "contemporary" for using a computer for her presentation.
She's designing in Word, you know? I mean, yeah, she can use a computer, which brings her up to date with thinking society of, what, 20 years ago? Although, to be fair, that's seemingly more progressive than most of her brethren.
The most telling scene that was left out of the film concerns Rachael and her neighbor, who isn't evangelical.
The neighbor, a seemingly friendly and good-natured child, explains that genuine curiosity led her to accompany Rachael and her family to church. The neighbor doesn't have any bad things to say about it -- she merely notes that the repetition gets a bit annoying. This child has not converted, nor does she show any signs of wanting to -- she merely wanted to absorb a culture outside of her own. You can rest assured that none of the evangelical children Jesus Camp follows would do the same thing. They want so badly to be heard that they can't be bothered with listening. I wonder if Ewing and Grady are being kind to subjects who rarely afford the same courtesy.
[I'm tempted to close the comments up front. Religion-based ping-pong tends to result only in sore elbows and sour attitudes. But then, I think not allowing others to say their peace would be hypocritical of me. So be respectful or go away.]