Friday, July 25, 2008

Movie: Jesus Camp

I'm about two years late seeing this, but hey, better late than never.

I think I watched it differently from the way most of my fellow liberals did. It's easy to view this, shake our heads, and say "man, the political agenda of the Right is ruthless both in ideology and in tactics." And I certainly did that.

But I mostly viewed this as a film about parenting. The parents aren't in the movie much. But the kids...well, they were something else. The film primarily focuses on Levi and Rachael, and these are kids with incredible gifts. They're about 9 years old, and they're affable, sweet, smart, eager to please, gregarious, and adventurous. There isn't a thing these kids can't eventually develop into. But their presence at the uber-conservative-Christian camp in North Dakota shows that they're not going to get any real chances to explore on their own. The scene that shows Levi's mom homeschooling him in "science" is, I believe, an incredibly harsh indictment of home schooling.

More than once, their parents and the head of the camp used the word "train" to say what they were called to do with their children. That's sure as hell not what happened to me or my siblings, and it won't happen with my children. It supposes that kids are to be made into little versions of us. They're not. But beyond that, these kids, with more potential than the average kid, are being taught not to be intellectually curious. Passing on one's religious beliefs (with the possibility in mind that the kids may want to go another route later) is just fine by me. But if you view a kid as something to be trained (like a seal), you're harming that kid with your very world view.

If my kid grows up to have opposite views as mine on big issues to me (like abortion or capital punishment or pre-emptive war), I won't feel I have failed him/her as long as he/she can back up those views. I'll passionately disagree, but I won't have failed.

I developed incredible affection for Rachael and Levi, and I felt horrible that they were being taught what they needed to think--and the corollary to that, which is that intellectual curiosity is a sin.

The third kid, Tory, isn't in the movie nearly as much. She was going through a really tough time. Her dad had been deployed to Iraq recently, and any kid in that position would be legitimately stressed and want to turn to something solid. There's nothing wrong with turning to God for comfort in such situations (I certainly would). I noticed that Tory cried a lot more than the other kids, and I got the sense that it was because she was less certain of herself/the world/maybe even God than Levi or Rachael, in seemingly more stable situations with both parents present, were. I can't help but wonder, as 10-year-old Tory prays for God's angels to protect her dad as he does his job helping the children of Iraq, whether she might feel that God's "perfect plan," as it's referred to by adults in the movie, might not seem so damn perfect to her. That's why it's called "faith" in God's plan rather than "knowledge," of course...we have to believe in what we can't see, and Tory sure can't see God's perfection here. But there's no way that the role models around her, including her parents, would allow for such an expression of faith. Nuance is heresy to fundamentalists.

Anyway, my heart went out to Tory. I hope her Dad is home safely by now, and I'll say a little prayer that she isn't crying so much--and that, as she approachesh er teen years, she can somehow find and express religious and political perspectives that reflect her own heart and soul rather than someone else's.

There were kids who appeared to be younger than 6 at these camps--and they, along with the older kids, were being told about their sinfulness for what felt like a very long time. I don't think it's okay to make a child cry in shame and fear when they can't have done anything worse than teased a classmate or maybe ripped a toy out of a neighbor kid's hands. Any parent who would let their kids endure a week of such treatment...well, they're different from me.

But I won't soon forget one scene where a kid--maybe 4 or 5--handed a box of tissues to a boy who was crying on the ground, seemingly from shame over is own sinfulness. That was the most Christlike action I saw in the whole movie, and unlike just about every other action I saw a child take, it didn't appear to be coached or inspired by an adult.

The bleak outlook for liberal America that the film seems to posit may not be coming to pass, however, so I didn't take as pessimistic a message from the film tonight as I would have back in '06 when it came out. The Christian Left, I believe, has arrived. This article cites a poll which says that Obama has the vote of 30% of white evangelical Christians, compared to McCain's 64%. Compare this to 2004, when Bush won 78% of the white evangelical vote. That's a significant change. Factor in Black evangelicals, and I bet the gap is even closer. I think the pendulum is moving away from the Christian Right in a big way.

But, like I said, I didn't view this movie through a political lens so much as through a parenting lens. It's about the value of letting kids be the best possible versions of themselves, and what it looks like when, instead of that, parents try to "train" them.

I'd be curious to see if anyone else who's seen the movie thought something similar.

By the way, as per my earlier question, this one is not at all "op-ed." It's "documentary" all the way.


Alison said...

I have been wanting to see this for a while, although one side-effect of having a small child in the house has been that we see a lot fewer movies. I am curious how this comes down on the documentary side rather than the op-ed side. Perhaps I am a little bit cynical, but as far as I can tell, ALL documentaries have a stance. Some (ie, anything with Michael Moore, for instance) just make that more clear than others.

Oh, and you write, 'The scene that shows Levi's mom homeschooling him in "science" is, I believe, an incredibly harsh indictment of home schooling.' You might want to insert the word "some" in there. Not all home schooling is even religiously based, much less anti-science.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Point taken about home schooling--I should have said "some." Still, the movie gave a stat that 75% of home schooled kids are evangelical Christians. So it's certainly the rule, if not a full-on rule.

Re: op/ed...I think that an evangelical could watch this film and swell with pride. It simply showed what happened. I know the filmmaker makes choices, but this looked to me to be a case of what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

Alison said...

I guess the passage that struck me in your review was this:

"That was the most Christlike action I saw in the whole movie, and unlike just about every other action I saw a child take, it didn't appear to be coached or inspired by an adult."

The important phrases here are "I saw" and "appear to be." For all we know, there were many such acts of kindness, coached or inspired by adults. This act could have been so inspired. It sounds to me (again, having not yet seen the film) that the uniqueness of this scene was a matter of directorial choice and may or may not reflect reality. Thr same can be said of the inclusion of every other scene you saw, and the exclusion of every event you didn't see.

BTW, re: training, I totally agree with you. As you start down the path of parenthood, though, you will be amazed (and possibly appalled, as I was) at how much of mainstream parenting literature is couched in exactly those terms.

TeacherRefPoet said...

This means, however, that by your criteria, -no- movie can qualify as documentary and -all- movies are either reality or op-ed. It's a truism--every director chooses which scenes to include and which to exclude, and they each have reasons which might have an agenda, either conscious or subconscious, behind it.

Does that make sense? What would a film have to do to cross from op-ed to documentary in your eyes?

Joe said...

I think my point, in initially suggesting the category, was that I expect the op-ed genre of filmmaking to have its own recognizable tropes. There should be elements of style in op-ed filmmaking which are rarely seen in "how it happened" documentary. My interest in the term is taxonomic - I think it would be a useful thing to give a name.

That said, there's a serious issue of the director's voice and viewpoint in "how it happened" documentary, and we forget it at our peril. Maybe all of them ought to begin with a card saying "All this happened, more or less."

tommyspoon said...

I saw this when it came out, and I also viewed it through a "parental" lens. But what the film did for me was to reinforce a long-held belief of mine that religion should be kept out of children's hands. Just like voting and alcohol, religion should come with an age limit.

Children are not equipped to deal with the large questions that are wrapped up in religion. Sometimes, when adults try to enmesh religion in the lives of their children, you get "Jesus Camp", which is an indoctrination factory.

That kid bawling on the ground? That's abuse. Those adults should be locked up for what they did to those children. This isn't "training". This is brainwashing.

I hope to be a parent someday. I would never ever submit my child to something like this. Even if it meant guaranteed entry into heaven.

TeacherRefPoet said...


I agree with your interpretation of the movie--this is cruelty of the highest order. But your "solution"--to ban all religion from all children--is way, way over the line.

Do we keep kids from Christmas celebrations? Caroling? Seders? Marriage ceremonies? Do we eliminate child baptisms? Since this would apply to all religions, do we ban kids from traditional Native American ceremonies?

Your suggestion that kids might not be able to handle The Big Questions may well be true. But what if a grandparent dies? A pet? What if there's a divorce in the kid's life? They're going to be faced with these questions pretty damn quickly no matter how much you want to shelter and protect them. Plus, kids certainly wonder about where we all came from and what the purpose of life is before they can drive. I know I did, and I was glad I had access to religion as one answer. Even as a kid, I believed most of what Catholicism taught, rejected some, and here I am today, Christian but not Catholic.

Telling these kids that there's a God (or, for that matter, gods) who made the world and who loves them doesn't damage a child. Indeed, even in the movie, I get the sense that a sense of a loving God is one of the few things holding Tory together in a stressful time.

Religion can be a comfort to kids. It is one way (albeit not the only one) to instill a sense of wonder and a sense of self-worth. Plus, kids' involvement in religion gives them some knowledge about it for when they're old enough to decide for themselves.

I am every bit as disgusted by what I saw in that movie as you were...probably more so, since it's more personal to me when Jesus' teachings are used as a tool of abuse. But your "solution" is extremist. It is based on the assumption that ALL religion winds up making kids weep on the floor. It doesn't, and you shouldn't make rash decisions based on a stereotype.

Alison said...

Again, haven't seen the movie, so I am trying to make sure I understand what everyone saw:

Did y'all see what caused the kid to be crying on the ground, or was that a presumption based on the behavior you saw at other points in the film? And how old was this child?

TeacherRefPoet said...

Kid was 9 or 10. We first see him talking to the entire camp about how many ways he has come up short...not reading the Bible enough, doubting parts of it, etc. Kids are basically being told that they're bad and stuck in a sick world, and only God can save them. But there's minimal if any emphasis on grace or forgiveness.

It's a little bit later that we see the kid crying on the floor. Many kids were crying, perhaps from being emotionally overwhelmed in an incredibly intense atmosphere, perhaps from being told that they're essentially bad.

tommyspoon said...

I'm not offering policy, TRP, just opinion.

And I guess I haven't gotten over being kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions... ;-)

TeacherRefPoet said...

Whether it's policy or opinion, you'll want to think this through better. Your argument for keeping religion away from kids, "they're not old enough to handle it yet," is identical to arguments made against sex education, which we both support.
The argument is wrong in both cases, and for the same reasons.

And we haven't even addressed First Amendment issues...

I'd also argue that your getting thrown out of Sunday School was good for your personality in all kinds of ways. If you'd been denied religious exposure, you wouldn't have had that critical growing experience.

(My big sister was thrown out of CCD one week for saying that a stupid thing the teacher said was stupid. You're in good company.)

Knowledge=good. Forced ignorance=bad.

tommyspoon said...

I consider that one of the cornerstones of my personality, actually. ;-)

I dunno. i am certainly not in favor of limiting kids' access to knowledge and new experiences, but places like Jesus Camp get a free pass and I am certainly not in favor of that, either.

From my perspective, it's all indoctrination: CCD, Sunday School, Torah instruction, all of it. And I've seen many an adult turn their back upon their religious upbringing because of the indoctrination they underwent as a kid. So, for my money, it backfires almost half the time.

I'm sorry I don't have any solutions, TRP, but I do have plenty of complaints. I'll let folks smarter than me get to the solutions.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Just remember that telling kids "Church is indoctrination" is a form of indoctrination...probably. Your definition creates a no-win situation for everyone. I can't tell the difference between teaching and indoctrination when you talk. Jesus Camp=indoctrination, I agree. But sitting in my neighbor's house listening to her talk about Jesus and relate Bible stories? Saying what we as Catholics believe? Is that? the Catholic church, we have the right to not be confirmed (at 14) if we choose. Not all of my parents' kids did.

What's the line between teaching and indoctrination for you? How do we know it's been crossed? You'll indoctrinate your kids to be football fans, right? And I'll indoctrinate mine to like music?

What's the border here?

tommyspoon said...

Choice, maybe?

You're right: a child or a person can be indoctrinated into anything. If, after all of the "indoctrinating", the person was offered the choice to believe it or not, then that stays away from the indoctrination side.

I also think that organizations tend to indoctrinate while individuals tend to instruct/teach/illuminate. I think you need that institutional weight behind any effort to indoctrinate. Teaching your child to love music/football/ballroom dancing/caligraphy doesn't quite count as indoctrination in my book. Anything can be taken to extremes, naturally (just look at the pictures of 5 year olds in Klan garb).

Eema-le said...

I was also really drawn to Levi. He is an obviously bright kid, articulate, and just plain sweet. I felt so sorry for him, that he would never be able to develope intellectually, to explore the world, to think for himself. Seeing all of those kids crying, speaking in tongues, and thinking that they were horrible sinners, made me physically ill. I can't imagine raising my daughter to believe that she is inherently evil

BTW I plan on homeschooling. Religion has nothing to do with it, and I certainly will not be teaching science the way Levi's mom did.