Jesus Camp

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Books on the shelf
“Jesus Camp” is a film which has been nominated for an Academy Award, under “Best Documentary Feature.” It will be broadcast on the U.S. cable channel, A&E, on Sunday night. Linda Stasi in the New York Post reviews it, and says, “It’s not anti-Christian. But it’s definitely anti-fanatic.” There’s little question, however, what kind of message Ms. Stasi took from the film.

IMAGINE a place where children paint their faces in camouflage and play warriors for God.

A place where “Harry Potter” is condemned as anti-God warlock worship, and where children lay hands on a cardboard cut-out of the leader of their country to make a spiritual connection.

A place where children are whipped into a religious frenzy nightly until they are in tears and speaking in tongues.

Taliban training camp deep in the mountains of Afghanistan? Close.

Try the “Kids on Fire” Christian summer camp at (I swear!) Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, run by Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer. Yes, folks, this is a camp where Americans send their children for immersion in evangelical Christianity.

I haven’t seen “Jesus Camp,” and, as I don’t pick up the A&E channel from my cave, I don’t expect to see it anytime soon. It’s certainly news to me that a group equivalent to the Taliban is programming children right here in the U.S.A to be suicide bombers, to kill people who follow other religions, to murder homosexuals, to beat women or girls who leave the house uncovered, to … oh, that’s not what they’re doing? Well, I guess the Taliban comparison only goes so far, then.

I realize it’s pretty easy to make fun of the kinds of people who operate and who go to this camp, and who so trustingly allowed these film makers to point cameras in their direction. Christians, as a group, are like any other “group” of millions and indeed billions of people, in that they encompass all types. There are those who are quiet, and those who are gregarious. There are the short and the tall, the thin and the obese. There are geniuses and fools (and some people may be both at the same time). There are those with good taste in music and those who like very, very bad music indeed. By virtue of what kind of people they are, and what kinds of preferences they have, they will express their Christianity, likewise, in different ways. To me — and I’m only going by what I’ve gathered about the “Kids on Fire” summer camp from the likes of Linda Stasi and other reviewers — the choices being made by the people who run the camp and the parents who send their kids there are fundamentally ones that have to do with taste. For instance, I believe that George W. Bush is a decent man doing an incredibly difficult job, and he deserves and needs our prayers, and I would surely see fit to tell my children that. I just wouldn’t utilize a cardboard cut-out of him in the process. But making fun of people for doing so is just that — making fun — unless you can demonstrate some genuine harm that is coming to anybody as a result.

The parents of these kids doubtless see a popular culture that hungrily waits to devour their children and fights against most every precious Christian belief they would like to impart to them, and sending them to this camp for a few weeks is their idea of pushing back at it. Linda Stasi and other mocking observers might see no problem, I suppose, with a culture that pushes mindless materialism, loveless sex, atheistic philosophies of life and so on, and to which the average child is subjected year round, but they have a problem with a few weeks one summer which are spent having their parents’ Christian ideas reinforced. There’s apparently a problem — to refer specifically to what this reviewer cited — with kids being told that abortion is not a good thing, that militant Islam is a growing danger, that the President of the United States needs prayers to do the right thing, and that one should put one’s faith not in the occult but instead in Jesus Christ. Well, I don’t have a problem with any of those things. I surely think it is a parent’s right to communicate their own view of those issues to their children, and it is a question of judgment as to the best way of doing so. I might well not judge that this kind of summer camp is the way to do it, but I’m not going to condemn those who do, let alone compare them to hate-filled murderers like the Taliban.

One thing is sure: the weeks spent at this camp will fade into memory, but the popular culture will persist. TV, peers, school teachers and later college professors — all will play a role in teaching these kids that anything they were told at “Jesus Camp” was hogwash. Most of them will shake it off, and indeed laugh at it, and that will be their right. Some may realize, however, that just because the way they were taught certain things in that camp appears, with hindsight, to have been rather ridiculous, it nonetheless does not follow that what was being taught was without fundamental value or truth.