children at the Kids on Fire summer camp are intent as they pray over a
cardboard cutout of President George Bush. They raise their hands in
the air and sway, eyes closed, as they join the chant for "righteous
judges". Tears stream down their faces as they are told that they are
"phonies" and "hypocrites" and must wash their hands in bottled water
to drive out the devil.
The documentary film Jesus Camp follows three children at the Kids on
Fire Pentecostal summer camp in the small city of Devil's Lake, North
Burning with a cause ... American children at the Kids on Fire
Pentecostal summer camp pray before chanting for 'righteous judges' in
the documentary film Jesus Camp, which has created a furore in the US.
Photograph: Magnolia Pictures
aged 10, tells the camera why she likes "Christian, heavy metal rock
and roll", rather than Britney Spears. "When I dance", she says, as she
cavorts around her bedroom, "I have to make sure that that's God.
People will notice when I'm just dancing for the flesh."
over a year by two New York-based documentary makers, the film has
caused a furore since it opened in the mid-west two weeks ago, setting
evangelical Christians against non-believers, and separating
Pentecostal from non-Pentecostal evangelicals.
After a television news report about the film became a hit on YouTube.com, it attracted media attention across the country and opens in Los Angeles today.
critics say that the often raw approach used by the camp's founder,
Pastor Becky Fischer, as she prepares the children for "war", is too
"scary". Others accuse the documentary makers of distorting Pastor
Camp is "a sarcastic documentary that paints evangelical,
fundamentalist, charismatic, and politically concerned Christians as
very shrill, warlike and dangerous," a critic wrote on the Christian
one point Pastor Fischer equates the preparation she is giving children
with the training of terrorists in the Middle East. "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," she tells the camera. "I want
to see them radically laying down their lives for the gospel, as they
are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine."
comments caught the eye of Talking Heads singer David Byrne, who saw
the film at a festival in Washington in June. "I kept saying to myself,
OK, these are the Christian version of the Madrasas," he wrote on his
blog. "So both sides are pretty much equally sick."
film garnered more publicity when Michael Moore screened it, against
the distributor's wishes, at his Traverse City film festival. One
member of the audience there said after seeing it: "The people in the
film were so bizarre, yet they were so sincere, they were like Leslie
Neilsen in Airplane." The film won the festival's Scariest Movie award.
liberals who look at this should be quaking in their boots," Pastor
Fischer says at one point in the film. She goes on to tell the
children, mostly aged from seven to 12: "This is a sick old world.
Kids, you got to change things. This means war. Are you part of it?"
her sometimes unsympathetic portrayal in Jesus Camp, she helped the
makers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, to promote the film. "They're out
to tell a story and they felt they found it with some of the political
things," she told the Los Angeles Times. "And they're out to show the
most dramatic, exotic, extreme things they found in my ministry, and
I'm not ashamed of those things, but without context, it's really
difficult to defend what you're seeing on the screen."
film-makers say that they set out to examine the two cultures in
contemporary America. "Clearly there are two parallel Americas," they
say on the film's website. "One is a conservative counterculture
comprised of tens of millions of evangelical Christians who feel
engaged in a culture war with what they perceive as immorality and
godless liberalism." But they deny that they deliberately
misrepresented their subjects, or even took sides in the debate.
intentionally made a film that was devoid of a point of view," said the
co-director, Rachel Grady. "We did expect different reactions, but how
stark those differences are has been fascinating. One camp watches it
and want to send their kids to the camp; on the other end there are
people who want to call the cops."
the reaction from some evangelical groups has already harmed the film,
which opened two weeks ago in some midwestern states. The Reverend Ted
Haggard, who runs the 30 million-strong National Association of
Evangelicals and appears in the film, called on his followers to shun
the film. The box-office in the midwest did not meet the distributor's
Rev Haggard said the film was too literal in its presentation of some
of the opinions of Pastor Fischer. "My concern is ... that those on the
far left will use it to reinforce their most negative stereotypes of
Christian believers," he told Christianity Today. The "war talk", he
said, was allegorical. "It doesn't mean we're going to establish a
theocracy and force people to obey what they think is God's law."
Grady said she was disappointed by his reaction. "We're very
disappointed that someone with such clout has rejected the movie. I
think he doesn't like how he comes across in the movie."
Rev Haggard does, however, articulate one of the film-makers' key
points: saying that when evangelicals vote they can determine the
outcome of an election.
really did not know how intertwined the politics was with the
theology," said Ms Grady. "We were surprised at how much they really
dovetail." With the US mid-term elections just over a month away, she
added, "It's playing out before our eyes. There are a lot of contested
seats. They vote. They know the people who have the same position as
Profile: Becky Fischer
Becky Fischer seems to be enjoying her moment of celebrity. "I've
gotten thousands of hits on my website," she told the Los Angeles
Times. "I'm wearing sunglasses in the airports. It's really making me
to the website Pastor Fischer worked in business for 23 years before
taking up a full time ministry. She managed two family enterprises, a
motel and an FM radio station, for 10 years and then owned a custom
sign shop and worked part-time as a children's pastor at her local
church in Bismark, North Dakota.
Kids Ministry International states on its website: "We believe that
childhood is the time that God designed for people to receive the
gospel." Amid all the controversy generated by the film, Pastor Fischer
has defended herself. "Excuse me," she says in the film, "but we have
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