Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Jesus Camp

About a month ago, Krista and I happened to be watching late night TV (something we very rarely do), and came across George Stromboulopoulos' The Hour, one of the most worthwhile programs on the good ole' CBC.The main feature of this particular episode was the documentary film Jesus Camp, and the film's Directors were George's guests.

I have to say that I am still processing many of the questions and issues raised by this fascinating film. Originally the documentary was geared more towards understanding the spirituality of children in this particular Charismatic stream of U.S. Christianity (characterized by Pastor Becky Fischer's "Jesus Camps.) Then, as filming progressed, the significant political themes came more and more into the forefront.

After reflecting on it, I don't think I would recommend Jesus Camp to anyone with major baggage or axes to grind about their Evangelical upbringing. For those, I suspect the film would only stir up very painful emotions. For others (and I include myself in this lot) who have any kind of positive regard or appreciation for the Pentecostal tradition, and the relationship of religion to public life, I would wholewheartedly suggest that you see this film. It follows Pastor Becky's ministry, as well as the lives of three children: Levi, Rachel, and Tori - all who attend Jesus Camp. These kids are bright, serious, articulate, and 100% committed to following Christ according to the teachings they have learned. One of the main emphases of these types of camps is intensive teaching/preaching geared towards young children, and their full involvement in the life and ministry of the Church.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the film relates to the highly emotional nature of Pentecostalism/Charismatic Christianity. There are many scenes of children weeping, speaking in tongues, and experiencing various spiritual phenomena typical to the Charismatic movement. For various viewers (both secular and non-Charismatic Christian), this type of thing may be disturbing. I have to admit that while I was aware of this kind of thing going on, and come from an Evangelical background myself, it was still at times shocking to see. There was one charming scene where a tiny girl (maybe three or four) brings around a Kleenex box for one particulary moved young boy wracked with sobs. I'll admit I have a deep respect for the seriousness and focus of these "true believers." On the other hand, I am somewhat suspicious that this can easily degrade into the basest form of spiritual manipulation. One of my former colleagues at the Nazarene University College told me one time that he thought Pentecostalism had only a 'theology of speaking,' and no 'theology of listening' or quiet.

So perhaps what we might need is a new St. Gregory Palamas to rise up in our day, to remind us that perhaps true Christianity has more to do sometimes with listening than with speaking.


Blogger Jessica said...

James and I had been meaning to put a review of this on our blog, but you beat us!

I found this movie fascinating. On one hand, it did bring up some negative memories of my childhood, and I certainly found some parts very disturbing. I especially did not appreciate the pro-life meeting where they had models of fetuses that were suspiciously advanced looking for the number of weeks’ gestation they claimed to be. (Be pro-life, but be honest.) On the other hand, I did appreciate the earnestness of the parents and of the children – I hope that I will raise my children to be as serious about their faith.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

I wonder if I'll ever watch the movie. More often than not, I find exposes like this sad.

Isn't one of your priests a former Pentecostal?

A good friend of mine, who is a very devoted Christian, grew up in and still attends a heated-up Pentecostal assembly. I find it vexing how I can listen to him or his pastor preach and can witness at one moment deep faith and at the next raunch heresy.

Outside of his Church my only personal experience with charismatic spirituality was in a small prayer group with 5 young men. Again, they were devoted, but the whole thing stank of incubation.

Perhaps I don't have enough of a theology of speaking?

Jessica, your post reminds me of Fr. Richard Neuhaus. He mentioned his dislike of people looking at the image of a very young fetus and saying, "it doesn't look human". His reply, "of course it looks human, it is human, that is what a human looks like at that stage." If we often look at a fetus and find it difficult to appreciate what it truly is, perhaps a little artistic license, to help us along, is warranted.

10:47 PM  
Blogger James said...

Very well put, Matt.

When the kids broke into a chant of "Righteous judges!", I had to think, did they sign up for this? It seemed to be a manipulation, as you say, of their commitment and earnestness.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Thank you to both of you for your comments. Jessica... Krista and I, too, were strangely 'inspired' by the 'whole-life' faith you see in these families. While I would not necessarily emulate their style, there is something really pure there.

Yes, Fr. Larry was formerly a Pentecostal minister. I think that perhaps Pentecostals/Charismatics would actually understand better than some Orthodox what St. Symeon the New Theologian or St. Seraphim of Sarov were living and teaching.

Regarding your comment, Eric, on 'raunch heresy,' I'm reminded of Fr. Alexander Schmemann's observation that Protestants are tempted by (and thus have a tendency toward) heresy while Orthodox are simply tempted with outright evil. I'm not sure what Catholics are tempted with... power, perhaps? Anyway, the point is that we all have our besetting sins. And sometimes the greatest strengths of a community is also its Achilles heal. All of us, I think are also tempted with pride. One of the girls in the movie, Rachel, has this scene where she proudly states that "God is not in every church," and then goes on to describe how God prefers churches with loud and exhuberent worship. Clearly, I found this cringeworthy, not just for the opinion, but because it seems to be clearly parroted from something maybe her parents have said.

Apparently the turning point in
"Jesus Camp" where the directors decided to shift the film's focus from focusing on this type of spirituality amongst children, generally, to emphasizing the political dimensions took place after the filming of the "righteous judges" scene (the pro-life meeting with the models). This actually took place a few weeks BEFORE the resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor. Then, as I understand it, her resignation was placed at the beginning of the film to set the political stage from the beginning.

If you look at the political intention of the "Jesus Camp" folk as being the overturning of Roe v. Wade, then this is actually a pretty decisive moment for them... and you could see how it would totally be seen as an answer to prayer.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

I do wonder who started the "righteous judges" chant. Was it Pastor Becky or Tori?

8:00 AM  
Blogger cyrilla said...

Haven't seen or heard of this until today but it sounds interesting. i can sure appreciate your comments even without seeing it.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

I see your point. Of course, I have a high view of the Church, a higher view than of most Christians of whatever stripe. Being tempted by evil, power, etc., this turns on the besetting sin of the sinner. It doesn't say so much about the Orthodox or the Catholic communion other than reflecting its human component and its weakness in the face of the passions. But, falling again and again into this heresy and that heresy, this is symptomatic of a sickness affecting a bigger body than the individual. And it's related to the exclusion that happens at the Eucharist, to truth and upright belief. We all have achilles heels; some of us have broken ankles.

That being said, we all have a lot to learn from each other, and I am happy for the emerging charismatic movement in the Catholic Church.

Oh, and if I had to name an achilles heel of the Catholic Church, I would say it is clericalism. The Orthodox, cultural centrism (with the exception of the OCA).

7:41 PM  
Blogger Simply Victoria said...

I have this film on my ziplist. It has yet to arrive. I was hesitant to rent it, for the very reasons you state, matthew (baggage, axes to grind, and the like), but I think that my baggage may never go away, though I have put the axe to rest. I have so many good good memories of my youth in the Pentecostal church. There were so many genuine and Godly people He sent my way to guide me and hold me up when my own family was unable to, and for this I will be eternally grateful.
It was only as I grew older that I came to realize the many dysfunctional aspects just beneath the thin veneer of happy, spiritual frenzy (the more frenzy, the more spiritual).
I used to be uneasy about 'proselytizing' believers of other denominations, but I'm not anymore. It's shows like this, and a show called "Heretics" on this american life that helped convince me that everyone needs the true church.
This is a truly unhealthy kind of fundamentalism.

5:49 PM  
Blogger thomasw said...

I come from outside this type of christian heterodoxy. This seems utterly whackO, with a capital O for Outlandish. I laugh at it; but I do feel great pity for the needy folks who convince themselves to go along with it. Sadly that second part is not true.

3:40 PM  

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