I have a dear friend (we'll call him Brian, though that's not his name) who grew up the son of a Pentacostal minister. He once told me a story about a summer spent at bible camp when he was very young (I don't remember his exact age, but it seems to me he was nine or ten). His dad worked at the camp, and he and his fellow spiritual leaders stirred the kids into furious demonstrations of faith. The kids were encouraged to open themselves up to God, to invite the Holy Spirit to enter them and direct them, to be born again. Children who succumbed to the spirit, who spoke in tongues, who fell to the ground in thrashing spasms of religious devotion, were rewarded with adulation and showered with attention. Kids who seemed especially infused with God's grace, those who regularly demonstrated tounge-speaking and other kinds of spiritual trances were even invited to sermonize to the other children, making them kind of religious rock-stars.
Conversely, the few kids who, as the summer drew to a close, had not fully opened themselves to the spirit -- the kids who did not speak in tongues or collapse into spasms, were treated with mild disdain. They weren't trying hard enough, or weren't honestly inviting Jesus in to their hearts. Even as the ministers spoke of everyone worshipping at his own pace, their subtle disappointment in those whose spiritual development was not violently and publicly demonstrated rubbed off on the kids who had already undergone their transformations, and who, by their nature as kids, were much less interested in concealing their disgust. The "un-enlightened" children were ostracized by their "more Christian" peers. For many it was devastating.
Brian was among those un-enlightened kids. No one was more heartbroken than he. He had not been moved to speak in tongues or writhe with the overwhelming presence of God in his soul. It wasn't because he hadn't tried. Under the disappointed glare of his imperious father, a well-respected spiritual leader and shining beacon of holiness among his spirit-filled peers, Brian tried desperately to open himself to God, to invite Jesus into his heart. His attempts were as earnest as any could be -- his father's approval hinged on Jesus's public embrace, and so far Jesus had shunned him. Brian was filled with self-loathing. He was too honest, too earnest, too naive, to even consider faking it -- to babble meaninglessly and writhe on the ground like the rest of his peers. In his mind, that would be almost worse; certainly if he pretended to be filled with the Holy Spirit, he would never actually be visited by it, since God hated lying, and what lie could be worse that pretending to be saved?
Brian never was saved. He and his father (and mother) butted-heads his entire childhood. He tried for years to invite Jesus to take him over body and soul, but eventually realized it was never going to happen. For a long while, he despised himself as much as he imagined his father (and Jesus) did. As he got older and encountered society beyond his father's church, he found comfort and self-worth in other areas. Eventually, he went off to college (where I met him), got married and had a child. Along the way, he realized that his childhood earnestness about the religious transformation he saw in others but not in himself had been the real problem all along -- if he had only joined the charade, he could have avoided his father's disappointment, and he could have belonged. After all, they were all pretending, even if they didn't realize it -- it was just that no one told him he was allowed to do so as well. He didn't exactly regret not pretending, but he knew it would have made his childhood more bearable.
As I watched the documentary Jesus Camp this weekend, all I could think about was Brian, and the anguish he must have felt as he was left behind by a fanatic society bent on creating an army of soldiers for a vengeful, aggressive God that doesn't exist anywhere but in their own minds.
The "Jesus Camp" in question is a Pentacostal religious summer camp in North Dakota (where I'm from), whose organizers hail from Missouri, called "Kids on Fire Summer Camp." It's as well-put-together as a documentary can be, and, with the exception of a few interjections by radio talk-show host Mike Papantonio (a Christian and frequent critic of the Religious Right movement), it's relatively non-editorial about its subject. Thanks to the wisdom of the filmmakers (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), the film simply shows us what happens at this camp, and lets us draw our own conclusions.
I, of course, reacted with horror at the brainwashing of these children, who, after their indoctrination, are as quick to condemn non-believers to hell as they are to pretend to speak in tongues to gain the approval of their parents and their pastors. I thought growing up Catholic was oppressive, but what I saw in this film was on a whole different scale from what I experienced as a child.
Not everyone will react this way. At several points during the film, the filmmakers show their footage to the head of Kids on Fire, Pastor Becky Fischer, who beams as she watches the children, and is sometimes moved to tears by it. It's clear the people who run the camp want the documentary crew to have total access so they can further spread the word, and they are furiously proud of the army they are creating. People who might react negatively to the footage, in their reasoning, are either liberal devotees of Satan, or simply poor souls who are crying out to be saved by Jesus.
Everyone should see Jesus Camp. Especially if one is concerned about the intertwining of our government with the Religious Right (President Bush is an exalted figure -- a cardboard cut-out of him receives reverent affection), or confused about how people can deny science in favor of mythology (a hint: homeschooling plays no small role), this film will help make the matter clear. To me, the whole thing is engrossing, frightening, and sad. I feel sorry for these kids, as they swoon to the sermon of now-disgraced Reverend Ted Haggard, even if they can't understand why. I'm certain, if any of these people met me, or read anything I've written, they'd pray for me to be saved.
I hope the same for them. I suspect we'll all be disappointed.