Last year, documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady gave us The Boys of Baraka, a moving account of a program that took 12- and 13-year-old "at risk" black males out of Baltimore's public schools and enrolled them in an academy in rural Kenya with rigorous disciplinary and academic standards — and no TV. (The school was mostly funded by private donations, with about one-eighth per pupil cost coming from the tax coffers.) So effective was this African boot camp, that after only one year the boys returned to Baltimore as men: strong-minded, self-confident and smart enough to get into the city's most demanding secondary schools.
Ewing and Grady's current film, Jesus Camp, examines the effect of another unusual school on children. This time the kids are white, middle class and from stable homes. And the academy in this case is a vacation bible school, Kids on Fire, located, ironically, in Devil's Lake, ND.
In contrast to the Baltimore inner city youths who did not take quickly to the Spartan regimen of the Baraka School in Africa, the kids entering the campus at Devil's Lake can scarcely contain their enthusiasm. All are from Protestant denominations, all have been "saved" (spiritually born again), many are home-schooled, and some have already begun proselytizing. The first gathering in the camp's assembly hall features an abundance of singing, hand-clapping and cheerful slogans. The kids clearly are enjoying themselves; they could be at an amusement park or a rock concert.
One of them, Rachael from Missouri, at the age of nine already has definite ideas about church ritual: "I love being in the presence of God. . . God likes to go to places where people are singing and jumping up and down." When the camera follows her family's outing to a bowling alley, we see Rachael handing out tracts to strangers and explaining, "God is telling me that He wants you to have Him in your life."
Another kid, Levi, 12, says he was saved at the age of five. He has preached at his family's church and dreams of becoming a "mega-church" pastor.
A third camper, Tory, 10, is an aspiring dancer who loves "Christian heavy metal music" and scorns Britney Spears because of her emphasis on "the flesh."
The only discord that the filmmakers can find happens one night when a counselor cautions some of the boys against telling scary stories: "Jesus would want you to think positive thoughts."
The camp's founder, Becky Fischer, as a Pentecostal minister, puts great emphasis on outward signs of spiritual experience. At one camp gathering she announces, "Now we are going to speak in tongues," which prompts some in the congregation to begin uttering either gibberish (as skeptics would hold), or (as the faithful would have it) a language inspired by the Holy Spirit that the speaker himself does not understand.
Coaching others to join in, Becky says, "If you don't open your mouth, the Holy Spirit cannot enter you," and soon the assembly hall is buzzing. Whether one interprets this as follow-the-leader, crowd hysteria, or evidence of a gift from God, the scene is genuinely moving. The children shake with emotion, tears gush forth, some kids collapse on the floor.
None of this would be terribly controversial outside theological circles if not for the political element in the Kids on Fire curriculum. While Becky flatly denies pursuing any political agenda, she also says, "I want to see children as ready to lay down their lives for Christianity as they are for Islam," and refers to her charges as the "Army of God." In one of her sermons she issues a call to action: "This means war!" Indeed, at times her summer camp looks less like a religious school than the training ground for a children's militia.
Take, for example, the ceremony where boys with grim, camouflage-painted faces and girls in black ninja outfits twirl quarterstaffs to the accompaniment of bombastic music.
There is also the pledging of the Christian Flag:
I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands. One brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and love.
(Whether pledging the Christian Flag carries the same spiritual weight as a prayer is not explained.)
Then comes the rite of the smashing of the cups. A table in front of the pulpit is filled with white coffee mugs, each one bearing the grease-penciled word, "government." The kids are then invited to come forward, pick up a hammer and smash one of the mugs.
Breaking the cups, one of the counselors tells them, "releases the hold that the Devil has on us."
We gather this mug-smashing is not directed at the present administration in Washington, for in the next scene a life-sized photo cut-out of Dubya is placed onstage and the children are invited to bless him and "lay the Spirit over him." The kids shuffle reverently towards the Decider's cardboard facsimile and, one by one, kneel, extend a hand of blessing, and move their lips in prayer.
All of this makes for fascinating viewing — especially since none of the participants show the least concern for or even awareness of the documentarians' presence.
The trouble is that Ewing and Grady don't trust their audience to draw the right conclusions on their own — as they did in The Boys of Baraka. So the footage inside the Kids on Fire camp and the children's homes is interspersed with commentary by Air American talk show host Mike Papantonio, who uses his on-screen time to serve up such warmed over platitudes as "the entanglement of politics and religion" and a "witch's brew that will destroy democracy."
Even if one shares Papantonio's judgments, his presence is a jarring intrusion into our tour of an offbeat but fiercely devout community. It is rather like having someone sitting behind you in a movie theater remarking on every turn of the plot and predicting the outcome. The difference here being we can't move away from this annoying Air America guy.
Of course, it should be pointed out that America's past is loaded with examples of churches serving causes that modern liberals hold dear: the abolitionist clergy who supported Lincoln's invasion of the South and the many churches that were directly involved in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. The current leftist outrage against undue Christian influence on national affairs is a spectacular example of special pleading.
In 2005, Ewing and Grady released a film that made a superb case for private education. This year, they appear to be making the opposite argument.
October 11, 2006