Je­sus’s lit­tle army

A new doc­u­men­tary ex­plores how chil­dren are be­ing in­doc­tri­nated with dis­turb­ing fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian val­ues at a bizarre sum­mer camp. Di­rec­tor Rachel Grady talks to Stephen Ap­ple­baum

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

THE FRIGHT­EN­ING FACE of Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism is a com­mon­place in the me­dia th­ese days, but a new doc­u­men­tary sug­gests that other kinds of re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism can be equally chill­ing — es­pe­cially when chil­dren are in­volved. Je­sus Camp fo­cuses on a group of bor­na­gain Chris­tian chil­dren who at­tend a Kids on Fire evan­gel­i­cal sum­mer camp at a place called Devils Lake in North Dakota. Un­der the regime of the camp’s for­mi­da­ble founder, Pen­te­costal pas­tor Becky Fis­cher, the chil­dren speak in tongues and weep with ec­stasy as they con­firm their love for Je­sus.

When the film was re­leased in Amer­ica, it pro­voked shock and awe in al­most equal mea­sure. Some peo­ple were hor­ri­fied by its por­trait of a world where chil­dren’s minds are shaped for po­lit­i­cal as well as re­li­gious ends; oth­ers were in­spired by the young evan­gel­i­cals’ ap­par­ent pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion. That there was dis­agree­ment among view­ers was the per­fect re­ac­tion, says Rachel Grady, the Washington DCborn film­maker who di­rected the Os­car-nom­i­nated film with Heidi Ewing.

“I think that Je­sus Camp can speak to many groups and it can give many mes­sages,” she says. “It’s re­ally in the eye of the be­holder. I might have my per­sonal wishes but, frankly, get­ting a rise out of peo­ple and hav­ing this film stick with them was my ob­jec­tive.”

Nei­ther film­maker knew much about the world they were en­ter­ing when they first found out about Fis­cher’s ac­tiv­i­ties, so they had few pre­con­cep­tions. But did be­ing Jewish (Ewing is a lapsed Catholic) make it harder for Grady to be ob­jec­tive?

“I grew up cul­tur­ally Jewish, but in a very sec­u­lar fam­ily, so my re­li­gious up­bring­ing was min­i­mal,” says the 35-year-old film­maker. “I think that just sort of put me in a po­si­tion of be­ing open-minded be­cause I don’t have any hang-ups about any re­li­gion.”

The same can­not be said for some of the peo­ple who ap­pear in the film. At one point, Levi, a 12-year-old would-be preacher, re­veals that his “spirit feels kind of yucky” when­ever he meets a non-Chris­tian. “That was one of the few mo­ments dur­ing the en­tire process where we felt kind of put on the spot,” ad­mits Grady. “It was quite chill­ing, be­cause in that mo­ment you can see the seeds of se­ri­ous in­tol­er­ance tak­ing root.”

To the film­mak­ers’ re­lief, they were never asked about their own be­liefs and po­si­tions. “I don’t know if it’s be­cause every­one they know is a born-again Chris­tian so that’s not a con­ver­sa­tion they have a lot,” says Grady, “but there was a sur­pris­ing lack of cu­rios­ity. We were grate­ful for it, to tell the truth, be­cause we didn’t want to be in a po­si­tion where we were alien­at­ing our sub­jects while we were still film­ing them, be­cause we weren’t go­ing to start ly­ing to them if they asked us the ques­tion.”

Iron­i­cally, if they had been asked about their back­grounds, Grady’s might have been more ac­cept­able to them than Ewing’s. To her sur­prise, there was a strong re­la­tion­ship be­tween the evan­gel­i­cal move­ment and Is­rael. “All the churches have Is­raeli flags and they are very pro-Is­rael,” Grady says. The rea­son is partly scrip­tural: “The Jews need to be re­united in the Promised Land be­fore Je­sus re­turns to Earth,” she ex­plains, “so if that is some­thing that you’re wait­ing around for, you’re go­ing to be an ad­vo­cate for mak­ing sure that the Jews have a place that they can call home.”

There is much in Je­sus Camp that prompts as­ton­ish­ment. At home, Levi watches a video called Cre­ation Ad­ven­ture that claims that the Earth is just 6,000 years old. His mother, who is also his tu­tor — Levi does not at­tend school — tells him: “Cre­ation­ism is the only pos­si­ble an­swer to all the ques­tions,” and that global warm­ing is “not a big prob­lem, re­ally”. Says Grady: “The ques­tion is, what hap­pens when they have the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent re­al­i­ties [as young adults]? Be­cause that’s just the na­ture, ul­ti­mately, of liv­ing in a mul­ti­cul­tural, sec­u­lar so­ci­ety, which is the United States. We’re very cu­ri­ous to see what hap­pens to them, be­cause they’re pretty much put into an in­cu­ba­tor.”

At the sum­mer camp, things are even more bizarre. In the pas­tor’s hands, toys be­come tools for lec­tur­ing her young flock on the dan­gers of sin. Even Harry Pot­ter is a threat. “War­locks are en­e­mies of God,” she bel­lows. “If it had been in the Old Tes­ta­ment, Harry Pot­ter would have been put to death.”

Things­be­comeeven­weird­er­whenawom­a­nen­cour­ages chil­dren to bless a card­board cut-out of Ge­orge W Bush, to give him spir­i­tual strength. “Mr Pres­i­dent, one na­tion un­der God,” they all cry. Later, a pro-life cam­paigner hands out life-sized plas­tic foe­tuses and leads the chil­dren in chants of “Righteous judges”.

The film­mak­ers in­creas­ingly viewed Fis­cher as part of a po­lit­i­cal move­ment, even if she her­self did not. “They just feel that be­ing po­lit­i­cally ac­tive is part of be­ing a good Chris­tian,” says Grady. “They don’t draw th­ese lines.”

Nor do they be­lieve in a sep­a­ra­tion of Church and state. “They be­lieve that the sep­a­ra­tion has been mis­in­ter­preted from the be­gin­ning,” she ex­plains, “and they’re just try­ing to have Amer­ica be re­turned to its nat­u­ral or­der, ac­cord­ing to their view.”

With the US Supreme Court now stacked with con­ser­va­tives, Ewing sug­gests that the re­li­gious right could get Amer­ica’s abor­tion laws over­turned in the next five years. “Even if Ge­orge Bush were to leave of­fice to­mor­row, the Supreme Court is for­ever. Re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives un­der­stand that.”

Their rise, be­lieves Grady, is partly why the film­mak­ers were able to get such good ac­cess to their sub­jects. “I don’t think it’s a co­in­ci­dence that a group of peo­ple that have more po­lit­i­cal clout than they’ve ever had in the his­tory of this coun­try feel some­what em­bold­ened,” she says wryly. “They re­ally feel their prayers are be­ing an­swered, and now’s the time to spread their vi­sion to a sec­u­lar Amer­ica.”

At the end of the film, the charis­matic min­is­ter Ted Hag­gard, who has since been em­broiled in a sex and drugs scan­dal, con­fi­dently claims that evan­gel­i­cals now com­prise a vot­ing cor­pus large enough to de­ter­mine fu­ture elec­tions. “It’s a fab­u­lous life,” he beams.

Hag­gard has good rea­son to be happy. With fewer than 50 per cent of Amer­i­cans vot­ing, “a mi­nor­ity can have an enor­mous amount of in­flu­ence”, ac­cord­ing to Grady. “I would hope that watch­ing Je­sus Camp would make some­one think that vot­ing is the most pow­er­ful thing that they could do. For me, that would be the most pow­er­ful in­flu­ence the film could have.”

A girl ap­proaches an al­most trance-like state in a scene from Je­sus Camp, a film which ex­poses ac­tiv­i­ties at an evan­gel­i­cal chil­dren’s camp

Heidi Ewing ( left) and Rachel Grady, the co-di­rec­tors of the con­tro­ver­sial Je­sus Camp

From top: Evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor Becky Fis­cher; a child at a anti-abor­tion protest; chil­dren at Fis­cher’s Kids on Fire camp bless a cut-out of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush

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