Not Your Everyday Christian Kids
Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow a small group of children to Pastor Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire” summer camp where kids are taught a worldview quite different from the one that most, and I do mean most, Americans are familiar with.
Every subculture has its own pretense. We all come into this world with a self-centered worldview. We filter everything we see through that self-aggrandizing lens. Fischer’s worldview is a Christian one. She believes that she has a lock on the plans of God. But perhaps hers is not a worldview so much as it is practicum.
The makers of Jesus Camp presume that the “evangelicals” who are their subjects are wrong about their beliefs. Sure, they are ignorant and weird. Mike Papantonio of Air America, a Christian himself, voices the dismay many may feel toward these folks. They are dangerous! A political powerhouse that intends to take over America! This point of view illustrates how one culture can completely misunderstand another.
Becky Fischer, founder of “Kids on Fire,” is a Christian woman who seems to have given her life to helping children understand their place in God’s Kingdom. She has an over-abundance of zeal and an underwhelming amount of theological training. She lives in a very self-absorbed world of exaggerated symbolism, endorsing an ultra-conservative liberation theology that has morphed into a sort of Christianized practical atheism.
Her theology is weak. Her knowledge of God and His plans are limited by her own perspectives, hyper theodicy, and self-interest. She sees something wrong with the world and concludes it must be due to the devil. “God has given us special power in the universe based on our standing in his hierarchy so we can act on his behalf,” she says. It is an excuse to be quixotic and introverted in a flashy way. No, there certainly couldn’t be anything wrong with us!
The consequence of such introspection and sequestered theology is a private lingo meaningful only to the initiated. Yes, God still loves the campers; but they are destined to speak an irrelevant language and be of little impact in God’s real plan.
Both the filmmakers and Papantonio are shocked at the things these people say. The campers consider themselves warriors, commanders of spiritual powers, and so on. This militant language scares both the irreligious and the intellectual Christian. Yet these people are likely harmless. They are merely given to what I call metaphoria—understanding the world through a heightened sense of metaphor. Listening to them reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Picard and company come across a race of people who speak only in metaphor. The crew of The Enterprise cannot decipher the conversation until they learn the history and mythology of these aliens.
Yes, Fischer and company employ warlike speech, but none of them advocate overthrowing the government. Instead, they spend a lot of time praying for government leaders. The filmmakers try to tie these prayers into some sort of pact with George W. Bush. But they might be shocked to learn how much the Church also prayed for Bill Clinton when he was President. Sincere prayer for government leaders brings about compassion and empathy, not militaristic conquest.
To the extent that Jesus Camp captures the mindset of Fischer and friends, it succeeds. But unfortunately, none of us can see beyond our own noses. Ewing and Grady view these people as enemies, not as aliens whom they do not yet understand. Even “open-mindedness” is tacitly a resistance to the most obvious truths.
And I’m no exception. I also left the film with an attitude that early missionaries often exhibited. “I know the truth, and these people are whacked out. I need to save them. Who but I can do it?” Only, I lack the zeal to do much about that conviction. Is apathy a virtue? But my attitude is the same. I think I know better and therefore can pass judgment on their culture.
But I am uncomfortable with this film’s form of proclamation. Looking down on these people is the result of an arrogant, self-centered worldview that is just as bent on conversion, just as evangelical. And the filmmaker’s second big mistake is lumping this group of fringe Pentecostals into the general population of evangelical Christians.
This film leaves the impression that the ‘campers’ are the norm, or at least a growing storm. But mark my words, these kids will do one of three things. They will either fall away from this unreality of sectarian truth, they will completely rebel, or they will become more reasonable believers.
I do recommend seeing this film, though. If you are a Christian it will make you think about your faith and your witness.
If you are not a Christian, it will probably leave you scratching your head in wonderment. Chances are, you haven’t seen any aliens like these campers before. Grant them the same courtesy you would any others.
Jesus Camp is rated PG-13 for “some discussions of mature subject matter.” That’s wise enough. Still, that shouldn’t scare parents away. This is just a film that parents and children ought to watch together, if they’re going to watch it at all.This review originally appeared at HollywoodJesus.com.