Camp Fires

The incendiary documentary `Jesus Camp' reflects a nation's political and religious divide

October 05, 2006|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

"Fight the good fight of faith."

--1 Timothy 6:12

She mounts the stage in a theater full of kids, some as young as 6, and holds up a cuddly, stuffed baby lion for all to see. Becky Fischer, pastor in the Kids in Ministry evangelical church, tells her doe-eyed listeners that sin -- when it first tempts us as children -- can seem as sweet and harmless as the toy cub in her hand.

"It looks kind of cute, in fact," she coos, pressing it to her cheek. "Warm and fuzzy."

Then her tone sharpens, her eyes narrow, and Fischer -- the charismatic central figure in the controversial new documentary film Jesus Camp, which opens at the Charles Theatre tomorrow -- swings the lion over her head as an Olympic athlete might throw a hammer. "But sin is designed to destroy you," she says, her voice rising along with the centrifugal force. "Feed this [animal] long enough, [and] he's gonna grow in your life until you've got yourself a tiger by the tail!"

It's not the most incendiary moment in Jesus Camp, the latest work by co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, creators of last year's award-winning Boys of Baraka. That distinction might go to scenes making headlines in the press. In those, preteen Bible campers sob, smash crockery, speak in tongues, dance in warlike camo makeup and raise their hands in prayer toward a life-sized cutout of President Bush -- all at the urging of grown-ups.

But as cinema and as preaching, it's one of the more effective, taking on bit by bit a problematic subject: the inward struggle of Christian believers to "remain righteous before God," as Fischer puts it. At this strange moment in American history, a struggle against sin is as basic to one-half of the country as it is mysterious to the other.

Say what you will about Fischer -- and viewers of Jesus Camp have said plenty -- she has a startling knack for making the invisible real. That's useful for a woman who, like thousands of American preachers, is trying to revive a national faith she says has too long been jeopardized by the secular left.

"We're in a spiritual battle," she said in a telephone interview last week as the film was set to open nationwide. "It's the precepts and the values of the Bible against what goes on in this [fallen] world. We have to tell the kids the truth."

The directors' job is similar. They follow Fischer and three of her young disciples at a summer Bible camp in North Dakota, but their real mission is to evoke the unseen: two warring faith systems -- one religious/conservative, the other secular/progressive -- each as sure of itself as it is hostile toward the other.

There's something seductive about roads. The early frames of Jesus Camp place viewers in a moving car, scenes of rural America -- green fields, sporadic traffic, highway billboards -- rushing past the window. The soundtrack is a talk-radio station, an evangelist's voice audible through crackling static.

"We dare not sleep through this point of decision," he says. "Frankly, future generations depend on us."

In last year's Boys of Baraka, Ewing and Grady traced the lives of four city kids who left their home turf -- Baltimore and its troubled schools -- for a chance at a better education elsewhere (Kenya's experimental Baraka School). In Jesus Camp, they take us to the heartland, introducing us to Missouri children being raised in fundamentalist Christian homes.

Levi, 12, Tory, 10, and Rachael, 9, travel to Fischer's Kids On Fire summer camp in North Dakota for further immersion in their faith. Some of the movie's best scenes show us the kids' daily lives, which, in many ways, are endearingly normal. Levi, with his mullet, gazes at TV. Tory, a talented dancer, listens to music and argues with her mom. Rachael enjoys stuffed animals and bowling.

But Levi, already a preacher, confides he was "saved" at age 5, when he realized there must be "more to life." Tory tells herself to remember to dance for the glory of God, not "the flesh." Rachael approaches a grown-up stranger to tell her "God has a plan for you."

Good documentaries use the familiar to share the new, and Ewing and Grady, New Yorkers, set out to give one-half of America a good look at the other. The camp at the movie's center "is a riveting example of a world many Americans either do not understand or dismiss as `fringe' and irrelevant to their own lives," says a joint statement on their Web site.

But in the year they spent traveling to the heartland, getting to know the kids and their families, they came to believe that the world to which the kids and Fischer belonged -- that of America's fundamentalist Christians -- was neither fringe nor irrelevant.

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