Jason Poling was shifting uncomfortably in his seat while watching the new film Jesus Camp, the same way he does while watching the TV mockumentary The Office about a dysfunctional workplace - except the film was real.
Poling, the pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, said he worried about how his neighbors and friends would perceive the film, about a North Dakota camp, that began arriving in theaters last week.
"As an evangelical, I'm concerned that people see this as an accurate representation rather than a sliver of evangelicalism ... and see that as normative for everybody," Poling said.
He was among 10 Christian and Jewish religious leaders who discussed the documentary after a screening this week organized by the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, a Baltimore-based organization that promotes interfaith dialogue.
The movie, which opens today at The Charles Theatre, has received critical acclaim at two film festivals but has also been met with derision. National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard, who is featured in the movie, said Jesus Camp bears as much resemblance to evangelicalism as a recent Jack Black comedy does to Roman Catholicism. "You can expect to learn as much about the Catholic Church from Nacho Libre as you can learn about evangelicalism from Jesus Camp," he wrote on the association Web site.
Some of the area religious leaders expressed shock at the world the movie presents.
"It's the most frightening film I've ever seen. It's hard for me to believe we live in the same country," said Rabbi Steven M. Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom in Northwest Baltimore.
He said he doesn't see the attitudes embodied in the film locally. "I live in a tolerant and pluralistic society," he said, although the rabbi said he is starting to notice the influence of conservative religious thought in politics.
Maggi G. Gaines, the executive director of spark: Partnership for Service, a Jewish service-learning organization, said she disagreed with the camp's methods but thought it demonstrated children's hunger for frank, direct discussions about religion.
As a pastor, Poling said he was concerned by the movie's depiction of young children's ecstatic and emotional response to Jesus.
"I don't want to invalidate the possibility that these children are having an authentic experience of engagement with the Holy Spirit," he said. "I'm unwilling to say that kids that young are too young."
However, "if this type of faith experience is held up as normative, then that's going to make people who aren't having that experience feel like they're missing something, when it may simply be that they're wired to respond in a more intellectual way," Poling said.
Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children's minister who leads the Kids on Fire camp in the movie, has received so much vitriol in her e-mail inbox that she posted the answers to 12 commonly asked questions on her Web site. Although she feels the movie offers but a snapshot of her ministry, "I honestly feel it's a fair look into what we do," Fischer wrote on her Web site.
Generally speaking, evangelicals are Protestant Christians who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, that people may be forgiven their sins if they are born again in Jesus and follow the Great Commission, the injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to spread the faith. Pentecostals add a belief in such supernatural phenomena as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues as expressions of the Holy Spirit.
Rabbi Batsheva H. Meiri of Temple Emanuel of Baltimore said she could have empathized with the camp leaders' desire to change the world, but they ignored problems such as hunger and a lack of health care.
Instead, they directed children to pray for the end of abortion and for elected officials.
"What frightened me was, `OK, what do we do with our faith?'" she said.
Rosann M. Catalano, a Roman Catholic scholar at the institute, thought the film felt "evenhanded" and "wonderfully put together." Still, "I felt like it was 180 degrees from anything I knew," she said.
Fink, despite being frightened by the movie, said he went home and told his wife they had to see it. "Unfortunately, due to our ignorance, we don't know enough about the broad panoply" of evangelical religious belief and practice, he said after the discussion. "The movie suggests they are a homogenous group rather than heterogeneous."
Poling praised some elements of the film, such as a lesson in which Fischer compares sin with a "warm and fuzzy" tiger cub that swells into a wild animal people can't control. "This is the nature of any sort of temptation," he said.
"It seems like this woman is having an effective ministry to these kids," he said. "They're experiencing Jesus and growing in their faith. If you strip away some of the political stuff, it's very sound pastoral theology."