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Arts and Entertainment

Film Review: Jesus Camp

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If you’re a goat-raping, baby-eating, George W. Bush-hating heathen like me, Jesus Camp is the horror movie of the year, offering a snapshot of red-state America that's more terrifying than all the Japanese ghosts and blood-and-guts effects wizardry of Hollywood combined -- and it's all the scarier for being real.

Watch as children are transformed into Soldiers of the Lord!
Listen as they are taught unquestioning obedience!
Scream in terror as George W. Bush is idolized as Christ's emissary on earth!

Featuring excellent shooting and spare, compact editing, Jesus Camp is one of the best documentaries of the year. It focuses on youth pastor Becky Fischer, the founder of Kids on Fire, a summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota (where apparently even Christians aren’t immune to irony). This evangelical boot camp "trains up" children in the ways of the Lord, churning out pint-sized soldiers who Fischer hopes will eventually "take back America for Christ."

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The three children featured in the documentary -- Levi, Rachel and Tory -- are all remarkably self-possessed and articulate. Although their fathers are strangely absent from the film, they have close-knit families that are enviable by any standard. And while most kids spend their summer sojourns toasting s'mores or swapping ghost stories, these Jesus campers devote themselves to praying and studying the Bible with a dilligence that's both frightening an impressive. The most riveting scenes in the film occur as these children experience what seem like genuine moments of spiritual ecstasy -- weeping, clasping their hands and begging for forgiveness.

Few cracks in this idyllic Christian veneer, and Jesus Camp doesn't attempt to root them out, skimming over the one child who looks lost and completely unmoved by the rapture around him. All parents force their beliefs on their offspring to some degree, but this child's palpable sense of humiliation highlights the downside of a fervent religious upbringing: the absolutist, you're-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality that leaves little room for emotional or intellectual exploration.

The film's lone voice of dissent is Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, a self-professed Christian who nevertheless defends secularism and takes evangelical Christians to task for co-opting the public and political face of Christianity.* Snippets of Papantonio's on-air commentary, which are peppered throughout the film, serve as a much-needed release valves for viewers while leaving central issues of faith open to debate.

Are the believers in Jesus Camp avidly reinforcing their values or brutally enforcing them? Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are careful never to take a stand, allowing and even encouraging multiple interpretations. In this they have achieved a remarkable feat, deliberately crafting a Rorschach test of a movie that could simultaneously work as a promotional tool for evangelical Christians and a horror flick for godless atheists.

* You'd think avowed Christians might actually heed the Bible a little more, because even the simplest reading of the New Testament finds Jesus Christ heaping most of his scorn NOT on prostitutes, thieves and homosexuals but on the political and religious leaders of the day, warning them, as in this passage from Matthew 23:27, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."

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