Jesus Boot Camp
Petrakis, John, The Christian Century
I MADE A weekend visit to an Amish community in northern Indiana just days after the funerals of the Amish schoolgirls shot in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse. I happened to pass a schoolyard outside a one-room schoolhouse where a dozen or so Amish children were playing and staring out through the fence. It gave me chills.
I had chills of a different sort watching Jesus Camp, a documentary by the directing team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who last year produced the inspiring and frightening The Boys of Baraka. That award-winning documentary concerned a group of troubled black youths from a Baltimore ghetto who were given the opportunity to go to school for four years in Kenya. The inspiring part was witnessing the boys start to morph into stable young men. The frightening part was seeing how, when the program was canceled after the first year, many of the boys quickly slipped back into their old, hopeless ways.
Jesus Camp is also about children who are tested in a trying environment, but very little of it is inspiring and most of it is more than a little frightening. In its broadest sense, the film is about how some conservative Christians try to shape the psyches of the young. The main figure is Becky Fischer, an energetic Pentecostal pastor who loves winning over developing minds via colorful language concerning heaven and hell, a challenging message of us versus them, and an ominous line about the road to salvation being narrow indeed. Anyone who isn't born again, even fellow Christians, Fischer explains, can pretty much expect to spend eternity on the spit.
After a hallelujah-filled first act where we meet Becky and her flock, which includes Levi, 12, Tory, 10, and Rachel, 9, we watch Becky prepare for her "Kids on Fire" summer camp in North Dakota. Besides offering some normal camp activities, the two-week session features fire-and-brimstone speeches intended to scare the bejeezus out of most of the kids (tears flow freely) while pumping up the select few who will prove to be the movement's future flag-bearers. …