by Emily Fuller
In the film Jesus Camp the filmmakers Heidi Grady and Rachel Ewing have managed to successfully present an unbiased, even-handed view, in a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style. The subjects of the film are allowed to speak for themselves, without judgement or even narration. It is interesting however that, despite the lack of bias in the presentation, the film stirs up very strong emotions in the viewer. These emotions may be positive or negative – dependant largely on the religious background of the viewer.
The film follows the children of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians at the ‘Kids on Fire’ summer camp which is held at Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. The idea of children at a summer camp would typically bring to mind images of swimming in the lake, roasting marshmallows on the fire, and ghost stories in the cabin at night. But ghost stories are banned at this camp.
Unlike your typical summer camp, this one presents some very confronting scenes. Towards the end of the movie, for example, a guest speaker is brought in to preach to the children about the evils of abortion. Children as young as six are present as he tells them about the many friends they could have had who were never allowed life. The children, many crying and sobbing, then line up to have red tape placed over their mouths with the word ‘LIFE’ printed across it and jump around in a group as they cry out to God and to Satan to save these unborn babies. This scene may be accepted, and even commended, by those who have been present at this type of event before, but for others it is very confronting.
Another confronting, and almost frightening, aspect of the film is the portrayal of these young children as ‘warriors’. The language of the children, parents and camp leaders constantly brings to mind images of the children as a giant army, fighting for their religion. Even the leader of the camp, Becky Fischer, repeatedly compares the camp and other activities to the indoctrination of some young Islamic children, who are trained to hold guns and fight from a young age.
Watching the film, this comparison seems scarily accurate. The film focuses on three children from the camp, Levi, Tory and Rachael, and it is clear that every aspect of their lives, both at camp and at home with their families, is centred on training them to become soldiers, fighting for their faith. Tory is involved in a Christian dance class, and one of the first scenes of the film is of Tory and a group of children in camouflage and war paint, performing something eerily similar to a war dance in front of the church.
So, despite the even-handed way in which Grady and Ewing have presented their material, the film is still likely to leave the viewer with a very strong opinion about the camp, and the people involved. There would be those people, probably from similar religious backgrounds to those presented in Jesus Camp, who would feel very strongly that this film portrays a positive message. There would be others, however, who would find this portrayal of religious indoctrination of small children as quite disconcerting, possibly even frightening.
The film Religulous, by Bill Maher, has taken a completely different approach to the presentation of religion. Even the title is a clear demonstration of Maher’s bias, and these become even more obvious throughout the film. Only a few minutes into the film Maher expresses his opinion that “religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity”. Maher even uses stories about his background as the child of a Jewish mother and Catholic father as if this gives him a unique right to have formed these biases, and to push them on the general public.
It is clear that Maher does not have any of the same respect for his subjects that the makers of Jesus Camp have obviously offered theirs. Rather than talking to believers as a way of presenting both sides of the argument, Maher uses his interviews as a chance to attack the interviewees’ beliefs and values. He even goes so far as to suggest that one Christian man kill himself because he is certain that what comes after death will be better than life on Earth.
Maher does make some effective arguments against religion, and presents interesting points, but unfortunately they are undermined by his presentation style. It is quite clear that Maher has taken the easy way out, by selecting subjects who he knows he can defeat through academics, such as members of the ‘Truckers’ Church’, and an actor hired to play Jesus at an amusement park. Even when he does conduct an interview with an academic, the Christian geneticist Dr Francis Collins, he insists on asking questions about fields not related to Dr Collins’ area of expertise.
Maher presents himself as an advocate for doubt, preaching “the Gospel of ‘I Don’t Know”, but for someone who is apparently such a big fan of doubt, he seems very certain that no religion can possibly be correct, and that every believer is either of low intelligence, delusional or completely insane. By the end of the film it is Maher himself who seems almost insane, asserting that if religion is not destroyed then it will definitely bring about the end of mankind. Very strong words, but after an hour and a half of listen to Maher attack, berate and ridicule others without even listening to their opinions, it becomes difficult to separate his opinions from his obvious hatred and bias against religion.