Monday, December 31, 2007

"The Jesus Camp" and Indoctrination?

I'm going to offer a disclaimer now before getting into this post: I have no first-hand experience with Pentecostals or Pentecostal churches, and truthfully don't know much about how that denomination operates. Everything that I'm about to say here should be read strictly as the opinions of a Pentecostal-ignorant, cradle Episcopalian.

Last night, while aimlessly flipping channels on the television (the curse of having nothing but reruns on at the end of the year), A. and I ran across the documentary "The Jesus Camp" on A&E. It seemed intriguing, and we decided to watch it; by the end of the two hours, I was stunned, for lack of a better term. "The Jesus Camp" is a 2006 film that follows Pastor Becky Fischer and the attendees of her annual camp at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Through the course of the film, the viewer is introduced to some of the kids who visit, learns something about Pastor Fischer, watches as the camp unfolds, and then sees the activities of one of the families in the aftermath of the camp. One girl, nine-year-old Rachael, was a big focus of the film, and I'll touch on some questions I have about her and any child raised in this environment.

I had a lot of concerns about what I had watched when it ended. A few examples:

1. All of the kids were genuinely excited about attending camp, as I'm sure any child would be given the chance to experience something new and make new friends -- in addition to learning more about their beliefs and experiencing some spiritual growth. However, from the first day they were almost brow-beaten by Pastor Fischer; case in point, she stood before in a daily chapel service and told them that she knew there were lots of kids in the room who said they were Christians and acted one way at church, but acted another way when they were in another environment. She then started berating them as hypocrites who needed to be cleansed, and succeeded in bringing a large number of them to tears. Why in the world would anyone think it beneficial to call seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds hypocrites? Why in the world would anyone think that berating a child and threatening them with hell would be helpful?

2. Sharing your faith with your children is a great thing; I certainly won't dispute that. In fact, I've had great fun in recent weeks talking to MB about the birth of Jesus, the role of Mary and Joseph, and the entire nativity story (she is absolutely enthralled with the thought of baby Jesus, the angels and archangels, and everyone who visited after his birth). But we discuss it -- I don't try and program her. Again using Rachael as an example, the children seemed to simply repeat anything and everything they heard from their parents; in one instance, she approached a young lady in a bowling alley and told her that God had put it on heart to talk to her about whether she was saved -- yes, I know kids says the darnedest things, but how many nine-year-olds say anything close to "God put it on my heart?"

At another point, she approached three black men sitting in a park and asked one of them, "Do you know where you're going when you die?" He responded that he was going to heaven, and she replied with, "Are you sure?" Then, as she was walking back across the street, she said, "Oh, they're probably Muslim." Why would a nine-year-old care about that distinction, much less vocalize it?

3. One of the groups of boys was sitting up late one night in their cabin telling ghost stories, apparently after lights-out had been called. The counselor walked in and told them that they should be focused on stories from God rather than ghost stories for which he (the counselor) had no use. Why not let the kids be kids and tell ghost stories?

4. Rachael extemporized at one point on the type of churches she believed God chose to visit. According to her, God doesn't like churches where people sing three songs and then listen to a sermon -- all of which are done with calm and silence. Instead, she said God prefers to visit churches where the congregation is jumping around, waving their hands and shouting "Hallelujah!" Obviously, they have overlooked the verse from the New Testament where Jesus says, "Whenever two or three are gathered together, I will be in the their midst;" I don't recall it saying, "Whenever two or three are gathered AND are jumping around and saying 'Hallelujah!'"

I won't say that this isn't an important film; I found it very eye-opening and it gave me a better understanding of at least this part of the Pentecostal church. In fact, I would recommend that lots of folks watch it -- it was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. And I certainly won't try to say that this is indicative of the entire denomination (read my disclaimer above for the reason). However, I would be stunned if you, too, didn't have some serious questions -- about the way that these children are seemingly "indoctrinated," about how they are taught at an extremely young age to talk about being soldiers in the army of God and eventhat they would be willing to die for Jesus (yes, that comment was made by a child), and about how they are instructed to talk and use language that they clearly don't understand. Parrots can be taught to say, "Polly want a cracker," but they don't know what a cracker is or why they are asking for it. I would hope that my children would make decisions on their faith based on discussions, reading, reflection, and prayer, and not because someone has drilled the language into their head or frightened them into a certain set of beliefs.

In doing some further reading on this documentary, I ran across an article in the Seattle newspaper that said that the camp had been shut down indefinitely as a result of the outcry caused by the film -- even to the extent that the camp buildings had been vandalized (if you disagree with something, try and talk it out like I am here -- don't go into destruction mode). Ironically, the story ran the same week that Ted Haggard -- who is featured in the last 30 minutes of the film -- announced his resignation.

The intent of this post is to drum up conversation and dialogue, not to offend or insult. If I have done so, accept my apologies now. As someone raised in a denomination that sings three hymns and then listens to a sermon -- and doesn't berate children with comments about their being hypocrites -- this is difficult for me to understand or accept. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

From the Mouths of Babes (and Those a Bit Older)...

I receive a daily email from the Rev. Barbara Crafton and Deacon Joanna Depue called "The Daily eMo," which anyone can sign up to receive at their website. The messages are primarily crafted for use by ministers in writing their weekly sermons, but anyone can get something special out of them. Today, Joanna forwarded an email that included this YouTube posting; the following is a summary taken from the video description:

"Logan is a 13 year-old boy who lives on a ranch in a very small town in Nebraska. Logan listens to Christian Radio station 89.3FM KSBJ which broadcasts from Houston, TX. Logan called the radio station distraught because he had to take down a calf. His words have wisdom beyond his years."

I don't know how you can listen and not see just how wise our children can be...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Grace Through Film

Many people have never heard the name William Wilberforce, nor are they aware of what he accomplished during his lifetime. However, nearly everyone has heard of the hymn "Amazing Grace" -- and the film A. and I watched recently is the intersection of both of these, the known and the unknown.

Kansas Bob had done a review of this film back in February when it first came out (I'm a bit behind the curve on seeing it, but I tend to rely more and more on Netflix), and I'd encourage you to read what he had to say here. I agree with everything he said; it was a truly remarkable film about someone who put his faith into action -- someone who had a choice between a life devoted to God and a life devoted to politics, and who found a way to do both. Ioan Gruffudd, who was cast in the role of Wilberforce, struck me as being the perfect choice for the part -- moving nearly seamlessly from moments of pure awe at what he saw as God's creation in the world around him to moments of intense passion in the halls of Parliament. (As an aside, I'll add here that I was even more pleasantly surprised by his performance when you consider that the only other films in which I had seen him act were the two Fantastic Four films, which were at the very least quite cornball.)

Wilberforce was a man who became a hero to men no less significant than Abraham Lincoln, who was to deal with the issue of slavery here in this country just three decades after the practice was abolished throughout the British Empire. He devoted nearly forty years to eliminating the slave trade, first by leading the fight on legislation banning the slave trade and then seeing legislation passed (just three days before his own death) that outlawed slavery entirely. And he did it in spite of the tremendous forces at work against him within Parliament, making this almost a sort of come-from-behind victory.

A friend and mentor to Wilberforce, John Newton (played by Albert Finney), was a former slave trader who turned away from that profession in the 1750s and spent the remainder of his life trying to atone for his sins and seek forgiveness from the 20,000 souls he said were following him. It was Newton, who authored many hymns in his life, who penned "Amazing Grace," "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and others that I'm sure you'd know almost instantly upon hearing them. The friendship between the two is a pillar of the film, and the point of the intersection (as I mentioned above) between the hymn we all know and the story that we don't.

Of course, the most remarkable films to me are the ones that provide memorable lines, and this one certainly provided many. However, there's one that has stuck with me that I hope will give you just as much pause for thought -- it was written by Francis Bacon and reads, "It's a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everyone else and still unknown to himself."

Visually, the film was breathtaking, and the soundtrack added an even stronger level of feeling just below the surface. It's a very moving story, and although I haven't yet read any of the two or three highly recommened Wilberforce biographies on the market today I'll go out on a limb and say that this film tells the story in a highly emotional and unforgettable way.

On the NOVA Dad rating scale, five out of five! And if this isn't enough motivation for you to pick up a copy to see for yourself, perhaps this trailer will...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Confronted by Poverty

There's the man who walks up and down the median in front of my office every day with an empty McDonald's cup that he extends to every driver who passes by.

There's the man who stands in the median in front of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving selling copies of the Washington Post, obviously in need of the money that brings him.

There's the lady who sits in the front-door overhang of the office building a block away from mine, with a shopping cart containing everything she owns.

And there's the often-drunk man who approached me in McDonald's recently, asking if I could find him a job and telling me that he used to have a job at the World Bank.

I see these people often -- not all in the same day, every day, but often enough to know that they're there. And I'm torn about not helping them. A. and I give as much as we can -- to our church, to one of the D.C.-area kitchens, to a little girl we're supporting in Honduras. But what about these folks I see every day, the ones I turn my head to avoid as I pass by; what do I do?

Admittedly, I hold a great degree of cynicism about what these folks would do if I gave them money. I suppose it's a lingering feeling from when I lived in south Alabama, and was approached one evening in downtown Mobile by a man who said he and his friend had just gotten off work at the state docks, that his truck wouldn't start, and that he needed a few bucks to get home. Without thought, I gave him some money; after all, I could see the man's truck and his friend just on the other side of the square. The very next night, the same man approached me with the same story. It wasn't until I asked him if he was still having problems getting home from the day before that he realized who I was -- and I realized I had been duped.

There are the stories I've heard from friends of mine who have been approached by people asking for money, and who instead off to buy them a meal -- only to find the man or woman who has approached them gets mad and starts yelling at them, saying that they hadn't asked for a meal.

What am I supposed to do? How can I possibly figure out the difference between those legitimately battling poverty and those just looking to hustle a few bucks from passersby?

All of this got me to thinking about povery in general, and I remembered this (somewhat lengthy) passage that I read in William Stringfellow's My People is the Enemy:

Poverty was my very first client in Harlem - a father whose child died from being attacked by a rat. Poverty is a widow on welfare whose landlord cuts the heat, knowing that the winter will end before a complaint is processed. Poverty is a drug addict who steals from his own family or pawns the jacket off his back to get another "fix." Poverty is being evicted from a housing project because the project manager determines that the family is "undesirable." Poverty is a Puerto Rican shopkeeper whose store is stoned when he tries to relocate south of the 96th Street boundary of East Harlem. Poverty is an adolescent with a tested I.Q. of 130 who cannot read or write the English language well enough to get other than the most menial jobs. Poverty is the pay-off to a building inspector not to report violations of the building code. Poverty is a young couple who marry because that is the only way to get out of the tenements and into a project, and whose marriage fails, and who have neither the grounds for a divorce in New York nor the price for a divorce in another jurisdiction. Poverty is being awakened in the midle of the night by a welfare investigator who demands to search your apartment to be sure you are not cheating the taxpayers. Poverty is the incapacity to complain against the landlord because you can't afford to take a day off from your job or from minding the family to go to court. Poverty is a kid who wants to be adopted to escape from the slums but whom no one wants. Poverty is a boy whose father has thrown him out, a boy who needs a place to stay. Poverty is living in darkness after the electric current has been turned off as a fire hazard, and waiting for six or seven days until someone is sent to repair the obsolete wiring.

Poverty is the enormous burden of waiting - waiting for hours for a doctor to examine a sick child at the hospital clinic, waiting for an interview with a social worker, waiting at the employment office, waiting in line for what the government ironically calls "surplus" food, waiting for everything, everywhere you go.

Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and clothes and heat and housing and rest and play and work.

It's a beautiful passage, and a difficult passage; Stringfellow has so eloquently put a face to the different types of poverty that so many people are battling. But having a face put on the problem -- and seeing the faces every day -- what should we do? Do we give money to everyone every time they ask, not knowing or concerning ourselves about which is the mother trying to feed her children and which is the person looking to buy a six-pack of beer? Do we give money to no one, instead sending assistance directly to the shelters and food banks and churches?

What do you do?