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.


rdl said...

Well, i'm giving it a thumbs down and maybe even a slap on the hand.

carrie said...

I haven't seen the documentary, so I can't comment on it personally. I really haven't wanted to see it because I knew it would make me very uncomfortable.

However, I wanted to comment on teaching our children our faith. I think this is a tricky road to walk, and I certainly haven't done it perfectly. During part of our child-raising, we were in a more conservative environment, and I read many of the "leading" Christian parenting books. Looking back, I feel like "indoctrination" is a better word for much of what I read. (Another good word is "controlling" but that's another post.) While i was more dogmatic then, I still see positives in raising my children to believe first and question later. Does that make sense? At the same time, I do want questioning to be something they can freely do, without fear of what we, as their parents, think. I do believe we've mostly accomplished that since we have been through so much questioning in our own faith journeys and have never hidden our confusion or struggles from our children.

Anyway, I just wanted to say I still struggle with how to balance encouraging faith in my children without indoctrination.

Thank you for this review of the documentary. It was helpful.

ipanema said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ipanema said...

By you account it seems like nobody from the studio has seen that. Unless they own it and let the programme be watched.

It's disgusting how children are abused this way. It's good that it has been shut down.

Anyway, Happy New Year to you and yours!

Kansas Bob said...

Many that have a penchants to fundamentalism like to live in a black and white.. right and wrong world. Folks like these.. unfortunately I can relate.. shut down dialog with their children.. until they eventually rebel of course.. and create an unhealthy home environment.

Teaching our children to live in a gray world is sometimes very difficult because we often have to answer their questions with "I don't know".. hard on the ego when you think your parental job is to have all of the answers.

About the film.. I think that it is representive of one of the ditches that religion can fall into.. the other (Hollywood) ditch, of course, is telling children that anything goes.. either way.. I think that kids arrive at the same place when they are not trained to question and discern for themselves.

Good topic Matt! Happy 2008!

Nancy said...

Hey, friend -- I blogged about this film a while back -- -- and just THINKING about it again makes me clench my teeth.

n, np