Saturday, December 12, 2009


alright, let's just get one thing straight up front: JESUS CAMP is a freaking weird little film. actually, "freaking awkward" may be a better descriptor. yes, let's say that JESUS CAMP is a freaking awkward little film that unsettles viewers at nearly every angle of viewing. admittedly, it's freaking awkward to see people raising children to believe something you do not believe or, on the flip side, to believe something you personally hold dear but in drastically different ways. in either scenario - as a distanced outsider of non-christian belief or as a fellow participant of Gospel faith - JESUS CAMP is a freaking awkward little film. and i love freaking awkward little films.

one of the most freaking awkward aspects of choosing to believe in God / a god / a goddess / some gods / this totally unfeasible gospel of miraculous birth followed by an even more unfeasible miracle of continuous redemption and resurrection is that, by making the choice to believe one path, you nix every other possible road to Paradise. also, by choosing a particular Path to follow, you simultaneously choose to become tragically narrow-minded, socially disheveled, perpetually repentive, potentially offensive, and hypocritically incapable of upholding the statutes of your chosen faith. awkwardness and close-mindedness come with the faith territory. they're unavoidable. fervent belief in one thing leads one to firmly believe all other possibilities are not. and it's that last bit right there that really pisses people off.

me and latonya are narrow-minded believers of the Gospel of Jesus. all that immaculate conception, resurrection and ascension, gifts and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, authority of the Bible, communion of the saints, coming of the Kingdom, power of forgiveness and blessings, the tragic nature of christian music, we believe it all. and we are awkwardly narrow-minded enough to believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, just like the freaking weirdos in JESUS CAMP. me and the wife have bought into this jacked-up and nonsensical Gospel of Jesus hook, line and sinker.

and we have also committed, like the weirdos in JESUS CAMP, that when we have children - all four of those little caramel skinned mulattoes - we will teach them what we believe. to skirt around the issue and not teach them what we believe would be a sure sign that we do not really believe what we say that we believe. and as narrow-minded and awkward as it may appear to raise little caramel skinned mulatto children on Bible verses, worship songs and hopeful prayers, it is what the wife and i agreed to the day we buckled and relinquished our common senses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

and God only knows what a documentary about our christian parenting would look like: little Social Distortion shirted half-black girls with bright purple clacker balls and skull-n-crossbone stockings praying cancer out of the neighbor lady "in the name of Jesus." they'll be locking us up one day for sure.

so, back to the documentary. obviously i viewed JESUS CAMP as a fellow participant rather than a distanced peruser. still, by the end of the film i felt a combination of great hope and great sadness. great hope because i personally find children desiring God a beautiful sight. great sadness because i personally do not believe the Gospel of Jesus is as melodramatic, difficult, busy, and militant as the adults in JESUS CAMP pressed upon these children. and while i enjoyed seeing children excited about scripture and loving Jesus, i also knew that the pressure of faith forced upon their youth would haunt them one day, and many of those children will have long painful paths of learning to forgive those who presented faith so harshly in the beginning.

when i look into the Gospels, there are images of Jesus gathering up the children, calling them to Himself, speaking blessings over them. there is a tenderness that woos the children to Jesus, one so light that it caused the disciples to envy and rebuke the children. that tenderness and wooing was not evident in this film. far from it, in fact. and that lack tenderness, that absence of necessary wooing, i fear, could scar any child raised beneath a viciously aggressive Gospel.

the Gospel of Jesus is one that promises peace and blessing but has been revealed prominently by a history of war and division. for this reason, the film also looks at the militant Gospel training of young people through the eyes of fundamentalist political power and uber-conservative republican doctrine. the political talk in JESUS CAMP feels out of place until the viewer realizes that the way we view our authority - ie. our God/god - is the way we view our powers. and the way we view our powers decides how we treat our neighbors, our friends, our enemies. this is where, i suppose, the lack of tenderness in training children to believe in an all-powerful God becomes more scary than sad.

overall, i give JESUS CAMP four dc talk cassette tapes out of five. for all the film's awkwardness (and there's loads of it), and in spite of my personal reactions (which were flaming fierce), JESUS CAMP does capture an earnestness in faith that is phenomenally more pure than its expression. this purity is difficult to see in the midst of so much holy-rolling oddity, but it's there, bedrocked beneath the surface, deep down under a whole heap of human weirdness. and perhaps that's the beauty, rather than the horror, of the whole affair. after all, at the end of the day, i trust my righteousness to be determined far more by my faith than by my ridiculously failed attempts and approaches.

Lord God in Christ, i'm banking on it.


Ben Langford said...

brilliant, hamster. I haven't seen the film but i do appreciate your thorough response and let me tell you what- I can't wait to meet them little caramel-skinned mulatto chillin' of yours.

Parkerchica said...

So you guys are planning to conceive four kiddos, huh? You better get started, Stills!

Our oldest daughter is six, and her favorite pastime is asking questions. She's quite a logical thinker, too, so she demands answers to hard questions and tends to focus on the one part of the story that a Sunday school teacher would rather gloss over ("so God told Joseph to save the baby Jesus and take him to Egypt...but didn't he love all those other babies? Why did He let them get killed?").

And I wonder how the faith we are teaching her will look when it becomes her own.

Matt Parker, for example, was brought up in a church whose marquis read: INDEPENDENT FUNDAMENTAL baptist. He once walked into his room and found his mother sitting on the side of the bed, listening to his PFR (Pray For Rain, an old school Christian band)tape and crying. Evidently, by consuming his Christian content in such a worldly presentation, he had nailed Jesus to the cross again. Don't get me wrong. My in-laws truly love the gospel. They love Matt abd truly believed that they were passing down the truth. But he would tell you it has taken his entire adult life to reprogram his mind and heart, to really experience the grace of God apart from the demands of his parents' moral standards (think Leave it to Beaver, but with less sass)and the Republican Party agenda.

Before I was a parent myself, I judged my in-laws pretty harshly for this. Now that I'm a parent, not so much. I think there are probably areas in which my personal preferences interfere with the simple truth of the gospel. Hmmm...

Thanks for the thought-provoking review.

the hamster said...

ben - i will name one of them four caramel skinned mulatto chillin' "fountain" after your great sculpture works, and they will call you "uncle coffee," even though you look nothing like coffee.

misha & matt - i have seen PFR in concert 5 times. and when they say "spin around" i freaking spin around. also, my mother hated Bride, if you remember that band. but, seriously, "Psychodelic Super-Jesus", what's not to shutter with concern there.

myleswerntz said...

I saw Bride in concert, and stayed late in Shreveport one weekend to go see DigHayZoose, which I still listen to and contend was one of the under-the-radar masterpieces of early 90s Christian music.

As for Jesus Camp, I'm glad Kevin reviewed this one. I didn't really have words after I saw it. On the one hand, yes, I can identify with some of the charismatic stuff--my family went to the Methodist church by day and the charismatic one by night. So, I remember dancing in the aisles and being slain the Spirit. It's part of who I am.

But at the same time, I can't get behind kids being taught that the world is a war, even metaphorically. I can understand where the lady is coming from who runs the camp, but I have trouble with where she comes out on a whole mess of things. I can't watch this without squirming.

the hamster said...

myles -

motherscratcher, i didn't know you've seen Dighayzoose! that's killer! that's, like, cooler than me seeing Motorhead. seriously.

i also didn't know you had ever attended charasmatic church. next thing i know you'll be telling me you were on high school swim team and you once covered the indigo girls at a coffeeshop open-mic night.

by the way, your last paragraph: yes. this was my primary problem with the film, even when i had several problems. but this militant Gospel was my number one beef.

oh well, the church don't run on hamsterisms.

myleswerntz said...

did I never tell you that? I can't believer that. Yeah, for about four years while we were Methodists, we went to this charismatic church. I spoke in tongues, danced in the aisles, etc. I was real young (5-8 or so), but remember it.

Sean said...

I give this review five awkward intentional misspellings of "Christmas" as "X-mas" in an effort to make the Holiday Season more accepting to a more diverse selection out of five.

I didn't go to a charasmatic church as did myles, but i went to the next best thing for the first sixteen years of my life--southern baptist. And the message was one i heard on numberous occasions.

In the years following my first sixteen, up to the present, I have been trying to figure out what to do with the first half of my life, and I think I'm sorting it out without baggage or bitterness, but it has been a long slow progress.

This film brought back all of the horrible memories of those years. I made it through day one or two of the camp and turned it off.

It reminds me of going to watch fourth or fifth or sixth graders play basketball. There is one adult who is there yelling at the kids and is fiercly competitive, sucking all of the fun out of the room and making sure that kids who don't really really love the game never ever want to play again.

That's not a perfect metaphor and doesn't come close to describing how I found this film unwatchable, but I've been on hold with the gas company for 25 minutes and my patience is really wearing thin, so i'm afraid that's the best I can do at this time.

But, man, your review of this monstrosity is far more generous and grace-filled than my reaction, and i think if i adopted your attitude then i would be a better man for it.

Leida said...

i, too, reacted very strongly to this film. i didn't make it through day 1 of Camp, before i turned it off. the voice in my head kept screaming, "oh, no. i cannot even believe what i'm seeing. do these adults even practice the same faith that i do???" i shut it off, gave it 1 star on the netflix and returned it the next day. i didn't think of it again until this moment, and i still don't know what i think about it (or if i even want to explore it, further).

you put me to shame (in a good way), my friend. way to have an open mind.

the hamster said...

leida - i only have an open-mind about this film because i know if the cameras were turned on me other beautiful black women watching at home would not make it past day one of "Hamster Camp." you are a rare exception to this rule.

this is definitely a difficult film to digest, and i know our initial reaction is to buck against the film. however, there are merits here. there are valuable moments to wrestle. the very fact that this film exposes our own preferences and religious biases - particularly in such violent fashion - is meritous in itself.

not to mention, and think about this: christianity is a weird looking little freakshow. any church, any worship service, any fully expressed zeal towards or about God looks bozo. paul even said we look foolish. this film offers an opportunity to see christianity through a different set of lenses. and such an opportunity may not be a bad thing.

also, get your ROCKY loving self back to texas.

ICN said...

i enjoyed this review whilst sitting in my chair in #3.

Chaddie P. said...

Just saw your Jesus Camp review. Damn, you're kind. I cannot watch this film. Watching it would simply make me too angry and sad for too long. My head done got fucked with when i was a youngin and i don't need to see little ones going through that too. But...I'm glad you liked it.