Thursday, December 7, 2006

Jesus Cramp: An Insider’s Review of Jesus Camp

Indy documentaries come and go by the dozens. And to be honest, I really don’t pay much mind to most of them. It seems to me that these so called objective films merely serve as a vehicle for movie makers to grind axes under the guise of journalism. From Fahrenheit 9/11 to Supersize Me, editors boldly select the footage that best backs their position and offer little room for alternative interpretations. However, in spite of the obvious agendas in the “docu-tainment” genre, one cannot walk away from these films without a sense of responsibility. They move us emotionally. We are forced to ask, “What do I do with this new information?”

The major movie theatres in my town didn’t play Jesus Camp. I had heard that they were going to show it, but for some reason they pulled it from the playlist. I have a sneaky suspicion that the Jesus Camp filmmakers underestimated the influence of the American Mega-church. Nevertheless, even the loudest preacher can’t keep a small independent theatre from showing what it wants to. So I found myself standing in line with a buddy at the local Indy theatre.

My friend and I got 2 of the last 5 tickets and squeezed into the packed room. As is the custom at this theatre, the owner stood up before the showing and gave a brief explanation of coming films and introduced the feature. “They even got Ted Haggard in this film blasting homosexuals and everything,” the guy said. My friend and I shared dark looks. The owner went on to comment that if we weren’t giggling then we should watch the news more often.

Then reality hit me. Here I was—a Pentecostal seminary student—sitting in a crowd of cynics who were hungry for more ammo to shoot at fundamentalist Christians and George W. Bush. As the film began, I sank further and further into my fold-down chair. I felt like an insecure teenager at a party with all the cool kids laughing about band nerds. Little did they know that I played the clarinet.

When my seminary friends ask what the movie was like, I usually begin by saying that it would not have been that bad had I watched it with a group of Christians that understood youth camps and participated in highly emotional altar calls. Other than the footage of 50 children reaching their hands out towards a cardboard cutout of our President, most of the abuses were familiar to me. But since I did not watch it with sympathizers, I found myself developing a tangible stitch in my side. Had there not been an intermission half way through, the stomach cramp would have certainly killed me.

The film’s agenda echoes the sentiments of many talk show hosts—even conservative ones. The makers of Jesus Camp seem to feel the need to warn our nation about the impending doom that zealous right-wing Christians will inevitably bring. Therefore, they go straight to the roots and paint a picture of Christian families indoctrinating their children into this fundamentalist ideology. To put it bluntly, they seemingly fear Jihad Jesus soldiers. And with the footage they compiled, they actually create some startling justification.

The problem is context. I get the sensation that the producers of the film do not appreciate the nuances and diversity in Pentecostal movements, let alone Evangelicalism as a whole. In contrast, I grew up in these environments and deeply understand the Christian culture that those cameras were invading. Because I understand, I easily recognized their sincerity and passion to put their convictions into action. I know why they seek holiness and Spirit empowerment. The reason I know is simple: I seek the same things.

During the intermission I grabbed a root beer and quickly began to unpack what I was seeing with my buddy. Things got interesting though when we bumped into an acquaintance that I knew was not a Christian. He asked what we thought of the film so far. I decided to be honest and gave him a one-word answer: gut-wrenching. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I quickly shifted the conversation to what he thought about the film as an outside observer.

I was prepared to hear him wax eloquent about the ignorance of those hillbilly Christians or why Republicans would destroy the social fabric of our nation, but I was delightfully surprised. He shrugged his shoulders and admitted that the film really didn’t surprise him that much. Not satisfied with his answer, I dug in further. “So, what is it like to watch these folks? I imagine it would be a bit like watching National Geographic cover the rituals of an obscure African tribe.” He smirked and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a lot like that.”

I just wish Jesus Camp would have included a narrator to explain the rituals—why they speak in tongues, why they despise abortion, and why spiritual experience matters so much to them. But explaining the rituals would mean that the makers of Jesus Camp were trying to help people understand. Creating harmony is most certainly not their intention. If anything, the filmmakers remind me of the people they criticize—drawing a line in the sand and pointing fingers at the weirdoes on the other side.

In the end, my embarrassment was short-lived. Once I left the Indy theatre, I remembered the occasionally endearing nature of the camp director, Becky, and how she gave her life to teaching kids. Sure, her methods sometimes troubled me, but she certainly did not deserve the onslaught of criticisms following the film that eventually bullied her into closing her camp down. And while I’m willing to grant the Jesus Camp makers some validity in their critical observations, I would be a fool to think their form of indoctrination was more compelling than Becky’s simply because they know how to cut and paste digital video. Give me a camera and I’ll show the world a family that gives their toddlers marijuana and why liberals want to legalize orgies.

I can see why some Christians fear the ramifications of this film. It gives onlookers a negative peek into our world of Christian culture. This simply means we should evaluate where we are irrelevant to culture and ensure that the Good News does not get too jumbled up with our political aspirations. However, if one truly believes that God revealed Himself in Scripture and that his Spirit now leads him/her, with what authority does the Jesus Camp cast judgment? Ultimately, it is just one worldview versus another. Therefore, what started out as a humiliating cramp in my side proved to be a reminder of the huge chasm between the world and God’s Kingdom and that I should probably be more mindful of how many people are watching me.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Review of Stranger Than Fiction

Try as I may, I could not walk into the theatre without a set of subtle presuppositions. With Will Ferrall’s name stretching across the poster who can blame me? While Elf, Talladega Nights, and the hilarious Anchorman hold a dear place in my heart (take notice of the unapologetic absence of Kicking and Screaming), the previews of Ferrall’s newest release struck a familiar yet suspicious chord in me. I walked in expecting a type-cast comedian giving a wack at something serious. Would this rival the satire and creativity of Jim Carrey’s Truman Show? Or perhaps it would prove a career-ending stab at crossing genres tantamount to casting Carrot-top as the new James Bond? With much joy I must report that the former rings true for me.

Harold Crick (Ferrall), a monotonous IRS auditor, starts to hear a female voice narrate his every action from brushing his teeth to sensual fantasies. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) serves as the woman behind this British dialect—a delightfully eccentric author who is feverishly searching for a tragic ending to her new book. Unbeknownst to her, the main character in her book actually exists and is living out her plotline in real-time with her typewriter.

This leads Harold to the literature expert Professor Jules Hilbert played by the legendary Dustin Hoffman. Professor Hilbert acts as Harold’s literary detective as they narrow down the plot structure to determine whether he is living in a comedy or a tragedy. As Eiffel continues to write, Harold develops a crush on a free-spirited baker named Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and decides to scrap his life of numbers and punctuality. This leads to a personal transformation worthy of Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day.

The plot thickens as Eiffel seeks for the most poetic way to slay Harold. With the threat of writer’s block on the horizon, the publishing company brings in Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to help ensure that Eiffel meets her deadline. And this is proof that this movie is worth seeing—any good movie requires an ex-rapper. I for one approve for the selection of Queen Latifah over Marky-Mark, Fresh Prince, Ice Cube, or L.L. Cool J.

The movie takes some risks with its cinematography, but it works in my opinion. Thompson renders the delicacies of her character brilliantly—a chain-smoking author with an inappropriate appreciation for morbidity. And if you mix that with Hoffman’s obvious talent and Ferrall’s natural gift for making the mundane mirthful, you have a winner. I just hope we get to see all the Ferrall's improvisations said in the DVD extras.

Ultimately, the strength of the film relies on the creativity of the plot. If this movie were a cartoon, it would be Pixar. I just love the idea of mixing Harold’s fumbling responses with someone who is arbitrarily writing his life. It makes me ask, “Just who is in control here?” Destiny meets human responsibility in the form of a British novel—if only we knew what God was trying to write about us. I’d welcome his knowing voice over my morning ritual (minus shower-time because that would just be weird). It is just that we all want to be the star of a story…to have a life worth narrating. The only catch is that sometimes the story may take us somewhere we find unappealing. If that ever happens to me, I can only hope that I face it like Harold Crick—faithfully living the script for the sake of a good story.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Writing About the Prosperity Gospel

I picked up a Time magazine the other day simply because of the cover (I guess that's the idea, huh). It simply read..."Does God Want You to Be Rich?" It was an edition mostly devoted to the phenomenal growth of the Prosperity Gospel in the United States.

Having received my theological education at a major Charismatic University, I was intrigued and thumbed through it. The theme seemed to revolve around a reinterpretation of Jesus' words: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36) The overwhelming sentiment I got from the Prosperity proponents was "sure, I don't want to forfeit my self, but why can't I have both?"

But I have mixed feelings about this Prosperity Gospel. On one hand, I despise its glorification of human effort and its almost animistic worldview; on the other hand, I appreciate its attempts to bring the attractive elements of Gospel into the center of Christianity (i.e. joy, blessing. and God's favor). On one side, these proponents dangerously overlook Scripture's insistence on God's Sovereignty, issues of stewardship, and the value of suffering; from another angle, they folks are all out to find happiness in the here and now (not so sinful of a pursuit if you ask me).

These thoughts led me to write an article that was recently published. Feel free to check it out here.