We’re seeing a lot of publicity about the independent documentary “Jesus Camp.” Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka) selected a microscopic slice of Christian fundamentalism—a Midwest pastor named Becky Fischer and her strange North Dakota summer camp, “Kids on Fire”— as national emblems of Christian revival and the way overdone “Take Back America for Christ!” movement. The major media has been in a hysterical uproar over the implication that this is a staging camp for building a “Christian army” that will take over the United States.
Forget the fact that military allusions have always been part of religious life, but most would agree “The Salvation Army” isn’t going to march on Washington anytime soon. Likewise, “Onward Christian Soldiers” doesn’t rally the faithful to arms. The filmmakers are painting with a broad brush, and taking an extreme sliver of Christianity to make it appear mainstream.
Chances are, if a filmmaker did the same thing with a tiny segment of the extreme religious left, it would cause the major media to try “foul!” The saddest thing about projects like this is that when we could use a serious treatment about shortcomings within our faith, filmmakers who actually know remarkably little about Christianity set themselves up as “experts.”
While I couldn’t disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions more, it does cause us to continue taking a realistic look at the impact of telling any faith story in the media. In 1977, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge echoed Marshall McLuhan when he wrote Christ and the Media. His purpose was to examine whether or not Jesus – had he been born in the present day – would have left the “Dead Sea Videotapes” rather than the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was very careful to point out that directing, shooting, lighting, and editing techniques can be so manipulated, that television is inherently a lie.
He speaks from experience, recounting a remarkable story:
“The most horrifying example I know of the camera’s power and authority, which will surely be in the history book as an example of the degradation our servitude to it can involve, occurred in Nigeria at the time of the Biafran War. A prisoner was to be executed by a firing squad, and the cameras turned up in force to photograph and film the scene. Just as the command to fire was about to the given, one of the cameramen shouted ‘Cut!’; his battery had gone dead, and needed to be replaced. Until this was done, the execution stood suspended. Then, with his battery working again, he shouted ‘Action!’, and bang, bang, the prisoner fell to the ground, his death duly recorded, to be shown in millions of sitting rooms throughout the so-called civilized world. Some future historian may speculate as to where lay the greatest barbarism, on the part of the viewers, the executioners, or the camera. I think myself that he would plump for the cameras.”
He admits that we shouldn’t throw out technology altogether when he says, “Does this mean that the camera and all its works are wholly evil and incapable of fulfilling God’s purposes? Of course not.” But he does give a caution that’s worth considering:
“It’s very nearly impossible to tell the truth in television, but you can try very hard. As far as the word is concerned, spoken or written, it has been used, and continues to be used, for purposes of deception, and for evil purposes like pornography. This is absolutely true. But, you see, a word comes from a man. Putting it in its simplest terms, if I write a novel, signed by my name, I am saying these are my thoughts, these are my views, these are my impressions, and the response of the reader is according. If you set up a camera and take a film, that is not considered to be anybody’s views; that is reality, and, of course, it is much more fantasy than the words. Supposing there had been a film made of the life of our Lord. Do you think that that would have stirred men as the Gospels have?”
I respect Muggeridge’s views because of his credentials as a journalist and Christian. He presents us a balance, but also gives us reasons for great caution as well. As a journalist of his era, he was a print man, no question, and found the transition to film and video difficult at best.
He once wrote about a story by Soviet labor camp survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, about a desperate man in the bunk above his who, “…Used to climb up into it in the evening, and take old, much-folded pieces of paper out of his pocket, and read them with evident satisfaction. It turned out that they had passages from the Gospels scribbled on them, which were his solace and joy in that terrible place. He would not, I feel sure, have been similarly comforted and edified by re-runs of old footage of religious TV programs.”
Do we toss out technology? No. But both McLuhan and Muggeridge teach us that we can’t be too careful in how we present an eternal message on a temporal medium. Likewise, with “Jesus Camp” we’re reminded just how much filmmakers can tell a very slanted story that creates an enormous impact.
The medium does indeed impact the message.