Engaging Culture

The Fringe World of Jesus Camp

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.

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  1. Phil…here's to hoping you get the calls to be a guest or to give a quote as this gets discussed/overblown in the news cycle.

  2. This project has been hitting the news outlets for probably over a month now. I think the filmmakers succeeded in their "mission" of painting a very skewed picture of Christianity…they are trying to paint us in the same boat as muslim extremists and create a fear of Christians (in my opinion)..yeah, many Christians are messed up, but one extreme example doesn't represent reality. Visual media is the most powerful form of media I believe.

    I got reemed by some muslim lady for mentioning Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in "Squad 77"…If your a Christian your going to get it from all sides.



  3. Christian media is filled with lies and falsehoods and non-Christians see right through it. If "Christian Media" would show us as we really are – falling, stumbling, sinning folk saved by Grace and not try to make us into fake Super hero's condemning the world those non-Christian might just say AMEN.  Watch for my film "Christian Sex and Violence", it ends with Love and Grace.


  4. I have little beef with the film. I do think the filmmakers were misguided in painting this particular camp's activities as representative of evangelicals. While I suspect that is due to ignorance, one has to wonder whether that was guarded ignorance on their part.

    At the same time, I see no harm no foul. The civil rights movement under Dr. King would not have been succesful if the government didn't have to fear that Malcom X and the Nation of Islam were in the wings with far more radical solutions to the problem at hand. Similarly, I hope this film shakes things up a little.


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