Monday, May 25, 2009

"Alison, You Look Great With That Tape On Your Mouth": Thoughts on Jesus Camp

I just finished watching the documentary Jesus Camp 15 minutes ago. While watching, I was continually overcome with sadness. The loneliness that fills every frame of this film is overwhelming. While the filmmakers focus on the political aspect of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism, there was something much more deeply upsetting to me in seeing how the children work so hard to mirror the words, attitudes and rhetoric of their adult leaders. While children imitating their parents is in no way a shocking or negative thing, what is disturbing is that these children have exchanged their own voices for someone else's. Over and over as the children are interviewed, you see their eyes dart up and sideways as they search their memory for prepared answers and re-quoted ideas, trying to own them for themselves.

While there's a part of me that wants to credit the ministries portrayed that place such high value on children as being valuable, unique human beings, I do not beleive these organizations truly value children as children. Something I love so much about C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia is that when the children enter Narnia, their child-ness is ennobled. They become both very young and very old at the same time. They never become adult-like, but rather, the clarity of love, innocence and deep feeling that mark childhood, become even stronger traits as the children take courageous, unselfish risks on behalf of others.

This is what I thought of during Jesus Camp when Rachael (maybe 9) walks up to a young woman at a bowling alley and tells her that she felt God telling her to go talk to her. We watch Rachael choke over her words, fidget forcefully and stammer awkwardly and she gives the twenty-something in a hot pink tank top a salvation tract. My heart felt such empathy and humility watching this little go girl so bravely over to a stranger, facing rejection for the sake of telling someone God loved them. But at the same time I felt sorrow at the futility of Rachael having any real offering other than memorized phrases and a printed booklet. She literally could not get a sentence out without gasping for breath and stuttering. These weren't her words. Her heart appears in the motion to go over to someone, but the second she speaks, her courageous childlike heart is strangled by her having been conditioned to use a logic not her own. The fear she displayed was a much stronger message then the words she tried to say. The second she tried to speak, it was as if Rachael disappeared, and you could instead see the specters of the adults who gave her these words as well as this mission. Rachael's words throughout the film come out in distorted bursts of rhetoric, as if she's trying to cheerlead herself into believing she believes what she's saying. I saw a pure heart becoming schizophrenically mangled by the confusing demand that she be a dynamic spiritual prophet, rather than a child.

I saw 10 year-old Tory talk about how she knows people can tell when she's dancing for the flesh instead of for God. That a little girl should have to fear being seen enjoying how it feels to dance with her body causes a sorrow in me that I can only describe in terms of being punched in the stomach. I can only imagine how God feels.

When a guest speaker at the camp is putting red tape over the children's mouths for a pro-life intercession, he tells the boy in front of him, "Joseph, you might lead the country one day, truly." To the girl after Joseph he says, "Alison, you look great with that tape on your mouth." And more than anything, that's what comes across. These children's voices, (particularly the girls) are silenced and replaced with someone else's vehement demands. While I can't find the words I really want here, it's enough to say that this film made me yearn for a faith that blesses children as children, and not as weapons, mouthpieces or billboards. May they not struggle to repeat words we've taught them, but rather, speak freely from their own hearts what they know of love. May they know that their voices, their thoughts and their dances are beautiful in the eyes of God, and in our eyes as well.


ROBERTA said...

exquisitely written piece....saw the movie over a year ago but you brought back the images so vividly - and memories of my own dip in the fundie pool - and how my children suffered for that particular set of swimming lessons. you've given me something to let go of....thank you.

Maryann said...

You were definitely able to put into words what I could not about this movie. Such sobering thoughts. Hopefully these kids have someone in their lives who will convey to them what you said at the end there.

Scott said...

Hey Kj, I haven't seen the movie yet, I know I need to be prepared emotionally before stepping into it.

However, your words went well beyond the film, it spoke to so much of what I have seen in the past in settings not identical to, but not too unlike the ones depicted in the film.

Thanks for the grace and care for the human beings in this film. That care is easy to sense in your words. Thanks for seeing text, but especially people, the way you do. Your vision is a gift.


elnellis said...

great thoughts on a disturbing and sad documentary. thanks for taking the time to write kj.