Meeting the Jesus Campers
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a friend of mine who pastors a small church near the military base in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. For years my cousin has been the worship leader at this man’s church (up until last week when the army relocated him to Germany). Although I’ve spoken at this particular pastor’s church before, a lot has changed in my life since the last time I visited him and his family. Since my first two visits, I’ve spent a year and a half in West Africa, traveled to Pakistan twice, debated a radical jihadist in London for a feature length documentary, and participated in a peace delegation with a group called Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank.
Last Sunday when I met up with the pastor and his family, I knew full well that I wasn’t the only one whose life had changed within a few short years. When I first met the pastor’s son Levi, Levi was 10 years old and virtually indistinguishable from every other 10-year old boy, except for the tail on the back of his neck and his unwavering conviction that Jesus has called him to be a missionary in India. This time around, when I introduced myself to Levi, who didn’t remember me before, I knew I was in the presence of a movie star…sort of.
The Levi that I’m talking about is Levi O Brien and the pastor that I’m talking about is Pastor Tim O Brien. The church I am referring to is Rock of Ages, the spiritual family of Levi and Rachel, two of the child stars featured prominently in the documentary film Jesus Camp. The film follows Levi and Rachel (and one other girl from another church) as they spend the week at a summer camp for Christian youth led by the charismatic preacher Becky Fisher. At camp, the children speak in tongues, dance around in war costumes, stretch forth their hands to supposedly pray to a cardboard cut-out of President George Bush (in actuality, the children were praying “for” Bush not “to” him, something that insiders like myself would know but outsiders could easily misinterpret), prophesy to each other, preach to each other, fall out under the power of the Holy Spirit, and pour out their souls in passionate intercession for the spiritual fate of our nation.
As a Christian reared in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition, there was very little I saw in Jesus Camp that I couldn’t relate to in one way or another. I can remember speaking in tongues for the first time at an Assembly of God summer camp during one of the evening services and then waking up the next day to go swimming and horse back riding. I remember singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army” in children’s church (which I understood figuratively even as a seven year old). I can remember attending a Christian school when I was between the ages of 12 and 14 and the highlight of my week was attending a voluntary prayer meeting with my youth pastor on Thursdays afternoons. In these prayer meetings, my peers and I would pray in tongues, prophesy, interpret dreams, and cry out to God for revival. The church of my upbringing was also the spiritual center in my city of a very controversial revival movement in which the signature manifestations were Holy Laughter, falling out under the power (also known as getting slain in the Spirit), shaking, and a sensation of drunkenness associated with the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the congregation.
When I actually watched the movie Jesus Camp for the first time, I had very mixed feelings. On one level, I was glad to see young people passionate about their faith, but on another level I was thinking “Oh my! I hope there aren’t too many non-Christians who will actually see this. They’ll think we’re all nuts!” It turned out that my fears were justified. Most of the reviews I read all but charged Becky Fisher and the O Brien family with child abuse. Some condemned them to hell for preying on the minds of the innocent and turning them into brain-washed psychopaths. One reviewer called it the scariest movie of the year (perhaps the creepy background music throughout the film got to him). Another reviewer compared the children to Islamic jihadists in training.
Before I give my impressions of the Obrien Family and the Rock of Ages Church, let me start off by saying there were several aspects of the film that concerned my wife and I. In the film, Pastor Tim’s wife Tracy teaches her kids the literal six- day creation theory as if it were the only possible interpretation of the creation account in Genesis, implies that Global Warming is a left-wing conspiracy, talks about America being a Christian nation in a manner that many secular Americans and even a good number of Christians would consider naïve. My wife and I also felt that much of the political activism in the film was inappropriate for children who were too young to understand the complexities of the issues they were dealing with (such as 6 and 7 year olds placing red bandanas around their mouths and protesting the evils of abortion). The most disturbing aspect for me was the filmmakers’ portrayal of evangelical Christians as a monolithic entity that by definition votes Republican and supports the Iraq War.
When Pastor Tim invited me to speak at his church, I have to admit that I was shaking in my boots. Not only did I know that I would be preaching a message on the radical non-violent nature of the Kingdom to a church where nearly every member worked for the U.S. military; but with images from Jesus Camp rolling around in my head, I expected my message of refusing earthly power as a means to advance the purposes of God on the earth would meet with cries of blasphemy. Not only did I not get booed off the stage, but afterwards I had several meaningful discussions with the members of the congregation and, most importantly, with the O Briens themselves.
You wouldn’t get this impression from watching Jesus Camp, but the O Briens have absolutely no interest in turning the U.S.A. into a Christian theocracy. During the potluck after the service, Pastor Tim shared with me his views concerning the pursuit of earthly power to advance the Kingdom of God and referred me to other preachers who were also speaking out against the political idolatry often associated with the Christian right. Pastor Tim’s wife, Tracy, was even more forthright in her views. Given her comment in Jesus Camp, I was surprised to hear her say that she agreed with me on my points that much of what constitutes as American Civil religion is based on the founding myths of the early pilgrims who believed they were establishing the Kingdom of God by settling the New World. Tracy also shared with me how she has come to realize that the Constitution is not a religious document, that much of what she learned about American history as a child was candy-coated, and that the founders of America, though they were brilliant, were fallible just like the rest of us. Tracy also told me that liberal historians write some of the books she has her children read. To my surprise, Tracy went on to tell me that, although she loves politics and considers herself a conservative, she hasn’t considered herself a Republican in two and a half years!
Were the O Brien children psychologically disturbed? I don’t think I can stress enough how normal the O Brien children are. Levi is now 15 years old and still dreams of living in India as a missionary in the near future. He loves to read books on history and has a part in a theatrical production in cooperation with other home schooled kids in the neighborhood. He loves Jesus with all his heart and, though an independent thinker, he loves and respects his parents in a way that is refreshing to see considering the disrespect that so many other children his age have for their parents. I think the proof of the normalcy of the O Brien children isn’t so much with Levi, but with Luke. With Levi’s passion for ministry and his Jesus Camp fame, you would think that Luke would be the bitter younger brother starving for parental approval (if indeed the O Briens were the stereotypical domineering type everyone seems to think they are). Not even close. Evangelical haters may be disappointed to hear that Luke is a happy, well-adjusted 14-year old who loves Jesus, loves his parents, and wants to chase tornados when he grows up. With his long hair, I told him he looked like he could be one of the characters from the movie Twister. This drew laughs from the entire family.
Do the O Briens want to kill Harry Potter (as the film seems to suggest)? Actually no. Jesus Camp viewers may be surprised that the O Briens actually let their children read the Harry Potter books and watch the movies. Do the O Briens want capital punishment for homosexuals? Again, the answer is no. They believe homosexuality is a sin, but it’s no worse than other sins, such as pride and greed. Do the O Briens want to overthrow the government? Again, the answer is no. As Tracy explained to me, Becky Fisher’s comment to the liberal radio talk show host that “democracy is set up in such a way as to bring an end to itself” was not about anarchy. Becky was simply saying that democracy is useless without a moral foundation.
The problem with our media saturated culture is it’s far too easy to draw conclusions based on images and 15 second sound-bites, especially when the images and sound-bites are divorced from their broader context. In today’s pessimistic culture, it’s hard to believe that children can be passionate about their faith and even harder to believe that human beings can behave so strangely in a religious meeting and retain their intellect. But just because it’s hard for people today (particularly in America and Western Europe) to accept the strange behavior associated with revivalism, that doesn’t means this type of behavior is all that unusual. Not only is American history filled with examples of religious revivalism, much of the non-Western world today experiences manifestations associated with religious ecstasy on a regular basis.
Show the film to a group of American journalists and they’ll likely be horrified. On the other hand, show the film to a group of African or Brazilian Christians and they’ll likely jump for joy and shout hallelujah. This isn’t to say that I don’t have my own reservations when it comes to unusual behavior associated with religious revivalism. I most certainly do. I just happen to know that, from a cultural and historical standpoint, the skepticism in the modern West against behavior associated with religious renewal is culturally and historically unique-not the other way around. If all of us could approach life with a lot more understanding and a lot less judging, I have a feeling that films like Jesus Camp wouldn’t be so frightening after all.