Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reflections on "Jesus Camp"

When I was religious, I tended to “other” forms of Christianity that weren't my own.  I could see that they were flawed, but my version was different. I was special.  So, I want to be very clear here: I am an atheist.  I have a problem with religion.  I have a problem with even -sometimes especially- the non-extreme ‘nice’ ones. 

This past weekend I watched the documentary Jesus Camp.  I expected to be horrified.  I had seen clips back in the day, when I was much closer to my old religion.  The clips sent chills down my spine.  To my surprise, this past weekend when I finally watched it all the way through, I found it oddly refreshing.  

This film follows a group of Evangelical Christians kids, who are attending a camp lead by a woman named Becky Fisher.  These are the scary people other Christians point to as poisoning the Christian image.  They speak in tongues.  They tell their children that they have to avoid temptations of sin.  They claim to be building “an army of God”.  They bring their kids to anti-abortion rallies with red tape across their mouths. They are outspokenly anti-science, and train their children to repeat complete nonsense. Watch the trailer here

So, what exactly did I find refreshing? The lack of hypocrisy.  These are people who believe in an all-powerful saving Jesus Christ, and then carry out that belief in every aspect of their life.  Yes, It’s extreme, but it’s also honest. And, in a way, the very extremity is what I liked. It’s easy to point to and go “Wow. That is so viscerally wrong”.  It begs for criticism, for evaluation, for questioning. I do think that moderate, liberal Christianity is different, but the things that I found disturbing in this film happen on a regular basis in even the most moderate of Christian households - they are less noticeable, more insidious, more part of our cultural fabric, but they are there, and they are harmful.  

First, the things I found pretty cool:

1. Becky Fisher:  A woman who has devoted her life to something she gets great joy out of.  A woman. Preaching. To children.  Call me bitter, but if the institution labeled as the awful extreme christianity boogeyman can get that women make powerful ministers, it’s got one progressive leg up on where I grew up. 

2. Empowerment of Children: These children do not follow the “seen but not heard” aphorism.  There’s one boy named Levi, who feels his calling is to preach.  He writes sermons.  He preaches to both his peers and adults.  And, from the looks of it, is taken seriously when he does so.  That’s pretty cool.  There’s one girl who goes up to a woman in a bowling alley, unprodded by any adults, and gives her a pamphlet, asking if she’s found Jesus.  This same girl proclaims that although she gets teased a lot for being weird, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.  She just says “Are you the one who’s going to judge me? Nuh-uh!” and goes about her business.  Another thing that struck me was the prevalence of young boys being moved to tears, and that being not only accepted, but encouraged.  There’s one scene where a little boy, I’d guess about 6 or 7, falls to his knees, sobbing.  A little girl (about 4 or 5?) hands him a tissue, gives him a hug, and they both keep on going. He crying, she administering tissues.  Truly, fundamentalist christianity is almost always fraught with problematic, rigid gender roles.  And yet, here we have boys crying, in public, unashamed of their shame.  There’s something so open about that.  First of all, they are acknowledging that they feel shame.  One of the problems that many ‘nice’ christians have is that they’re not supposed to feel shame.  So, if one does feel shame, then it just piles onto the list of shameful things.  There’s no way to really deal with it.  Secondly, BOYS. CRYING. IN PUBLIC. BECAUSE OF EMOTION. Now, maybe my perspective is a bit off. I currently tutor a young boy (early teenage years), who although he is hugely sensitive and emotional tells me at least once a week something along the lines of “well, I wouldn’t really cry, because boys don’t cry.  That’s lame.  I never cry.”.  I feel like so many of his problems would be solved by being able to feel and accurately identify emotions, and then know what to do with them. It makes me so angry.  I try to tell him that it’s ok to cry, but I don’t think he believes me.  

3. Emphasis on Instincts: Well, actually, this is pretty simple: I think speaking in tongues is cool.  Seriously.  I imagine it would be an awesome feeling to just go with whatever sounds you feel moved to make, free from the idea that sounds have to have meaning.  Like improv for your voice!  These are kids who, although brainwashed and in a stifling, toxic environment, are learning to be in touch with their instincts - even when those instincts seem weird to other people.  Feel like falling to the ground? Fall to the ground! Feel like shaking your hands? Shake your hands!  Feel like convulsing on the floor? Convulse, with all your heart and body, convulse!  Now, you can learn those things without thinking your impulses come from a supernatural being working through you.  My point is basically that the world would be better if everyone took modern dance. 

4. Consistency:  At one point, Becky tells the children “We can’t have phonies in the army of God.”  She points out that people who go to church, but then don’t live the principles in their daily live, are hypocrites.  I’d have to agree.  The aftermath of this claim, however, is that you have children crying, weeping to be cleansed of their “hypocrisy”.  Clearly that doesn’t exactly fill me with the warm fuzzies. But if you’re going to believe something, you better goddamn actually believe it, you know?  They’re just so refreshingly blatant.  At the end of the documentary, Becky goes onto a radio show that’s been cut in throughout the documentary.  It’s run by a moderate christian who is horrified by these extremists.  He challenges Becky about why she preaches to children - saying that it’s important for children to have choice.  Her response? “I don’t think any child gets anything by choice. As I understood your question to me, was do you feel it’s right for the fundamentalist to indoctrinate their children with their own beliefs.  I guess fundamentally, yes I do.” There you have it. It’s there. Her opinion, in the open.  You can debate it.  You can disagree.  There’s no “well, no, but I’m not reaaaally indoctrinating them.  I’m just teaching them about God.  They still have choice, I just don’t want them to have very much experience with the wrong options, so that they choose the right thing” or any of that other bullshit. 

Now, all this being said, there’s a reason I’m not signing up any time soon.  All of these things are possible to create outside of a religious context.  In fact, they’re probably even easier to create outside of a religious context (I’m serious about my modern dance hypothesis).  And the bad stuff?  It’s bad. 

1. Indoctrination: While I appreciate Becky’s honesty, I don’t think it’s right to indoctrinate children. However, I also don’t think Fundamentalists have a monopoly on indoctrination.  Every time you tell your child “God is real. Heaven is real. Hell is real,” it’s indoctrination.  Every time you take your child to church, tell them they have to fold their hands and say a prayer they might not even think about, that they have to sing songs about a variety of spiritual things, that’s indoctrination.  Every time your answer is “because God made it that way,” or “I just know,” or “God works in mysterious ways,” it’s indoctrination.  Every time you tell them “our religion is correct”, it’s indoctrination.  Even when you tell them “God loves everyone” or “all goodness comes from God”, it’s still indoctrination.  It’s teaching them to believe things without evidence, without choice.  It’s teaching them they don’t have to go through a reasoning process to know things, and that they don’t have a choice in pretty much anything.  Religion works precisely because it penetrates the deepest fiber of our brains. It affects how we see the world, how we think, how we interpret what goes on around us in a very specific way.  If you raise your children with any kind of religion held up as exclusively true, that’s indoctrination.  

2. The Political Use of Children:  This is one that I think is a pretty legitimate criticism of fundamentalism as different than moderate Christianity.  It’s creepy.  However, I’m pretty sure that there are some moderately religious households that still tell their children “abortion is evil” and leave it at that (mine was certainly one of them).  Or, even if you tell your children “God loves everyone, and gives everyone choice,” it’s nice, but it’s still…creepy.  We should learn to talk to our children about why we think things politically, teach them how to develop their own conclusions, not just tell them that it’s because of our interpretation of God.  The invocation of God has such a finality, such a righteousness involved.  It stops the conversation, or diverts it pretty drastically.  It strangles empathy, and stifles any ability to productively engage the other side in a discussion. 

3. Shame: This one seems too obvious, the examples too numerous.  I don’t know where to start. Children crying, asking to be cleansed of their ‘sins’.  A small boy who admits, through tears, that he sometimes has trouble believing in God.  Adults telling children that “the devil goes after the young”.  In one especially poignant instance, there’s a girl who loves dancing more than anything (only to Christian rock), but says “when I dance I have to be sure not to dance for the flesh,” and admits to having "problems with that". She looks a little abashed, then brushes it off, says she’s working on it, and tells everyone else out there who might be struggling with a similar issue that they’re not the only ones.  Later, hers is the most heartbreaking of the tear-streamed faces.  A child - she can’t be more than 11 or 12 - is worried that she is dancing ‘for the flesh’.  This struck me in particular, as I have a particular fondness for dancing for the flesh.  I think it can help you learn a lot of things about your flesh, and it's connections with your fleshy, fleshy brain (again, really, modern dance, everyone, do it).  Does she even know what adults mean when they say “dancing for the flesh”?  What do they mean, anyway? Do they mean don’t dance sexily? Or, as I expect she thinks they mean it, are they saying don’t dance just for the sake of dancing? If I understood correctly, every time she dances and doesn’t actively think about praising Jesus with her dance, she counts it as dancing for the flesh.  A sin.  Something she’s working on.  I cannot even begin to express how painful I find this, or how harmful such an alienation of one’s own body can be, especially for a young girl.  And again, as most people know, Fundamentalism is definitely not alone when it comes to dishing out shame.  I would argue, however, that they are joined not just by other extreme religions, but even the kindest of God-Loves-Yous.  I focus on the dancing example because it illustrates so clearly what I see as a major problem with belief in a “higher power”: alienation from oneself.  Belief in a bigger power I’m down with.  I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with gravity, or the ocean, or a volcano, or the stars, for instance.  I do think there is a useful, beautiful humility that comes from contemplating the bigness of things.  But a ‘higher power’ - of any kind?  Not the same thing.  It sets up a hierarchy - a hierarchy one can never escape, a hierarchy that structures the very core of one’s identity.  People are taught to see themselves as innately less-than, as powerless, and not in a helpful “wow that wave is big; my life is so short and the world is so awesome” kind of way.  A pious person’s motivation is supposed to be completely from outside of themselves; they are meant to improve themselves out of duty, from a place of feeling inferior. And, if they don’t develop a shame-guilt-inferiority complex of some kind, chances are the coin simply came down on the other side.  If there is a higher power, and that power is your god, speaking to you, a chosen one, your willingness to practice compassion and empathy are extremely (and understandably!) stunted.  Still, there is a hierarchical ladder ordering your mind, and compared to everything else on earth, you come the closest to the top rung; God is in your image, you have the truth, you are His people, why wouldn’t you be more right than that other guy?  A bigger power can let you feel humility without losing yourself, and a joyous wonder without thinking you caused it.  A higher power either makes you feel the lowest of the undeserving low, or the highest of the ruling high. 

While overall I found the lack of hypocrisy refreshing, I also don’t think that any organization operating in the current world while basing itself on a sprawling document that has been passed down, morphed, and changed for thousands of years can ever really be free of hypocrisy.  I don’t think that fundamentalism is necessarily the logical conclusion of Christianity; I think the nature of the beast lends itself to many interpretations that can then be carried out more-or-less consistently.  The Bible is rather contradictory, and so actual consistency is impossible - you gotta just pick what you think is most important and go from there.  But Fundamentalism is one of those interpretations, and it’s just as valid, based on just as much logic, as the liberal sects of Christianity.  All religion is enmeshed with culture, with modern problems, and with the personal opinions and personalities of its members.  I like that to the observer, Fundamentalism showcases this so clearly, so blatantly.  It’s not afraid to be what it is.  This is why, I think, so many conscientious, empathetic, religious individuals are repulsed by the documentary.  Othering, in this case, is a defense mechanism.  The similarities are what’s disturbing.  It’s painful to realize that the ideas one holds so dear can be interpreted to do such blatant harm.  So, we call it “twisting the truth”, “profanity”, “craziness”, in order to avoid looking at how the same problems are playing out in our own lives.  

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