Acton Institute Powerblog

Mosquitos in Jesus Camp

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Received some emails in the past week from the folks at Magnolia Pictures announcing the release of Jesus Camp, which they call a "new, controversial documentary." According to one mailer, "The film follows children at an Evangelical summer camp, as they hone their prophetic gifts and are schooled in how to take back America for Christ."

Disclaimer – I haven’t seen it. Haven’t even been offered comp tickets to attend a screening of it, though I have been asked to promote it, which seems rather odd (and by your reading this, may be too late to avoid). You can see clips of it here and here.

Apparently some "Evangelical leaders" – the emails don’t say which – aren’t happy about it. Maybe they don’t like the portrayal of this Pentecostal summer camp as an American madrassa, as David Byrne (who has seen the film) puts it. In any event, Eamonn Bowles, President of Magnolia Pictures, felt it necessary to release the following statement:

“We’re frankly surprised and a little disheartened by the efforts of prominent members of the evangelical community to clamp down on JESUS CAMP. Whether or not the children and camp depicted in the film represents the ‘mainstream’ of the Evangelical movement is beside the point: they exist, the film documents them, and the subjects feel they’ve been treated fairly. Why a community that’s so quick to attack discrimination from secular Americans would then turn and do the same to other Evangelicals is unexpected, to say the least.”

Christianity Today interviewed the film’s documentrixes. Besides Byrne’s and Bowles’ comments, their interview suggests what might be bugging some conservative evangelicals:

You talk about the range of evangelicals you came across. Would Mike Papantonio [a radio talk-show host who appears throughout the film, and at one point debates Fischer] self-identify as an evangelical? Grady: No, he’s not evangelical. He’s a Methodist, he goes to a mainline church, but he’s quite devoted to his church. [snip] Ewing: . . .While Mike is not officially a born-again Christian, he does echo a lot of the concerns that these gentlemen have, and we thought this was a more creative way to vent those concerns, because he is a Christian. He just thinks that the politicization of the church is going to be the downfall of it, and he doesn’t like that association. So officially, no, he’s not a born-again, but he does, I think, speak very well for the concerns of Christians that don’t like the political nature of the evangelical movement, or at least of the far right part of that movement.

He’s not evangelical – he’s a Methodist. Heh. Will have to remember that one. I think these ladies are being modest about their protagonist. Their own promotional materials say this about Papantonio:

The film also features a counterpoint, in the form of excerpts from Michael Papantonio’s "Ring of Fire" show on NPR’s Air America. Though he frequently takes aim at the fundamentalist Christian movement, Papantonio is an active Methodist who admits that his moral compass comes from his faith.

…a show Mike shares with Bobby Kennedy, where "two of the nation’s most dynamic legal warriors" take on "corporate crooks, polluters, hypocritical preachers and ugly politicians."

First, I doubt evangelical leadership is discriminating against Pentecostals, but rather decrying the exploitation of this group by religious folk like Papantonio and the secular Left. Conservatives may well be frustrated by a portrayal of this group as "mainstream," but since the Body of Christ is pretty diverse anyway, the whole what-is-mainstream-thing is territory in which neither evangelicals nor secular movie makers should tread.

Second, Magnolia clearly has a right to make the film. Pastors also have a right to counsel their flock according to what they know about the film, and the folks in the pews have a right to spend or not spend their family cash as they (prayerfully) see fit.

Third, by their own admission, Jesus Camp was meant to be "controversial." It seems pretty disingenuous for Mr. Bowles to turn around and complain when Evangelicals pan the film, then accuse Christian critics of discriminating against another Christian group.

All that said, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover (and the liner notes). In the case of Jesus Camp, I’m not going to waste my time with it. Recommend you do the same. I also hope/assume that the crack Acton readership will quickly roll in and correct me if I’ve misjudged the picture.

[Don’s other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist]

UPDATE: If it helps, I checked the United Pentecostal Church website and updated the spelling above, though many sites use pente and penta interchangeably. db

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.