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.


  • Joshua Ballard

    IS there a distinction being made here between Pentacostals and Pentecostals?

    I am assuming that the Pentacostals are oneness or unitarian (or at least usually the case), in contradistinction to Pentecostals who affirm trinitarian theology…The reason I point this out is simply because there could be a partial explanation for the attack by the Methodist Pastor.

    It could also explain (or go some way to explaining) some of the politicising concepts that seemed to be espoused in the video. A Oneness theology could easily contribute to a dominion theology that lacks a certain social quality.

    I saw the trailer for this thing and was extremely interested to see it, if not only as a theological reflection but also a sociological observation. It would be great to see.

  • CLS

    I foound this discussion a bit off the mark. I’ve read interviews with the film makers and various reviews. First, the woman the film is about says the film is accurate and endorse it! Now if Christians don’t like it they need to deal within their own circles with the extremists who do support such views. I was raised in this atmosphere and what the film portrays is mild compared to many fundamentalist churches.

    I can understand why you want to pretend it is biased, dishonest, or whatever. I grew up with this stuff and I know it portrays things that are real and worrisome. That you don’t want to deal with this sort of problem within your wing of Christianity is your problem. Deal with it. These sorts of sects are dangerous.

  • Don

    . . .I was raised in this atmosphere. . .
    . . .I grew up with this stuff and I know it portrays things that are real and worrisome.

    Your experience sounds like the one my better half did growing up in a fundamental Baptist church. What sort of congregation were you in, if you don’t mind my asking?

    [By the way, great post at your blog on organic farming as the source for eColi. Haven’t seen that anywhere else. Blogged it last night at]

    Grace and peace,

  • db

    More comments on the film at [url=]WorldMag’s blog[/url].

  • “These sorts of sects are dangerous.” You mean Pentecostals…oh yes so dangerous. they believe in Praying for George Bush and when they pray they reach out their hands toward a cardboard cut out of him. Frightening.
    While I agree the children at Jesus Camp are way too young to understand what it means to “Die for the Lord” the fact that people now think that means Jesus suicide bombers means that the hacks who put this hit piece together hit their mark well.

    The kids (way too young I know) are being shown what is evil, what is anti-Christian and being taught to face it like a soldier. If they were 17 years old, I’d be signing my kids up for it.

    The world needs believers who are not afraid to be killed for telling others about Christ.