Jesus Camp

Shortly after the shocking events of 9/11, I remember thinking that I had more respect for Jihadists and Islamists than I had for nominal Christians.

I was still a fundamentalist Christian. And I could see, with the clarity of the converted, that the fundamentalist Muslims were doing it right. They really believed their religion, and they acted on it. They were people of true faith, who took the words of their Holy Book seriously. Of course, their Holy Book was wrong and they were going to hell, but they were not like the watery compromisers of the Church of England, at least.

I was reminded of this when I watched the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp for the second time. Ten minutes and 50 seconds into Jesus Camp, children’s evangelist Becky Fischer says,

Where should we be putting our focus? I’ll tell you where our enemies are putting it: They’re putting it on the kids. They’re going into the schools. You go into Palestine… They’re taking their kids to camps like we take our kids to Bible camps, and they putting hand grenades in their hands… It’s no wonder with that kind of intense training and discipling that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam.

I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan, and in Israel [sic], and Palestine, and all those different places because we have… excuse me, but we have the truth!

So you see, I wasn’t kidding when I wrote “I could have been a suicide bomber.” [I managed to watch it online here; link is still good at the time of writing]

I say watched Jesus Camp for the second time. I have absolutely no memory of watching it the first time. But when it began, I recognised the footage, and assumed I must have seen a trailer. Then a few scenes passed, and I continued getting the same sense of deja vu. This continued all the way to the end. Presumably, I did watch it once and just can’t remember when or where. But there’s part of me that wonders if I was really watching it for the first time, and it just felt familiar because this was my life.

If you’d like to get to know me better, watch Jesus Camp. My childhood was exactly like that. I moved in the same Pentecostal circles as Becky Fischer. I spent three successive summers at American Bible camps in my teens – Tulsa, Oklahoma and Fort Worth, Texas in 1999; Warrenton, Missouri in 2000; and Dallas and somewhere in Arkansas in 2001. I was older than the kids in Jesus Camp, but I see myself in every one of them.

One of the things I notice is that the cadences and rhythms the kids use when talking about God are similar to the ones I see in childhood footage of me. There’s a kind of family resemblance that comes from listening to the same style of preacher all the time. That and the fact – how did I not notice this before? – that Pentecostals speak almost exclusively from some kind of unwritten Jesus Phrasebook. Around 45 minutes into the film, when Levi is preaching, you might think you are watching an unusually articulate child. Which you are. But you are also watching someone talking like they’re trying to win a game of Pentecostal Cliche Bingo.

When I watch Jesus Camp now, I think the same thing most viewers probably do: Those kids are just imitating their parents and church leaders. The ecstatic responses, the stock phrases used in prayers, the praying in tongues, the religious gestures – these kids learn by imitation.

But I used to be one of those kids, and it didn’t feel like I was imitating anyone. I would have been insulted and angry at the suggestion. It felt absolutely genuine and sincere, as I’m sure it did for the children in the documentary.

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. I’m serious… all of it could have been shot from my childhood, if the children had English accents. That’s why I’m sure the documentary is an accurate portrayal.

The kid I find most upsetting in the whole film is the young blond boy with the bowl haircut. He testifies – with breathtaking honesty – that he finds it hard to believe in God because he can’t see him. Several times we see him crying, holding his hands out in a standard Pentecostal “receiving from God” gesture, desperation etched on his face. He wants so badly to feel what everyone else is feeling. I’ve been there, kid.

The reason he’s suffering is that he’s been told all he has to do to be saved is believe. He’s trying so hard, but it’s difficult sometimes. Yet if he doesn’t believe, he won’t be saved. And he knows very well what happens to the unsaved.

Teaching that to children is fucking barbaric.

Later, we see him reading Children Demand a Verdict, a work of propaganda by Josh McDowell, which quotes conservative writers to make it seem like evidence from scientists, historians, archaeologists and Biblical textual scholars all overwhelmingly point to the truth of (the conservative interpretation of) the Bible. At the end of the film, Becky Fischer admits that what she is doing is indoctrination, but doesn’t think this is wrong.

Some of you will be taken aback by the prayer directed at Satan. This is the doctrine of spiritual warfare. It was so normal in my childhood that I still don’t find it weird now.

I think my favourite bit is about 43 minutes in, when one of the girls expresses perfectly the superiority I always felt. She explains how God doesn’t like to go to “dead churches”, but prefers lively ones like hers.

God is not in every church. There’s a certain thing, they’re called dead churches, and the people there, they sit there, like this [adopts very still, stiff posture].

[In a monotone voice] We worship you God. We worship you God.

They sing like, three songs, then they listen to a sermon.

Churches that God likes to go to are churches where they’re jumpin’ up and down, shoutin’ his name, and just praisin’ him. They not acti – they’re not quiet [makes dour face and bows head]. They’re like [as if screaming] HALLELUJAH! GOD! you know? And depending on how they invite Him, He’ll be there or not.

I could talk about the whole film all day, but just watch it, OK?

About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on January 22, 2013, in Christianity, Creationism, Fundamentalism, Word of Faith and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. We went through much of this as fairly new ‘christians’ in our forties! the feeling that you are the only non ‘spiritual’ ones in worship groups because you are not jumping up and down and ‘praying in tongues’. After years of intensive Bible study, including around the phenomena of ‘tongues’ we realised these charismatic / pentecostals were almost certainly on the wrong path, not Biblical.
    The Bible says to study and show yourself approved, to search out the Truth for yourself.
    We believe most of ‘Christtianity’ as we know it today is deceived and ripe for the appearance of the antichrist as we come closer daily to the ‘End Times’ as Bible prophesy tells us.

  2. I’m reminded somewhat of a BBC documentary I saw a while back about “Britian’s most religious child” or something to that effect. They followed around this ~14 year old around for a bit, it was the usual Jesus-camp stuff. But the bit that struck me most is that in one interview she broke down in tears because she thought she was so wretched, so sinful that she didn’t deserve anything. Yet she Jesus still loved her and that made her happy etc.

  3. Will you be saying “fuck” on the next Vlog? It’d be cool if you did.

    Random comment. Haha.

  4. I watched your film. No child should feel he has the answers for the entire world before he can even think for himself; it is a great burden and does not make him popular with others. I also was a fundamentalist–‘saved’ when I was seven. I embraced it completly. However, I went to public school, and I wore my religion on my sleeve; I carried a Bible with me every day and read it duing breaks or when I finished a test early. Both my fifth and sixth-grade teachers called me their Bible student. I now regret the way that I felt so superior to all my classmates who were going to hell.

    I have been reading you blog for the last few weeks and I want you to know you are helping people with it. Keep up the good work. ~Tim

  5. The documentary referred to above, by Adam Benton was about Deborah Drapper, entitled ‘Deborah Drapper, 13, Servant of God’. With her father, she was/is very active in the ‘Creation’ ministry.
    I arranged for her to visit our daughter’s Christian school, with her father and I saw her talk at an ACE conference. For a 14 year old she was a very confident, self assurred young lady.
    Apparently, alot was misrepresented in the programme and the family said they felt it was one sided, I think it certainly played into the hands of those who claim that children are being brain washed by their ‘religious’ parents.

  6. I watched this show a few months ago and was also blown away by how familiar it all felt. My cult didn’t go for the speaking in tongues bit, but the rest of it was full on how I grew up.

    In a similar vein of thought, I realized a somewhat odd thing just last night when I was talking with my wife. We were discussing 9/11 and she was saying how insane it was for her when it happened, and how the emotion she was hit with was almost crippling for a few days. I thought back to my own reaction to the event and realized that as horrible and sad as the whole episode was, it hadn’t surprised me at all. As much as I felt for the people losing their lives and their loved ones lives, the actual event did not shock me. But of course it didn’t, I realized. Because I’d been conditioned since I could think to expect this kind of thing to happen. We were at war with the heathens after all. We were under attack from every avenue.

    Yeah, pretty strange world to inhabit as a child. To choose to make your own child inhabit this world is a crazy thing for a parent to do. Mentally abusive aye, to put it lightly.
    So nice to be out of it, fully.

    And a brief comment for Debbie above: Regarding your belief in the end times; you do realize that both Jesus and Paul also believed the end times were imminent in their lifetimes, yes? Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen. And, well, um, that was 2000 years ago. Amazing how every new generation of believers is convinced their lives will not end but be rescued by Jesus returning in the clouds. The sheer level of the fear of death in believers is incredible to me. Every single generation repeats the cycle. And every single generation still ends up, if they’re lucky, growing old and dying, just the same. Yet on and on we go, where the end times prophecies will end, no one knows.

  7. hey do you know the blond kid with the bowl hair cuts name ? I’m doing a paper for my college class and it would be great just to know where he is now. thanks so much

  8. Jesus Camp definitely reflected the general church (and camp) atmosphere of my teens. Complete with tongues. It had that same sense of eerie familiarity.

  9. I thought you might be interested to know that a very similar argument to that used by Becky Fischer was used by some speakers during the debates on the 1944 Education Act, but with regard to Nazis.


    ‘People with other ideologies, such as Hitler, realise that they must get hold of the children first. If we can, in our schools, have this definite religious education, we shall be able to draw out qualities from the child’s mind which will make the child realise … that he has been trained in a way that will lead his soul forward’

    Nazi ‘methods’ of education ‘certainly produce results’ (the speaker is aiming to achieve ‘Christian character’)

    These quotes aren’t quite as radical as hers in terms of talking about suicide bombers, although that is perhaps largely irrelevant given that it was WWII and various speakers saw it as a battle between Christianity and secularism!

    Keep up the great work by the way. This blog is fascinating, although very depressing.

  10. It was very close to my childhood as well, except my family weren’t Pentecostal but southern baptists like instead. I was fortunate to be in a congregation that “died” in the words of Rachel from the film which gave my mind a chance to view things differently. If the church didn’t turn sour I may still be throwing blood on teens at planned parenthood and proclaiming dinosaur bones satanic. I find it interesting that you are British though, these evangelical churches are rare in my liberal hometown outside of Baltimore so I can’t imagine how rare they are in the UK

  11. When I was watching Jesus Camp with my mom, she told me that there are kids in this who would eventually wake up and see what’s going on in this movie is completely nuts. She told me what she wanted for my brother and me when we were younger, which was to let us spend our childhood believing what we wanted, and then when we were a little older than that, she’d tell us about her views. She’s a hardcore atheist, and my dad had grown up in a strict religious household and that these days, not a single one of them goes to church. His youngest sister even converted to Judaism when she married her husband several years ago. As for me, I’ve tried believing in God, but I just can’t because of my knowledge on science, which everyone should know about ever since the Enlightenment.

    I do believe Jesus once walked this Earth and preached many great ideas, but so many Christians these days have forgotten them. Jesus was good. He wasn’t a slut-shamer, or freakishly conservative, or a capitalist pig, or someone who would refuse to feed or heal the poor. It’s people like Becky who drive people out of Christianity. I have no problem with Christianity or Catholicism as long as it’s not practiced in such a crazy, harmful way. I live in a city full of Irish and Italian Catholics, and I haven’t met a single one of them who’s anything like Becky. Man, would the current Pope like Boston. Becky probably despises him. I don’t like some of his social views, but he’s still much better than someone who speaks in tongues, makes kids cry, and worships a card-board cutout of George W. Bush.

    I’ll admit that I myself am a liberal, and that the people in Becky’s church would most likely think I’m a Communist. Well, I’d much rather be a Communist than to be a sheep. Congrats, Jonny, for escaping that path in life. I remember looking at the kid you were talking about, and wondering where he is today. I’ll be honest, though. I was worried that kid may suffer to the point where he would find there would be no way out and would take his own life. I hope that not a single kid in that church is dead.

    • Thank you Laura. It’s great to hear from you.

      By the way, it’s a misconception that the kids were worshipping the Bush cutout. They were praying for him; it’s common in that culture to stretch your hands towards something when praying, as if it conducts God’s power in that direction or something. It’s still an act of political indoctrination, but it’s not as bad as it appears to some people.

  12. I’m watching this on Netflix, and if this is the future of America, I’m moving to another country. This is frightening how these children are being brainwashed. Of course, the whole Ted Haggard scandal should have shed light on the whole fundie movement. There’s a Ted Haggard in every major fundie group. He or she just may have not been outed yet. And it’s not necessarily that they are gay. They may be thieves or adulterers or pedophiles. I am a Christian who believes in a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body. I’m also a full supporter of LGBT rights because Jesus commanded us to love one another. He put no caveats on that commandment. I just hope Satan is expanding because he has a whole flock of these hypocrites headed for hell when they die.

  13. You have the truth ?!?!?! Anyone who perpetuates this child abuse is a monster. You are no better than terrorists. In fact, you ARE terrorists. Child abusers and terrorists. The USA is in deep shit.

  14. Here’s another cult born of fundamental Christianity. Enjoy!

  15. While I haven’t been able to watch that video online. ( I am going to try to find it on Netflix as someone suggested) I will say that I am of the Pentecostal faith. I did not grow up in that faith I made that decision for myself as an adult. From what is being said about that video actually makes me quite mad. I know what I believe. Yes, I do hope my children will have that same faith as me when they are older. I also want them to make that decision, a well-informed decision, for themselves. It means more anyways. Now, I hope all Pentecostal churches are not judged based on this alone. To stereotype all based on a few is always wrong and incorrect. I found your blog by accident when looking up info on homeschooling. lol. Since then I have read your blogs and found them fascinating. While I may never agree with you on all it is still informative and enlightening. Thanks for the read.

    • Hey, thank you. It sounds like we’re on the same page on a lot of things. I have no problem with people choosing Pentecostalism as adults, even though I don’t share the belief. I do have a problem with it being forced onto children.

      I have to say, I’ve found the open-minded attitude you show here rare among Pentecostals, but not non-existent. I have a couple of dear friends who have a similar take to the one you expressed.

    • You can watch “Jesus Camp” here for free (Free Documentaries Online):

  16. I have to say thank-you for this blog. I just watched Jesus Camp – and started crying half-way through. It was my life too. Looking at those kids objectively as an atheist adult was terrifying. I’m really glad people are starting to speak out about spiritual abuse. Like you, I was ACE – but in Canada, and only for elementary school. Thank-you for speaking out.

  1. Pingback: Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study - Page 3 - Defending The Truth Political Forum

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