Friday, June 1 2007
Gretchen was headed down to the City for the evening, but before she left in the afternoon, it was movie time in the cluttered "studio apartment" where, these days, we spend most of our time with our recuperating dog Eleanor.
The movie in question was Jesus Camp, a high-production documentary of the most radically fundamentalist Christians in America and the shocking things they do to the children in their care. These are the folks most responsible for making ours a nanny state of movie ratings, internet filters, and book burnings, but it wasn't far into the movie before I was wondering why child protective services weren't kicking down their doors.
The chief villain of this movie is Becky Fischer, a children's pastor whose distended figure seems to be stuffed with not much other than hate, sadism, and the most comicly primitive variety of superstition. Her sermons are an incoherent rant about evil forces in the world, designed, it seems, to terrify the children to whom she preaches. Inevitably she has a room full of sobbing children whom she then works into a Pentecostal frenzy of talking in tongues, screaming, wailing, and even flailing on the floor. The Pentecostal thing owes a lot to the exhuberant animist (that is, non-Abramaic) traditions of West Africa. Many religious traditions have discovered the power to be tapped by descending into the sub-verbal parts of the mind. And when this power is combined with the additional power of mass participation, it's possible to assemble a mob capable of just about anything that doesn't require thought. I half-expected to see some of those scenes of screaming wet-faced children cut to a mob of them with torches surrounding an abortion clinic (though, in North Dakota, where the actual Jesus camp is located, that would probably make for a road trip long enough for heads to cool along the way).
While those who speak in tongues and throw holy seizures on the floor may feel that this is proof positive that they have a connection with the divine, what they've actually done is short circuit neural pathways in our minds that are there to encourage social participation and work up the motivation to hunt or fight. In this way, what they're doing is a "perversion" not all that different from masturbation. Like the crime of self abuse, it isn't harmful in and of itself. What's creepy here is that adults are supervising and encouraging it en masse.
Becky Fischer and her various assistants, though they owe much to West African witch doctors, have somehow managed to chase all the joy and peace out of that tradition, replacing it with the grimness of another important factor in American religion: the Puritan pilgrims. In Fischer's Pentecostalism, Harry Potter is of the devil and books about him cannot be read, whether or not they are regarded as pure fantasy. And an important tradition of all youth camps is also discouraged: the ghost story.
Somehow Jesus Camp gave us access to the grim home life of homeschooled children, where an ignorant mother teaches her mullet-sporting child that global warming is no big deal because temperatures have only risen 0.6 degrees. Later we hear him opine that it was good that Galileo eventually gave up science to return to God. How dare they! They were sitting in a room surrounded by all the comforts science has provided since it began believing the eyes that Galileo had the courage to open.
Later we're treated Becky Fischer going through some rituals at the empty Jesus camp before the children arrive. She's praying over the seats, over the electrical outlets, and over the computer, specifically mentioning PowerPoint. She has no idea how any of this stuff works, all the man hours, science, and experiments that went into making all this stuff possible. To her, it's of a piece with the magic that runs the world, and prayer is the only tool in her mental toolbox. Nobody in that religion could ever invent anything useful or come up with a new idea for the rest of us; to do so would require imagination, and it was clear that in this ultra-authoritarian culture, imagination is something to be feared, not cultivated.
Perhaps one of the most amusing ironies of Jesus Camp was on display in an early scene where we're treated to children in camouflage makeup doing an elaborate stick dance as part of a dramatization of their future status as soldiers for God. As Gretchen pointed out, the moves they were executing were almost surely copied from the work of a gay choreographer. As grim as their world is, these Pentecostalists would still be living in caves if they didn't greedily consume the products of the sinful, freethinking world around them.
One of the most interesting things about Fischer's Pentecostalism is how devoid it seems to be of a factor that is usually important to a religion: tradition. Other than the tradition of speaking in tongues, extreme Biblical literalism, and homeschooling, there doesn't seem to be anything old in it. There is no architecture, no vestments, no prayers, and no songs. It's completely ahistorical. Pentecostals do include music in their religious services, but it seems to cater to the style of those doing the worshipping, and can just as easily be heavy metal, rap, or light vocal jazz. As a religion, it lacks a tradition distinct from the culture at large. Could this just be yet another aspect of the religion's willful ignorance? Or might history be unimportant for some religions? In most countries, the absence of the gravitas and layered patina of tradition would work against a religion's popularity, but in a country full of McMansions, McDonalds, megachurches, and anonymous suburbs like Alpharetta, Georgia (future school shooting site), and Littleton, Colorado (past school shooting site), such an ahistorical religion might be just what the Holy Ghost ordered.
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