"Fight the good fight of faith."
--1 Timothy 6:12
She mounts the stage in a theater full of kids, some as young as 6, and holds up a cuddly, stuffed baby lion for all to see. Becky Fischer, pastor in the Kids in Ministry evangelical church, tells her doe-eyed listeners that sin -- when it first tempts us as children -- can seem as sweet and harmless as the toy cub in her hand.
"It looks kind of cute, in fact," she coos, pressing it to her cheek. "Warm and fuzzy."
Then her tone sharpens, her eyes narrow, and Fischer -- the charismatic central figure in the controversial new documentary film Jesus Camp, which opens at the Charles Theatre tomorrow -- swings the lion over her head as an Olympic athlete might throw a hammer. "But sin is designed to destroy you," she says, her voice rising along with the centrifugal force. "Feed this [animal] long enough, [and] he's gonna grow in your life until you've got yourself a tiger by the tail!"
It's not the most incendiary moment in Jesus Camp, the latest work by co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, creators of last year's award-winning Boys of Baraka. That distinction might go to scenes making headlines in the press. In those, preteen Bible campers sob, smash crockery, speak in tongues, dance in warlike camo makeup and raise their hands in prayer toward a life-sized cutout of President Bush -- all at the urging of grown-ups.
But as cinema and as preaching, it's one of the more effective, taking on bit by bit a problematic subject: the inward struggle of Christian believers to "remain righteous before God," as Fischer puts it. At this strange moment in American history, a struggle against sin is as basic to one-half of the country as it is mysterious to the other.
Say what you will about Fischer -- and viewers of Jesus Camp have said plenty -- she has a startling knack for making the invisible real. That's useful for a woman who, like thousands of American preachers, is trying to revive a national faith she says has too long been jeopardized by the secular left.
"We're in a spiritual battle," she said in a telephone interview last week as the film was set to open nationwide. "It's the precepts and the values of the Bible against what goes on in this [fallen] world. We have to tell the kids the truth."
The directors' job is similar. They follow Fischer and three of her young disciples at a summer Bible camp in North Dakota, but their real mission is to evoke the unseen: two warring faith systems -- one religious/conservative, the other secular/progressive -- each as sure of itself as it is hostile toward the other.
There's something seductive about roads. The early frames of Jesus Camp place viewers in a moving car, scenes of rural America -- green fields, sporadic traffic, highway billboards -- rushing past the window. The soundtrack is a talk-radio station, an evangelist's voice audible through crackling static.
"We dare not sleep through this point of decision," he says. "Frankly, future generations depend on us."
In last year's Boys of Baraka, Ewing and Grady traced the lives of four city kids who left their home turf -- Baltimore and its troubled schools -- for a chance at a better education elsewhere (Kenya's experimental Baraka School). In Jesus Camp, they take us to the heartland, introducing us to Missouri children being raised in fundamentalist Christian homes.
Levi, 12, Tory, 10, and Rachael, 9, travel to Fischer's Kids On Fire summer camp in North Dakota for further immersion in their faith. Some of the movie's best scenes show us the kids' daily lives, which, in many ways, are endearingly normal. Levi, with his mullet, gazes at TV. Tory, a talented dancer, listens to music and argues with her mom. Rachael enjoys stuffed animals and bowling.
But Levi, already a preacher, confides he was "saved" at age 5, when he realized there must be "more to life." Tory tells herself to remember to dance for the glory of God, not "the flesh." Rachael approaches a grown-up stranger to tell her "God has a plan for you."
Good documentaries use the familiar to share the new, and Ewing and Grady, New Yorkers, set out to give one-half of America a good look at the other. The camp at the movie's center "is a riveting example of a world many Americans either do not understand or dismiss as 'fringe' and irrelevant to their own lives," says a joint statement on their Web site.
But in the year they spent traveling to the heartland, getting to know the kids and their families, they came to believe that the world to which the kids and Fischer belonged -- that of America's fundamentalist Christians -- was neither fringe nor irrelevant.
As many as one in four Americans -- upward of 80 million -- call themselves evangelical Christians. The group's factions hold disparate beliefs, but all have faith in the primacy of the Bible and a conviction that only those "born again" in Christ will attain salvation. Most are wary of a "secular" world that has succeeded, in their view, in legalizing abortion and banning school prayer, two of the "sins of our nation," in one preacher's words.
Fischer, with her spiky hair, heavy-set build and bottomless zeal, is a formidable agent. She rattles off stats. "A credible researcher says that 70 percent of young people raised in Christian churches leave the church when they become teens and young adults and never return," she says. "That is a crisis." In the film, she's unapologetic for "indoctrinating" kids in Christianity. "Excuse me," she says, "but we have the truth."
The most talked-about images in Jesus Camp show Fischer leading chants, calling for "war," using imagery of Christ's blood and washing children's "sins" away with bottled water. Levi, prompted by his home schooling, laughs off both evolution and global warming. A sobbing Tory and Rachael cry out for "righteous judges" who will overturn abortion laws. Kids are "usable" for Christianity, Fischer says.
Blogs and Internet message boards of all stripes are bristling with commentary. Secular humanists accuse her of child abuse; evangelicals say, for the most part, that the film shows her out of context. Fischer sees the portrayal as essentially fair. "Is [the movie] representative of who I am and everything I do?" she asks. "No. In an 84-minute film there isn't time to explain everything. But it's an accurate view of my ministry."
What really struck the filmmakers, though, was a growing sense that the beliefs Fischer passed along were part of a larger movement, one that added up to major political power.
"When you put [these people] all together," says Mike Papantonio, a left-leaning Christian DJ and prominent voice of dissent in the film, "they start taking control in small slices. ... They form a powerful voting bloc. And George Bush and Karl Rove owe them big, big time."
On July 1 of last year, Ewing and Grady were well along in their work on Jesus Camp when Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement. Many saw it as President Bush's chance to fill the seat with someone likelier to rule in favor of his own belief -- shared by evangelicals -- that abortion is wrong.
Then the co-directors heard prominent preachers like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Ted Haggard, head of the Colorado-based National Association of Evangelicals, rallying their troops. Their voices appear in Jesus Camp, exhorting followers to mobilize and engage in the political process. "That was when we realized what influence conservative Christians really exert," Grady says.
Fischer originally allowed herself to be filmed on the assumption the film's focus was American children and faith. When Ewing and Grady told her it would address politics, she was chagrined, but after lengthy discussions reluctantly agreed to the switch.
"This is our world as seen through the girls' secular lens," she says of the filmmakers. "They had no grid, if you will, for this before. It's honestly what they perceive."
Evangelicals like Haggard are less forgiving. In an interview with the magazine Christianity Today, he derided the film as "liberal propaganda." The film "manipulates facts like a Michael Moore film and works the camera like The Blair Witch Project," he says, making evangelicals look "scary." His remarks hurt box-office numbers in the Midwest, where distributor Magnolia Pictures expected to fare better last month.
Time of divisiveness
Understandably, news outlets hyping the film have played up the "warlike" images. But war symbolism, common among evangelicals, is figurative, alluding only to the unseen conflict between good and evil.
"We're told to turn the other cheek," Fischer says, "and to lay our lives down for our brother," adding that "our war is not against people." In more than 220 hours of footage, the filmmakers find just one brief scene in which a child makes that distinction. By then, viewers might feel Fischer is promoting what she insists she is not -- a violent "Christian jihad."
When she got home from a recent promotional tour, Fischer found her e-mail inbox crammed with hate messages, most of it accusing her of brainwashing or child abuse. Ewing is thrilled that Jesus Camp is triggering conversations about the nature of faith, the state of politics, even the ethics of child-rearing.
Grady sees criticism rolling in from the right and the left, each side wanting the film more explicitly to attack the other.
"I don't think the two sides are talking to each other at all," Grady says. "I do think that deeply conservative Christian people have ... prejudices against people they see as secular and liberal, and vice versa. There has got to be a dialogue."
At a time of divisiveness in America, it may be too much to ask that two filmmakers invent a language in which both sides can communicate. But cinematically speaking, Ewing and Grady have a tiger by the tail. Jesus Camp, like Fischer, brings many viewers to their feet, offends others, and proves just about impossible not to watch.