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Going to Jesus Camp and Getting Religulous

A friend of mine is a former Baptist minister who loves movies. Over some Chinese food last week, he made…

By Brent Wittmeier , in News Seeking: Spirituality in the media , on January 20, 2009 Tags: , , , , ,

A friend of mine is a former Baptist minister who loves movies. Over some Chinese food last week, he made a confession.

“I’m afraid to watch Jesus Camp,” he said about the 2006 documentary on a Pentecostal summer camp. “It looks too painful.”

I can see what he means. Documentary films are scary business for religious folk these days. And while documentaries can scrutinize the spectrum human behavior, they can easily simplify or distort complex social patterns and beliefs.

picture-4Yet religious documentaries are exploding. For every well-known film like Jesus Camp or Bill Maher’s Religulous, there are a myriad of pretenders, like The God Who Wasn’t There or Waiting for NESARA . There seems to be a healthy industry dedicated to exposing the weird, wonderful, and downright perplexing world of religion.

So between other activities, I spent this weekend perusing two documentaries, Jesus Camp and Religulous.

Jesus Camp is a more traditional documentary examining a North Dakotan summer camp. The camp is run by Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s pastor and culture warrior of the American Midwest. Fischer is an ardent supporter of George Bush and engages in Jesus-inspired demagoguery throughout the film.

Jesus Camp takes a before/during/after look at Fischer’s ministry. Shots of uproarious camp meetings are interspliced with examinations of three representative children attending the camp. A cocky pre-fall Ted Haggard even has a cameo, teasing the camera with seemingly autobiographical moral accusations. Haggard is currently promoting a new HBO doc on his life over the past year.

My friend was right. It is painful.

But the film works. The camp is a spectacle. Fischer is unapologetic about her ruthless, strange tactics. The children do what they’re told in dramatic fashion, exhibiting religious behaviour with childlike seriousness and malleable hearts. It’s fascinating. It exposes how the politics of abortion and morality still divides America.

picture-5The second film I watched was Bill Maher’s Religulous, last year’s smarmy docu-ganda on the religions of the world.

Like its title, Religulous is slightly off-centre and less funny than it thinks.

With his trademark swagger and wit, Maher interviews a host of religious folk and asks tough questions. He is not especially interested in getting coherent answers, but in exposing the irrationality of religious belief through a flurry of one-liners. Maher is quicker on his feet than most people he interviews, and it’s a guilty pleasure to watch people squirm.

As expected, Maher paints religion with a broad brush and little sympathy. He is not above shooting fish in a barrel. Bizarre clips are edited in to reign in ADHD viewers.

“Doubt is humble and that’s what man needs to be,” Maher says. He exhibits little doubt or humility when he offers his final challenge to religious people: “Grow up or die.”

Maher’s tour of American and world religion reminded me of Borat. This is not surprising since both films were directed by Larry Charles and share a basic formula. Like Borat, Religulous is inherently and unapologetically superficial, jumping between complex social communities while Maher does his schtick.

picture-3While funny and occasionally insightful, Maher is ultimately unconvincing in his rants. I wonder if Maher really cares that much, or simply sees an opportunity with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on bestsellers lists (beating the Four Horsemen of atheism to the punch).

As different as these movies are, they show the power of documentaries to shape opinions about religion. In both cases, viewers are encouraged to objectify religious expressions, to gawk at the weirdness of belief. The films are inherently distortive, which isn’t necessarily bad, but the documentary format has consequences for its subject.

I’ll have to tell my friend not to be afraid of Jesus Camp (even if I tell him to skip Religulous). No, it doesn’t fully contextualize its subject. Yes, it’s painful.

But it could be the start of a conversation.