Jesus Camp Review

I just saw the movie, Jesus Camp. The movie tracks a preacher and a few youngsters out of about a hundred that attend an Evangelical summer camp. It shows kids becoming indoctrinated and some of the tactics used, the kids speaking in tongues, and being emotionally charged. If this was really widespread, I'd be severely alarmed, but the movie presents a Pentecostal fringe of Evangelicalism working to out-radicalize radical Islam. The evangelicals that I know and how I was raised is not quite so extreme. Still, there was certainly some overlap with my evangelical upbringing. For example, I'd long forgotten that pledges of allegiance to the Bible and the Christian flag. There are several discussions about so many parts of the film, now two years old. I want to make one observation.

What is it about extreme fundamentalists that would allow themselves to be filmed like this? I don't think they got paid, and to the outside world, they look like brainwashers and fearmongers to the innocent. What it is, I think, is that they believe themselves so righteous that anybody seeing their lifestyle and tactics would not in any way see anything wrong with what they were doing, and in fact, they believe that outsiders would condone it and want to join forces. When you know your beliefs are unsubstantiated, you have to convince yourself in so many ways that they are correct. It's disconcerting that one way to seek validation is through the coercion of children to also believe your craziness.

Flintstones Chewables

I assume the road to apostasy is nearly opposite as it is for the convert who might have had abrupt, life-changing epiphanies. For the somewhat-soon-to-be unbeliever, “Ah-ha” moments leading to deconversion are more like “Ah-ha” weeks or months starting off with a queasy unease that maybe all is not as it really should be.

I had an unsettling experience 23 summers ago at Music In The Rockies. Contemporary Christian Music was just starting to spread its wings. Amy Grant was unknown outside Christian circles. Jesus Bands like Petra and the Rez band showed that Christians could rock. Phil Keaggy showed that Christians could jam with some talent, and Steve Taylor showed that one could mimic Thomas Dolby and Devo and get played on MTV while speaking out against the Christian establishment demonstrating through such rebel music a deeper, true meaning of the Gospels.

And there I was. I was into all the records. I even read Kerry Livgren’s autobiography of his conversion to Christianity (and tried to convince myself that Kansas was still a decent band without their original singer, Steve Walsh, who left because he couldn’t take the religion that was seeping into the tunes). I built a couple electric guitars and played in a couple high school bands, jamming for Jesus. I interned at the local Christian radio station, KLTT (aka “K-Light. The Light of the Rockies”). I helped out at a bit at Jerry Nelson’s recording studio, Clarion, which makes accompaniment tracks for all those Sunday karaokers. It was my goal to perform, record, and produce Christian music, so at 18, as part of all this foot-wetting, I ensconced myself in the beautiful rockies amidst some thousand or so other would be musical proselytizers for a week of seminars. (Here is my picture with Phil Keaggy and Steve Taylor taken at the seminar).

And therein lies the problem: Music and Proselytizing. Christian rock 'n roll serves one of two purposes: 1) It provides a clean rock 'n roll venue for Christians, and 2) it serves as a device for proselytizing by hooking unsuspecting heathens with a “good beat” and then preaching to them.

Regarding #1, my Christian upbringing taught me that rock 'n roll was evil from several fronts. The rhythms were from African voodoo rituals. The screeching is rebellion against good (i.e. classical) music. The lyrics implore Devil worship, sex, and drugs and the mesmerizing jamming will make you succumb. Of course, it was not enough that the lyrics should explicitly say these things, but should you listen to a record backward, then you could hear the subliminal (or as George Bush would say, “subliminable”) messages being presented. Rock 'n roll was bad shit.

(And hence the attraction. We love to flirt with fire, don’t we?)

However, let’s just write off #1 as nonsense. Regarding voodoo: There is no evidence that Bo Diddley was about doing crazy things with leftovers of chicken bones. Regarding screeching: Yes, it was rebellion against classical music. Is that evil? Regarding the lyrics: Is there any terrible theme not already covered in opera? Regarding the beat: Yes, you may want to dance, but are these dances any more seductive than other dance forms? If so, is it the music or the person gyrating a belly button to blame? Regarding drugs and the Devil: Aren’t these just marketing ploys ironically promulgated by conservative parents enabling a simple avenue for youngster rebellion? Regarding playing albums backward: I can’t even understand half of these lyrics when played forward! How is my subconscious going to get them backward?

So, for all intents and purposes, we can write off the evils of rock 'n roll. Well sorta. Should Christians enjoy such worldly pleasures?

Regarding #2, there was something quite pure about meeting these heathens on their level and speaking to them in their language. How else might they hear the Good News?

This was my naivete going into the seminar. I heard sessions on how to structure a song after such and such a secular performer. I heard how to write lyrics about love without using the pronouns “he/she/his/hers” so that the song could be interpreted at one level as between you and a spouse or at another level as being between you and God. (The "agape" love). I was told to disguise explicit declarations of belief and conviction and employ poetic, generic feelings to obtain a broader market.

And that’s my problem. I loathe marketing. If my kids want to rebel against me. They’ll become marketers.

In my week at the seminar, I did not hear anyone talk about becoming a better musician. It was not about the music at all, and that is what was so uninspiring. Music, at it’s peak, is a very personal communication with the performer and the audience.

To be sure, the secular realm is big on hype and marketing. It’s filled with lies, too. Did Johnny Cash really shoot a man just to watch him die? Puh-lease! And why were those middle-class white boys in Seattle in the early 90s so angry about the American dream? C'mon! The secular world now has American Idols and mega mania. Lots of scripted show.

The thing is/was, I expected more honesty from the Christian world. Heck, it worked for Bach! But hit that seek button on your radio and within 2 seconds of scanning a station, you can tell if you’ve landed on a Christian station, even if there is no singing. It’s in the mix. It’s in the timbre. It’s that fakeness that comes blaring through -- the dishonesty of trying to sell something so naively and pretentiously. It’s no wonder that this year two finalists of American Idol will host the competition for best Christian Idol at the Music Seminar in the Rockies.

Not that I went on to become a much better musician, but after my week there, I began to outgrow Flintstones chewables.