The other night Sharon and I watched the documentary film Jesus Camp. This film follows the ministry of Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal youth minister. I just noticed from her site that she is now connection with Patricia Cocking (now Pat King, but I knew her as Patricia Cocking and once ministered with her in Mississauga) of the Extreme Prophetic fame. I'm not keen on a lot of the directions the Prophetic movements have taken, but I'll reserve that for another post.
What was most interesting to me is how much of what was shown in the film is normative Pentecostalism. And I'll start by saying some of it is great. Praying over chairs, passion for God, passion for children and even praying for governments. But the good and the bad are thoroughly mixed together here. What I saw most was the unreflective Christianity that I spent my early Christian years in. There is something so good about grabbing the bull by the horns and going for it. But when there is no serious critical reflection it is easy to see, and this film shows this well, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Meaning well and doing well are not always the same thing. As Gary Best always tells us pastors, "it is not good enough to do the right thing, you have to do the right thing for the right reasons."
So from that film (which was at times very painful to watch) a few things are worth engaging here. Hopefully we'll pick up a conversation in the comments.
1) Kids and Politics
Despite Fischer's insistance that this is not political this film shows clearly how incredibly political Christianity is. It actually shows it from both sides. The counterpoint from Mike Papantonio is just as much a call to politics as the rest of the film. Mike insisted on a separation of church and state, I'm convinced that is a delusional position, almost as delusional as Fischer's denial of politics. I'm not doubting their convictions, just their lack of honest critical reflection. What we need to realize is that religion is always politically orienting. Haggard's comment that if the Evangelicals vote they win the election is true - but only because Evangelicals represent a directed voting block. To me that is patently wrong. We need to wake up and help people reflect through the issues and vote from their heart and minds.
Now having said that, the question I have is "how can we expect children to make that kind of assessment?" There is a reason we don't let children vote. But over and over this film showed the manipulation of children's political orientation without even giving them an honest amount of data to work with. When we present complex situations, like the whole issue of abortion, and only tell these children that God hates this act - how are we orienting this generation towards those make other choices?
2) Symbols and Kids
Related to that was the taping of the mouth. What a powerfully charged symbolic action. There is no reflection offered in this film. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt, but Lou Engle really didn't encourage me to give him the benefit of anything but being an alarmist, and assume they unpacked the meaning of the tape before they placed it on the mouths of these kids. But what gets me is that they are calling these kids to take on symbols which have powerful meaning. The word 'LIFE' does not belong to a symbol of silent solidarity that emphasises the helplessness of the unborn. This dichotomizes the issue in ways that are completely offensive, no matter what our opinion of abortion. We need to be more careful. I hope Fischer is right that some of these kids will want to get into politics, but I hope that first folks like Fischer wake up and realize that we don't need more fear based unthinking politicians in this world. Similar problems could be identified with the identification of American military service and the tradition of martyrs.
3) Directional Prophetic and Kids
Lou Engle called up the young boy Levi and prophesied over his life. He was careful to give himself some outs. But this is quite common in the prophetic movement. Everywhere you go God has some big plan for your life. I find this so disturbing. Not that I don't think God wants to do great things, even great things through our lives. But what is done here is that unrealistic expectations are being given. The other problem is that when you start to realize that everyone who is "prophetic" and speaks over you has some big vision (not often the same as the others) then you start to become cynical about the whole prophetic project. I think in the long run this will force the prophetic to the fringes (this is a historically recurring trend). Let me go out on a limb and say I believe in the prophetic. But I believe the prophetic types should shut up, listen and reflect a heck of a lot more than they do. It was so obvious that Lou was Levi as fulfilling what Lou wants in his political agenda - so he projects that, gives it the weight of his "prophetic" title and now you have a recipe for disaster. Folks develop the prophetic within your community and stop bringing in the "prophets". If they are really prophets then they will train your people, not hear for them.
4)Over Simplification of Life
The other thing that sets up these kids for a fall is the over simplification of life presented. God has a wonderful plan for your life. God will protect you from the harshness of life. God will take care of you. While there is some truth in this, God doesn't promise us an easy life, but rather in this world we have trouble. I'll leave the promise of heaven stuff out of this for now, it didn't get much treatment in the film anyway. But the life we live in the world means getting our hands dirty. It means kids like Levi have a rough road ahead. Life is ultimately worthwhile and good. But that is a trajectory that is not always apparent in the day to day living. Fischer loved to oversimplify things. Her object lessons were cute, but really could use some unpacking and reflection. We were watching her tactics as she preached at the camp. Fear and shame are not God's tools. This is always where over simplification leads. It has to. When God is painted as the one that makes everything hunky dory, then adversity has to rest on our shoulders. Life is not as simple as all that. Give kids strenght to face life on life's terms and not fill them with false hope.
4) Evangelism and Kids
I didn't realize that people still used Jack Chick tracts. The only thing worse that Chick tracts are Westboro Baptist placards. Ok, so don't get me started on their ill choice of literature. What really bugs me is that these kids are trying to do what they were told to do, which is proslytize everyone, but they were so obviously ill equipped for the task. At one point the kids start to question if maybe it looks like they are trying to sell something (watch for that moment, it is very interesting), that's good reflection, that should be encouraged. Evangelism isn't just spouting some cute rote statements at folks, it is engaging with people and partnering with God's own efforts to bring them to God's self. But these kids aren't given the tools for that sort of work, they are sent out with cuteness hoping that will win the day.
5) Parenting of Kids
My last critique is about the way we parent our kids. I have my oldest in a Bible club (AWANA). And it drives me nuts at times. I want my kids to be equipped for life in this world. They see our love for Jesus. They ask really good questions and I make of point of not giving them simplified answers. I want to encourage them to think deeply about their faith. I want them to know that there is something good about Christianity, but that they need to choose for themselves. To be honest I'd rather they lived fully and honestly out of their conclusions than to fake being a Christian for the sake of mom and dad. Having said that I am so blessed with how Elyssa's faith in Jesus has been growing, and I want encourage that. I think Christian groups are a great touchstone for kids, but what about when they get into the real world? Not everyone is going to have the same convictions in the real world. That is a tough lesson to learn when you are so sheltered by your parents. Christian schools (or homeschool), a plethora of Church activities, Christian camps, Christian TV and radio (exclusively), the parents in this film live in a bubble! The problem with bubbles is that they burst. What was worse was that the homeschooling was focused on developing a polemic against the rest of the world's thinking. Here you have the chance to develop a real intellectual wealth - seriously homeschooling could be an awesome opportunity to strech a childs mind and develop great habits of thinking. But it is such a wasted opportunity when it is just used to indoctrinate and inocculate children.
I recommend this film to all my Pentecostal and post-Pentecostal friends. It made me really think. It frustrated me but at the same time helped me see that there is work to do. Thank God that not all Pentecostals are like this. Becky Fischer has a great heart, and I'm sure we'd get along. But I hope that folks who follow in her footsteps might read this and pause to think. We want to give the kids great tools for the works God has for them. That is noble and I'll definitely pray for her important ministry. But this is a call to step it up a notch and bring in some needed critical reflection in all we do in the name of Christ.