Idol Chatter

The documentary “Jesus Camp” directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady finally rolled around to my neck of the woods (Burlington, VT) this weekend. I was eager to see if the film was as “frightening” as so many journalists and reviewers have claimed, and if so, what exactly was so scary. (I would like to comment only briefly on my take on the film here. But for an additional perspective, as well as concise summary of the documentary, see my fellow blogger Kris Rasmussen’s astute post, “Jesus Goes to ‘Camp.’“)

There is no doubt that Pastor Becky Fischer–a children’s ministry leader and head of the camp central to the film–is frightening. She spouts on about preparing kids to go to war, to go into battle, to become warriors and armies–the list could goes on regarding the military language and approach she seems to understand as necessary to form children into faithful Christians. Viewers will surely leave the movie frightened that such a camp actually exists.

But what is more frightening is that the documentary directors portray Fischer’s camp and ministry as if it is somehow indicative of the whole of evangelical children’s ministry across America, yet they do so without providing any additional footage to back up their implied claim. How is it that anyone can make such broad conclusions about evangelicals and Christian formation from a single camp? From a single pastor? Where “Jesus Camp” fails miserably is that it sticks tightly to its title: It explores only “camp,” in the singular, a sample size of one.

Ewing and Grady indeed may be onto something–that there are disturbing happenings across America with regard to our children and religion. But if that’s really the case, they need to show us this with a much wider lens. And I’ve seen too many positive evangelical ministries to believe that these directors have given us the whole story–or even a large piece.

So if you want to see the ravings of Pastor Becky Fischer and her “Jesus Camp” go right ahead. Just remember that’s all you are seeing. No more, no less.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of an Audio Adrenaline fan. First of all the name. Adrenaline is a hormone, a glandular fluid that enters the bloodstream for a short-term or circumscribed effect. It didn’t promise much in the way of introspection, which I am a fan of, even in rock music; nor did it guarantee visceral fortitude.

But after 15 years in the business, 18 radio hits, countless Dove Award nominations (okay 22), Audio Adrenaline has more than lived down the name. Now that they’ve decided to call it quits–years of belting it out has left lead singer Mark Stuart’s vocal chords in a threateningly tattered condition–the band’s contribution to the Christian rock looms even larger.

Entering the Christian rock scene at a time when most Christian bands were pale imitations of mainstream names, Audio A certainly hit some familiar notes–they are most often compared to U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers–but had a bright melodic sense that was all their own, catchy hooks that sold their songs, and tons of energy. They first came to attention as an opening band for DC Talk, a band that took Christian rock to a new level; Audio A’s success, especially their debut hit “Big House,” gave that level some depth. The band and the song also made the genre more fun than it had a reputation for.

There’s still time to catch the supergroup on their 35-city farewell tour with Mercy Me. The band will shut down after a final concert in Georgia in April.

Less than a month from now, the video game version of the Left Behind series, “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” will debut at big-box retailers, just in time for Christmas shopping season. The game, set in New York City, follows the basic M.O. of the bestselling Christian adventure novels. Tribulation Forces–those left behind to fight the anti-Christ after the cream of the Christian crop is skimmed off to heaven–force unbelievers to fight or switch. “Conduct physical & spiritual warfare using the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world,” says the game’s promotion material.

This connection between prayer and violence has raised the hackles of some real-life believers. “We’re entertaining ourselves with a crusade against people who don’t believe [in Christ],” John B. Thompson, a Christian author, told The Jewish Week. “This is madness.” Left Behind Games president Jeff Frichner points out that killing someone actually lowers a player’s spirituality, akin to that player’s onscreen health or strength.

“Eternal Forces” is also disconcerting to some Jews, who, in the name of versimilitude, make up many of those whom “Left Behind” players will encounter in their virtual quest around Manhattan. Interestingly, both Frichner and the game’s developer, Troy London, who helped create Madden NFL games, are both New Yorkers who converted from Judaism to Messianic Judaism–the faith that worships Jesus as Lord while retaining many Jewish traditions.

But the partners say their game is like any other strategic video game. “You have the force of good and the force of evil, you battle against evil and hopefully you can figure out and manage your resources to win each level and, ultimately, the game,” says Frichner.

The best hope for the unconverted, perhaps, is that the game will be wildly popular, and keep Christians who would take inspiration from Left Behind fastened securely to their control sets.

The Learning Channel’s 10-part series “The Monastery” has a couple of advantages over your run-of-the-mill reality show. One is that it is shot at Christ in the Desert, a Roman Catholic monastery in northern New Mexico. TLC’s cameras capture the astounding beauty of the canyon setting’s piercing blue skies, hawks dawdling overhead and the lacework of the bare desert trees against red earth. Christ in the Desert itself is beautiful to look at, a combination of local adobe construction and medieval inspired frescoes.

It’s here that five men from all walks of life have come to sort out their spirituality. Some, like the television writer Tom, have had a loose faith in God tested by addiction or tough experiences. Others, like a former gang member-turned-counselor and a Satanist-turned-Episcopalian, are looking to develop a strong devotion. Still others have no faith at all. They learn how to pray eight hours a day, work and eat in silence, and each is mentored by one of the monks to seek God. Not all of them make it, and those that do don’t do so in predictable ways.

The other advantage of “The Monastery” is the Rule of St. Benedict, the code that guides much of Western monastic life, including the monks we meet here—and the personal development the men go through. Part of my impatience with reality TV is watching folks like you and me make choices driven by the same dull sentiments and blind ethical assumptions that got them in whatever hole they’re in to begin with (including having their lives splashed on TV). “The Monastery” instead has a moral and spiritual “plot” furnished in large part by how the men react the to rule and the monks.

Strong faith is no guarantee of success. One character warming again to his youthful Catholic faith bridles at his mentor’s suggestion that he abide by the Church’s sacramental regime. At one point the Episcopalian disgustedly calls the monastery “a fortress guarding nothing.” You don’t have to suscribe to the monks’ faith or their rule to find these bends in the spiritual path suspenseful and absorbing. The show debuts Sunday at 10.