At the "Kids on Fire" summer camp, Pastor Becky Fischer doesn't just preach the gospel, she inflicts it. Every year, she asks her preteen charges to pray for the sins of America until they shiver in fear, their eyes roll back into their heads and they start speaking in tongues.
This ain't the YMCA: Jesus Camp documents a new breed of far-right Evangelical Christians known as "charismatic Pentecostals" who defy the popular stereotype of shack-dwelling, snake-handling outcasts from the Deep South. As depicted in the film, these are mostly middle-class, Midwestern, suburban families who eat together, pray together and instill their beliefs via home-schooling. (Lesson 1: Creationism is a valid scientific theory.)
To complete their education, parents ship their baby-faced, Tommy Hilfiger-wearing grade-schoolers off to Fischer's camp, where, in a rigorous series of sermons, stories and "games," she introduces them not only to the concept of righteousness but also to spreading the gospel. It's her intent to get these tots out in the streets, at bowling alleys and eventually in the halls of government, where we see them protesting abortion by covering their mouths with electrical tape.
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady must've known they struck a gold mine when they found Fischer: Here is a woman who doesn't need ironic editing or fisheye-lens close-ups to transmit her obsessive, fatalistic sense of faith. The filmmakers smartly stand back and let her proclaim her beliefs, as loudly and determinedly as possible. At one point, she marvels at her tactics in swaying the uncoverted: "Animal rights people, eat your heart out," she boasts.
What you make of all of this is left up to you, but it's hard not to be shocked by a blond-haired girl convulsing for the Lord, or Fischer telling a crew of rapt little boys that "Harry Potter is an enemy of God" who "would've been put to death." Is Jesus Camp a blue-state-baiting cautionary tale? The radio-commentary counterpoint included in the film from religious-moderate Air America host Mike Papantonio would suggest so; you can imagine most urbanites watching this and saying, "Look at what those Jesus freaks in flyover country are doing!" But sometimes, maybe a little shock is necessary to motivate both the zealous and the secular.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.