Friday, January 18, 2008

Jesus Camp

I watched the abovementioned chilling, fascinating documentary recently on the CBC with my kids. Highly recommended. The woman pictured is a powerful 'teacher' who brings her young students to tears with her religious message. Or maybe she is a master manipulator engaged in brainwashing? To what extent is her brand of evangelical Christianity cult-like? That is the question posed by the film and it resulted in a family discussion. What differentiates education from indoctrination? It's an interesting discussion to have with a teenage daughter who tends to think that all of education is just brainwashing.

After said-daughter became obsessed with the movie Hair (she now fashions herself a sort of neo-hippie, recently discovered Jefferson Airplane) and started asking question about Hare Krishna, my wife wisely suggested that she do some reading on religious cults. She did, (thank G-d we've raised a reader), starting with Josh Freed's excellent book "Moonwebs" about a Montreal boy who was sucked into the Unification Church (The Moonies) and his family's attempt to rescue and de-program him. She devoured it in a couple of days which says a lot about the quality of Freed's storytelling.

It's funny that we don't hear very much about cults anymore. When I was in high-school, during the late 70s, it was the urgent topic du jour (along with the perennial concerns about the hazards of drug use.) We had people coming to our school giving testimonials, warning us that we were susceptible to cults. Part of the reason was that somehow Jews were found to be disproportionately susceptible. And, in fact, one of my classmates was sucked in.

I wonder if the reason we don't hear very much about brainwashing these days is that it has somehow become 'normalized'? To what extent can Al-Qaida - an extremist sect of a legitimate religion - be considered a cult that uses brainwashing techniques? It has an all-controlling, charismatic leader who preachs an apocalyptic theology which encourages violence to others and self-destruction. How is this different from Jonestown? Why do we not see Al-Qaida in these terms? Or any extremist religious group, for that matter, whatever the stripe? These questions make the film Jesus Camp all the more prescient. It should be said that the evangelicals depicted in the film are non-violent, though it's not hard to imagine some of the kids becoming radical adults with hardened religious views.

Here's a link to a piece on the producers of the film, one of whom is Jewish.

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