The Human Gaze: How An Author’s Representation of Evangelicals Impacts the Viewer

by Virginia Dickens, Elaine Olla, and Liz Smith

Reading Summary:

As proposed by Bill Nichols in “Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary”, there are three main ways to construct reality through representation.  The first is known as the expository mode and its text addresses the viewer directly to put forth an argument. Interviews are added to serve as evidence for this argument and overall the sense of authority remains with the text.   Second is the observational mode, which emphasizes the passivity of the filmmaker. Otherwise stated, the director sits back to wait for a moment of tension in a situation to capture on film.  The third main way is known as the interactive mode.  In this mode of representation, the filmmaker does get involved in ways that the audience can see, such as by utilizing face-to-face interviews.  These interviews are fundamental to the creation of the argument of the text.

These three modes of representation all raise ethical issues that may be overlooked when watching a documentary. First, the expository mode raises the issue of objectivity.  How can the filmmaker be objective on behalf of someone responsibly and not in terms of propaganda?Next, the observational mode raises the ethical issue of if the filmmaker took into account the way that his or her film was intruding on people’s lives.  Lastly, the interactive mode raises the ethical issue of how the filmmaker represents the social actors during interviews.  As interviews are hierarchical and in favor of the filmmaker asking the questions, it raises concern if the filmmaker is being objective during this process or if he or she is taking advantage of their authority by just trying to make a good movie.

The role of the filmmaker is an important matter that Nichols also delves into.  He explains the concept of axiographics, which “…address the question of how values, particularly an ethics of representation, comes to be known and experienced in relation to space” (Nichols, 77).  Axiographics make the audience question issues such as the right of privacy of social actors and what responsibilities the filmmaker should be upholding.  Nichols reminds us that documentaries are not wholly a story but have an argument embedded within it.  The documentary will always represent the view of someone or something; i.e. the filmmaker, an entire news network, or a government agency.  This also brings up the issue of free choice, because the viewer can’t truly have a “free choice” if rhetoric remains at work all the time in the film.

The camera’s gaze also shows the “operator’s preoccupations, subjectivity, and values” (Nichols, 79).  There are four gazes the filmmaker capture with his camera.   The first is the accidental gaze, where the camera captures a moment that was completely unplanned and unexpected, such as JFK’s assassination.  Second is the helpless gaze where the film shows that it was not able to affect what it originally went out to record.  Third is the endangered gaze where the filmmaker’s life is at risk, as seen in news casting in war torn countries.  Fourth is the interventional gaze, which breaks the distance that is usually preserved so the camera becomes an extension of the filmmaker.  Fifth is the humane gaze, which is a paused moment to add to the emotional charge of a moment; it interrupts the flow of the film to register a moment of death that is shown.  Finally, there is the clinical or professional gaze where the film works to be ethical by addressing recording and a humane response.

Randall Balmer’s “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America”, he brings us into his own personal world of the Evangelical Christian subculture.  He writes how they separate themselves from mainstream culture through their own schools, summer camps, colleges, and eventually seminaries.  Balmer then delves into going over Phil Cohen’s four features of subcultures within the Word of Life Bible Camp.  There, the children’s dress was very modest and proper and the music always revolved around Jesus and their faith in Him.  Their ritual includes abstaining from smoking, drinking, dancing, watching movies, and also usually bowling and roller-skating.  It also involves a literal reading of the Bible and a conservative stance on issues such as abortion.  Finally, the Evangelical subculture does have its own argot, as seen in Wyrtzen’s repetitive use of “First Church” and sermons constantly discussing the fear of Satan.  Balmer also discusses the strong evangelical views of the American public education system.  Evangelicals support a moment of silence for prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to occur every morning, minimal to no sex education, and the teaching of creationism.  Christianity is considered one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of all time due to its use of images and emotions (Jowett 63).  As seen in Balmer’s article and the documentary Jesus Camp, these beliefs and propaganda techniques are geared toward children to ensure the implementation of religious public policy and continuation of the evangelical faith.

Screening Summary:

Jesus Camp is an intriguing and eye-opening documentary into the Evangelical subculture. The main objective of the film is to portray an extremist/religious children’s camp from a neutral POV (the filmmakers claim). The documentary follows three young children and their experience learning about Jesus Christ, the world of sin and what their goals in life should be in relation to the Evangelical faith. Also, the viewer receives the perspective of Becky, the head leader of Jesus Camp, who believes she is teaching “young warriors” to go out and change the “evil,” “devil-ridden” world. A contrasting voice to the Evangelicals is a radio host who expresses the thoughts and opinions of the main culture in response to this subculture. Jesus Camp is an enlightening look into a well-established subculture and their place in our society.

Defining Characteristics of Subcultures and Social Movements

Jesus Camp is an accurate representation of a subculture in our society. The film fits into Gelder’s characteristics of subcultures as so:

1.     They have a negative relation to work in that the mothers of the children often stay at home to homeschool the kids. In addition, children are supposed to learn and not actually have jobs. Otherwise, Evangelicals (most-likely males) do have jobs in order to support and provide for the family.

2.     The subculture practice of Evangelicals can take place in the home if the entire family is religious, and also most-definitely in a chapel or worship area.

3.     Evangelicals can come from all economic backgrounds. In Jesus Camp, we see Ted Haggard preach, who was in continual communication with George W. Bush and probably had a sufficient amount of money. The rest of the characters appeared to come from stable economic backgrounds.

4.     Evangelicals are very territorial of their space. As shown in the film, before the kids arrived Becky and fellow church-goers blessed every inch on the worship space (example: “bless these power points”?)

5.     Excess behavior or clothes would be exemplified in the crosses and Jesus-themed clothing that they wear. Also, they shout praise, cry, and speak in tongues.

6.     They very much refuse the ordinary and massification. They are against society. They think that the devil has taken over the world, and they are the warriors for Jesus Christ.

An important aspect of subcultures discussed in this class and represented in the film is youth. Evangelicals may take this too far by targeting children as opposed to teenagers looking to rebel. One characteristic that does not necessarily apply to this film is the urban location of the subculture. Jesus Camp takes place in the Midwest and gives statistics that there are a significant amount of Evangelicals distributed throughout the states.

Characteristics of Social Movements According to Reed:

1.     They are unauthorized. Evangelicals are protected to practice their religion under the United States’ Constitution.

2.     However, Evangelicals are not necessarily “unofficial” or “anti-institutional.” In Jesus Camp, they are a very established and well-known group. According to the radio announcer, they seemed to be a group to be feared. In addition, the film mentioned that George W. Bush and other conservative politicians owed the Evangelicals “big time” for the large number of conservative votes they accounted for.

3.     Evangelicals definitely have a collective action. We saw a clear example of this in Jesus Camp when a group of them traveled to the White House to protest abortion. Some children (Rachel) took it upon herself to address random strangers and share Jesus with them.

4.     Majority of Evangelicals are ordinary citizens. Yet, as mentioned earlier, they showed huge support for George W. Bush in the film (although he considered himself an Episcopal and now Methodist). They were definitely represented by some political figures.

5.     Trying to change the world? 100%. They think the world is evil, and they want to fight the devil and have Jesus come save us all.

6.     They mainly seek political change (no separation between church and state) and cultural change (no more sin in the world, according to what they define as “sinful”).

The construction of Reality through Representation

In Jesus Camp, it is extremely clear that the Evangelicals target children. They tell them at an early age what they should believe and how they should act on those beliefs. The children’s minds are molded at a very young age, creating this reality for them. Those who influence the children (i.e. the Pastors, parents and older peers) reinforce their views on them, creating more humans who share their same perspective. In addition, Evangelicals, according to Jesus Camp, have achieved great representation within the political spectrum.

Argument Construction in Film

There is a fuzzy line between where the filmmakers’ construction has an impact on the viewer and where the viewers individual set of ideologies contrast with this subculture. The viewer (according to our class) thought the film, in general, was unflattering for the Evangelicals. Yet, maybe our perception of how a society should be was simply challenged by the footage. Because these people exemplified acts and beliefs majority of us did not identify with, in our minds we immediately cast it aside as absurd, unusual, and extreme. So, possibly, a “lack” of opinionated construction could have contributed to the viewers’ impression, because it was so raw and definitely did not mesh with general societal standards, beliefs, and practices.

Ethical Issues in Media Representation

This film has an interesting contrast with ethics. The characters in the film believe, to the core, that they are being as humanly ethical as possible. Yet, a lot of the responses to the film were negative – not to the filmmakers but to the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals think they are serving Jesus and ultimately going to heaven while a good remainder of America thinks they are absolutely crazy. So crazy that, according to our discussion/sources in class, Becky received so much negative and hateful backlash that she shut down the camp. Now, this is where ethics gets complicated. Is it ethical to destroy what someone else deems ethical, even it does not agree with your ethics? Were these people truly a harm to society? Or were their beliefs  just harmful to society’s ideologies?

The majority of the class agreed that the children should not be exposed to certain topics and issues at such a young age because they are so impressionable. They have not had a chance to even grow up. But the children in the film appeared happy and dead -set on their beliefs, almost to an admirable extent that they were so confident in their faith, given that the majority of us find it difficult to wholeheartedly dedicate our lives to one soul purpose, person, idea, etc. The kids seem happy. Is taking away this camp from them, then, unethical? Or do we, random viewers of the film, believe we know what is best for the kids, and acting on this opinion is what is true to our ethics? It is definitely a subjective question – yet society always seems to have an opinion of what is right and wrong, and it usually involves society’s best interests.

Class Discussion Summary:

Our in-class discussion began with the agreement that Jesus Camp displays a very extreme group of people and the directors of this documentary were effective in conveying their message. A surprising statistic flashed across the screen during the film – 25% of Americans describe themselves as evangelicals. The source of the statistic was not revealed, but the large number made most in the class wonder. The statistic cannot prove that all evangelicals behave like the people in the film and it might not even mean that everyone that describes themselves as evangelicals believe everything evangelicals are “supposed to” or that those in the film believe.

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Our discussion found that this could even mean that this film represents a subculture within the evangelical faith. We cannot definitively state whether evangelicalism has reached the height of a social movement, but the success of the filmmaker is even more clear in the affect it had on our class, leaving us hungry for more answers.

One thing our class found the film missed was the perspective of children that are forced to go to these religious camps. With all of the screaming, crying, and speaking in tongues, it was hard for us (no one in class identified themselves as evangelical) to understand why these camp-goers would want to be there, as Virginia found confusing.

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This was very different than the experience Balmer wrote about in his piece. The close-up camera style of the film raises if the gaze here was ethical. It made several of us question if we were being manipulated – being thrown into an undesirable situation to make the religion seem undesirable. As viewers, we felt coerced. Maybe this was a way of expressing the coercion of the youth subjects by the adult figures in their religious life, but it could also be a way of representing all of the subjects in a negative light. The focus on images of children moaning, singing, and crying seems like a method of using emotions for the viewers that the subjects may feel themselves.

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We were bothered that the other point of view wasn’t shown to us. The only people depicted were children steadfast in their beliefs contrasted by the radio show host – except the Harry Potter kid. He depicted how the children may not really know why they are doing what they are doing. Some kids raised by evangelicals must be questioning the religion and have a different view than those shown in the film. The class found that these children must be persuaded by a group mentality to force their involvement – while the messages being taught have different weight for the adult figures in their life. Balmer even explains how evangelicals are concerned about leaving behind a pious generation for future leaders of the faith and Becky in Jesus Camp explains that she is creating an army of youth to fight for evangelicalism.

This extreme depiction of evangelicals also made the class wonder if the film was an accurate depiction of evangelical life in America. Would these individuals have behaved the same way without the cameras present? It seems so because they were so extreme even (we suspect) knowing the filmmakers have contrasting religious beliefs. These subjects seemed proud of their extreme behavior, even though some may see it as weird or crazy. They may have been prompted to talk about subjects they discuss often in the home, but we found it was clearly a truncated version of the story edited in order to make the subjects look most extreme. Although we wanted to see other perspectives as the viewers, including these could change the argument of the film – that these people are extreme and “out there” in their beliefs and practices. Why would someone subscribe to this extremist faith? The idea of this being the only truth is prevalent in the religion and helps kids believe in it more – there is no choice for them. It is a method of coercion, as the reading prompted students to question as well.

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“I want to see our kids be as radical as the kids are in Israel, Palestine, all those countries,” Becky said speaking about children of Islam. Similar to suicide bombers who are willing to give everything for their religion, evangelical children are taught they are fighting a righteous fight and will in turn be given eternal peace. When looking at the film, we must realize that the kids that would want to be a representative of the evangelicals would be the extremely confident and the radical. Others that are wavering in their faith would not be as willing to preach and share their beliefs. A recurring question our class had was how these people are able to make their children believe so confidently – maybe it is a method of brainwashing.

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It seems as though the evangelicals are using children to push their message and bring attention to their cause. Maybe because children have low critical thinking skills, they are less likely to question what adults are presenting them with as facts. The filmmakers focus on chain restaurants and images of Middle America possibly to draw stereotypes of an under-educated, unhealthy class of citizens. This could also explain the choices in location the filmmakers made. Most in the class agreed that the film had a political agenda and showed that this camp uses kids. However, we need to step back and see if this film is using the children in a similar way the heads of the camp are. The belief of non-evangelicals may be that children should make their own decisions. Even students with other Christian beliefs found themselves questioning what they once learned as a result of the film.

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Were the documentarians fair about the way they portrayed this religion? Upon further research, the class discovered that these filmmakers claimed to be showing an objective portrayal of evangelical life but we believed that might be dishonest. It seemed as though the documentary was pushing a crazier and more extreme side of evangelicals.

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The use of “American” imagery made us question what was really being represented here. Furthermore, the inclusion of the radio host (which we learned was added later to bring more tension to the film) seemed to be representative of the quizzical viewer who sees evangelicals as the outliers. He asked all the questions viewers wanted to know more about. We must analyze that this was not raw footage we were shown; it was edited and maybe manipulated by the filmmakers – one non-church-goer and one Jewish person. The host’s voice seems to be the main argument the filmmakers were trying to make – using this character in a slightly less obvious way. Some students started wondering how documentary subjects are affected by their representation.

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While Levi seems happy and comfortable with his depiction, shown by this interview years later,

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Becky had to close the camp due to excessive harassment. This raises the question of ethics in representation. Everyone’s reality was changed after the film’s success.

Professor Portwood-Stacer then geared the conversation to a specific Jesus Camp character, Rachel. Watching her clips made our class question her home life. We suspected that her experience in public schools led to her being less confident because she was made fun of there. While other children seemed articulate in their representation (maybe because they were just parenting the beliefs of adults around them), Rachel faltered. While the source and integrity of other children’s statements came into question, it seemed that Rachel was using this film as a way for her to grow and learn how to use faith to build her self-esteem. We found that she was using evangelicalism better than those who were pushing political agendas – she was using it for herself. However, there was a clear difference with how she (a frenetic, aggressive girl) was portrayed in contrast with other children, especially Levi, the cool, much-appreciated child. These differences seemed to fall on gender lines, where women were shown as emotional and men seem in touch with their religion in a confident way.

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Overall the children were displayed as more grown up than other children our class knows of that age, maybe due to a lack of childhood fun in the film and at the camp. Their life was very serious as they were constantly reminded to repent for their sins and escape the Devil. The kids aren’t being asked original questions that encourage critical thinking. These conversations seem predetermined by parents and other adults in their religious community. Some characters were struggling through internal and external forces, but each thought their representation would project why someone should become born-again. The characters were not complete or full, leaving a black space as to why one should convert to this religion if they were not raised among other evangelicals.

In conclusion, we wondered if other viewers would see this film as an extreme. What would people that have never been to church think of singing hymns and eating the body of Christ? The same side of a subculture from a different perspective reveals that there are different levels to every subculture. Although NYU is a liberal school and there did not seem to be any evangelicals in the class, we could only wonder if the demographics of the viewers had an impact on how we felt. It seems more likely, after comparing Jesus Camp and Balmer’s article, that the author has the control. Balmer is from the subculture and references his own camp experiences that were fun and relatable.

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It was clear from Twitter that many students appreciated how Balmer’s perspective was less critical of the subculture. Reading his work enabled students to sympathize with evangelicals more. The struggle Balmer had with his own religion made readers observe the subculture critically while feeling less alienated. Our teacher asked if this could be a result of the medium as watching a film obviously allows more visualization than reading an article. However, it seems to our class that the author’s viewpoint is affecting the viewer/reader more than the medium.

Works Cited

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

Jesus Camp. Dir. Ewing, Heidi E, and Rachel Grady. Los Angeles, Calif: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2006. Film.

Jowett, Garth, and Victoria O’Donnell. Propaganda & Persuasion. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2012. Print.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “Evangelical Christians.” Senior Media Seminar: Representing Subcultures and Social Movements. New York University. Bobst Library. 18 September 2013. Discussion.

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