Understanding Religion: the Evolving Perception of Religion

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The process of understanding religion is a complex and diverse problem tackled by many of the theorists that we have talked about up to this point. After watching Jesus Camp and looking over the plethora of religious theories I have to choose from, I believe I have chosen the best two to describe the religious phenomena found in this documentary. The two theorists whose theories that I have chosen to apply to the film are Emile Durkheim and Peter Berger. Taking points from Daniels Pals writing “Society as Sacred” about Durkheim, Durkheim’s writings “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” and Bergers writing “A Sacred Canopy”, I plan on trying to explain Fischer’s actions with these theories and see if I can relate her actions to these theories and if they can help to explain what she does and why she does it. To help us better understand who we are comparing our theories too, I will explain who Betty Fischer is, where she comes from and the religion she is practicing.

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Becky Fischer lives in a small, remote town called Devils Lake located in rural North Dakota. She is a Pentecostal minister, a very visceral branch of Christianity compared to other branches, often saying they experience the presence of God, strongly and directly. Fischer takes her beliefs and practices of the Penecostal religion to the extreme, the following quote from the documentary shows the severity of her stance: “I want to see them radically laying down their lives for the gospel, as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine.”. Here you can obviously see the disconnect between Fischer and any other normal person, the last thing we need is for extreme followers of any religion to start taking the lives of others because they do not agree with them. To name just a few of the other teachings from Fischer, she preaches that global warming is fake, a political speculation as Fischer puts it, that the children are hypocrtical if they act differently in church than in they do in school or at home, and that abortion should be abolished in America. These extreme stances define Fischer, and make up most of the teachings in her summer camp which she calls “Kids on Fire School of Ministry”, full of prayer conferences, Pentecostal teachings, and meetings for those who choose to follow this branch of Christianity. These activities seem quite normal, but Fischer does not make fail to put her own twist on the some of the activities shown in the film. Firstly, she brings a life-size cutout of the current president at the time, George W. Bush to the front of her church and makes the members of her congregation touch the cutout, praise the cutout and even makes the group pray to him. Another one of the extreme practices done by Fischer is when she makes her entire church cover their mouths with tape and has “life” written across the tape, while the group has this tape covering their mouths, they are shown different stages of a fetus, reinforcing an anti-abortion opinion within the church. Deeper into the documentary, they follow three children whose names are Levi, Rachael and Tory. The three children mentioned started off their lives with very strong roots in Christianity and from a young age, have incorporated Jesus and a love for God into their everyday lives. With such a strong foundation to build upon, participation in Fischer’s intense camp only serves to give the kids an extra push of acceptance and creates a sense of normalcy within the group, which makes the kids believe that what they are doing is what they were meant to do, what God has chosen for them to do. At some points, all of the children begin to speak in tongues, which is an outward expression directly channeling an unknown language to whoever is under the trance and is said to be a way for those to connect to God himself. When this phenomenon is showcased in the film, the congregation of children begin to cry as they ‘connect’ to God, during this ordeal, Fischer is chanting to them “This means war!”, “God I’m here to be trained”, “I’m willing God”, “I’ll say what you want me to say”, and “You’re going to serve the lord all the days you’re alive”. All of these actions, gatherings and preachings are what we would call “collective effervescence”, the famous term coined by Durkheim himself, which is, as he defines it, when a group of people get together and feel a sense of being a part of a group or being something larger than themselves, he calls the time spent in these larger groups or beings “sacred”. Using his definition, almost every event shown throughout Jesus Camp would fall under being “sacred” and is a great starting point for examining the phenomena shown in the documentary.

Durkheim theorizes that the basis of religion is rooted in society, with his famous saying “Society is God and God is Society”, showing that he believes that society and religion go hand in hand, with religion shaping society and vice versa. Fischer utilizes this by starting young with her community, ‘brainwashing’ the youth into following her beliefs and practices, to go along with the brainwashing, the area that the film takes place in is secluded from the outside world thus making the religion that Fischer preaches lay the groundwork of society for the town of Devil Lake. This has indirectly lead itself to relating to Durkheim’s theory about religion that“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). While Fischer is practicing an intense branch of Christianity, she still finds a way to influence it with her own views, putting her own little twist upon it, creating a sort of church, like Durkheim mentioned in his quote. Although Fischer may seem unorthodox and extreme in her views it's hard to ignore the tight-knit and strongly connected community she has built within Devil Lake, North Dakota. But, as mentioned previously, her severe views negatively taint the communities’ societal values and norms, whether she will acknowledge it or not, creating incomprehensible levels of religious devotion within this small community, ‘brainwashing’ these poor kids and subjecting them to her views, whether the kids like it or not, creates a scary precedent, and one that should definitely be examined more in-depth, something that hopefully our next theorist, Peter Berger will help us to achieve.

To build off of Durkheim’s theory on the interconnectedness of religion and society, I want to take a look at Peter Berger’s theory from “The Sacred Canopy” and get a more in-depth view into how religion affects society and how society is in turn, affecting religion. One of Berger’s early observations is society and the reason that it exists, which is to create a sense of order and to make everyone believe in it, even though he believes that society is an entirely false illusion. Society accomplishes this by “objectivating” which means we are taught to do the same thing over and over again as we “externalize” ourselves (Berger defines “externalize” as how we relate to and shape the environment around us). It is also extremely important that the “objectivating” is done in a way that makes the choices seem necessary as opposed to being an actual choice. This lack of choice also plays into another one of Berger’s observations of society, one that he calls “socialization”. He theorizes that there are a set of rules that get all brought together for society to evolve within each other. The three terms are externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Externalization is the idea that we create the social world. Using the movie as an example, Fischer is creating the world within her people, the Pentecostal people. Objectivation is the idea that we think the social world is externally objective reality. Internalization is the idea that we identify with the social world and it shapes us. Everyone was socialized into specific ways of thinking, consciously or unconsciously. No child can avoid being socialized. Through different life experiences, and in this case, religious experience, the minds of humans evolve, relying on the societal norms that are in the everyday lives of the world. Berger states that society has roles in life that cannot be done in a different way than we do them currently and for this to work, he hypothesizes that for this to take place, we have to follow the rules that society has set for doing things.

Berger’s theoretical ideas definitely play a role into Fischer’s idea of religion. Humankind collectively produce themselves, evolving those into a certain mindset that is used in everyday lives. Fischer gravitates towards children to share her mindset because the minds of adolescents are easier to alter than those who have had more life experiences, such as adults. Throughout the movie, she tells the kids very harsh thoughts of hers, such as “And let me say this about Harry Potter. Warlocks are enemies of God! And I do not care what kind of hero they are, they are an enemy of God, and had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!” and “Where should we be putting our efforts? Where should we be putting our focus? I will tell you where our enemies are putting it. They are putting it on the kids.” Although she means well with her intentions, the audience can perceive her actions as “abuse”. There has been a lot of controversy between the way Fischer mentors these children. Berger establishes the term “sacred canopy”, meaning that society has a “sacred canopy” over them and it therefore gives the world meaning. Fischer creates a canopy over the children in her camp, and it gives the kid a sort of meaning for their lives. This is why the idea of religion was created, to give life some sort of meaning, through traditions, rituals, and meetings.

Understanding these theories of religion, we can better understand the thought process of Fischer and why she takes action in the way she does. Society has a great influence on how religion came about. Jesus Camp, along with other religious documentaries, have been influenced by society. Using the two theories of collective effervescence and the sacred canopy, this knowledge will allow the audience to better understand the motives of society carrying out the actions of a religious group. Religion serves as a social structure for society, bringing people together by pursuing the same actions and beliefs within that group. These two theorists speculate what I believe are the most important “lenses” for describing and interpreting the religious phenomena found in the film, Jesus Camp.

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