Channel 4′s documentary Cutting Edge: Baby Bible Bashers aired last night with more freak show feel than documentary. The show interviewed no one outside the situation, and only those who knew the family got a say on camera, so the interviews followed more of a testimonial than comment. The show opens with the claim, ‘The Christian Evangelism Movement is growing three times faster than the world’s population and born again parents are increasingly putting their children in the front lines in the crusade to convert sinners.’ Already they start with terms they don’t define (what is the ‘Christian Evangelism Movement’?), stats with no reference, and loaded terms (like crusade).
The documentary follows three children. The first child, 7-year old Samuel Boutwell, comes from the stereotypical southern US fundamentalist family. They come complete with thick southern accents, sandwich boards damning everyone, and their church’s three-man baptist church choir. Samuel stands out as the focus of this documentary in a way that the producers want to say this child sums up all three children. We see video of little Samuel preaching in front of abortion clinics, on street corners, and even in their own home. The family (with two other friends) plan a ‘mission trip’ to New York to stand on street corners and preach. Their message, of course, is the hell, fire, and brimstone one often caricatured, and include for this little boy one other: worms. I also see them bundling up what can only be Chick Tracts! They take their message to the streets, encountering hostility, bemusement, and at one point the police. Most of the time, the dad preaches while the little boy stands with the family friend terrified of the onlookers yelling and arguing with this dad. In the side interviews, he keeps saying that even if they have a gun to his head, he will continue to preach. The last scene of the day has the little boy bawling in a chair while his dad carries on.
The other two children are much less the focus. One is a 12-year old girl, Ana Carolina Dias, in Brazil who has been preaching since 8. Her father is a former policeman jailed for reasons he won’t disclose. The girl says that her father is everything to her and the dad says he is the proudest father in the world. Little background is given, and she gets the least airtime of the three. Perhaps it became difficult to continually translate everything from Spanish.
The last child, 8-year old pastor (yes, pastor) Terry Durham. He’s from the African-American pentecostal tradition. Ordained by his grandmother, his touch is said to heal. The narrator claims that he is hailed as the ‘new messiah’ (though no one they interview says this of him). The most disturbing part of this is the father (who has not raised him – the child was raised by his paternal grandmother) building an empire, looking for him to pastor in a $1.5 million building. He has t-shirts, hats, and signs autographs. Again with the focus on Samuel, very little is asked of the father or grandmother of Terry. A very shy boy out of the pulpit, Terry does not speak much.
The show claims that what drives these three is fear of hell and the devil. Certainly, that is true of Samuel, who seems to have heard his father’s message well, especially about the worms. The other two do not mention Satan. In fact, the only message I hear from Ana is her message of love to prisoners. Still, the message from Samuel and his family is definitely one of scaring the hell out of you, and as Samuel finds (to his astonishment) this doesn’t work.
I can only assume that Channel 4 wants you to believe that this is Christianity’s message – the fire and brimstone, wrath filled God. It is the caricature of Christianity often portrayed. The hellfire and brimstone message is of course not preached by all Christians. The problem I have is that it means you must convince people there is this awful place where you will be excruciatingly tormented forever, then that God made this place and will send you there, but he doesn’t want to because he loves you. Something doesn’t quite add up there. Anyway, Channel 4 seems to sum up Christian evangelism by what is seen in the Boatwells, and Christians will send their children to get it across. The evangelicalism that I grew up in does, I admit, believe in hell, but we shunned the street corner style of the Boutwells and we certainly wouldn’t put out children to do it. Pentecostals, as seen on the God Channel, can lean the way of big budgets and promotions and centring around a leader, but that is hardly the norm (not all pentecostals have the money to be on the God Channel) and I am unaware of children like Terry regularly being used like that. I can’t comment on Ana’s situation, as it is so far removed from my own.
All in all, a disturbing show, if this is what people will see of the message of Jesus and the church. It does make the church’s job harder when we have to overcome the perception that this is who we are, but it also makes our job more important, to show that God is love.