Camp Manna: One Giant Leap For Christian Cinema

It’s no secret that ‘good Christian movie’ is an oxymoron. Most are just glorified sermons, and the few good ones primarily exist for Christians. For too long, the most entertaining Christian movie has been Saved!, a 2004 film about students at a Christian high school. The film is bitingly satirical, and features a big-name cast that helps it feel like a standard coming-of-age comedy. It offers a nice message of Christian love with a healthy dose of humor, and while many of the in-jokes are aimed squarely at Christians, the movie is just as engaging for a secular audience.

Regrettably, many Christians avoid the film, because it’s overly progressive and it pokes fun at their faith. They have no problem with being self-aware (look at Tim Hawkins and John Crist). But only insofar as their theology isn’t compromised. Saved! tackles every taboo topic from teen pregnancy to gay marriage with an attitude of “don’t be so uptight, Jesus loves everyone!” Which is a bit too worldly a sentiment, and is therefore anathema to dogma.

So there has been a dearth of Christian comedies – Hawkins and Crist are fine substitutes, but they aren’t feature films. Even the so-bad-it’s-funny batch of Pure Flix drivel is painful to watch. And let’s not mention Kirk Cameron… Enter Camp Manna – a solid step in the right direction, albeit a starkly Christian one (spoilers to follow).

The movie centers around high schooler Ian, an orphan atheist living with his born-again aunt and uncle. They send him to Camp Manna to make good Christian friends, which is the last thing Ian wants. (Quick aside: the all-male cast is actually believable, given how fixated evangelicals are on gender segregation)

Already the movie is off to a good start. Like Saved!, it captures the absurdity of evangelical culture, as well as its oblivious side. When Bradley the counselor meets Ian for the first time, his response is, “You’re little – like Zacchaeus!”

Ian is awkward, as you’d expect – he’s less physically mature, and as I mentioned, he’s an atheist. I was initially caught off guard as I tried, and failed, to predict the storyline. I suspected that Ian’s atheism would go unnoticed, because he would be too shy to bring it up, but the misunderstanding would balloon out of control until the third act. At which point, the campers would learn his secret, he would convert, and we would cheer as he gives his life to Jesus.

I was pleasantly surprised by the actual plot. Within fifteen minutes, Ian loudly shouts that he’s not a Christian, that he doesn’t want to be there, and that he’s running away. Naturally he stays, but not out of coercion – this isn’t a conversion camp. Another counselor, Clayton, persuades him to stay. And thus, the comedy is born not from keeping his atheism under wraps, but from Clayton and Bradley fighting to convert him (I guess it sort of is a conversion camp…).

That’s one element the film captures perfectly – the obsession evangelicals have with trying to convert people. Not about to live and let live, Clayton and Bradley begin an all-out war for Ian’s soul. Ian, meanwhile, learns to be friends with his weird Christian cabinmates. Everything else unfolds like an outsider-makes-friends summer camp comedy, and the plot hits all the familiar beats of a good story. The finale highlights how ridiculous and dangerous Christians can be, without a sentimental conversion sequence.

If this were a secular comedy, it would be fine. It would probably have a 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, people would forget about it in a week, and it might gain a cult following five years later.

BUT – this is a Christian movie, and a comedy to boot. With a regular plot. And interesting, three-dimensional characters. And a message that isn’t preachy. And good production values. And some famous actors (Jimmy Tatro is superb, as well as Gary Busey and Joey Morgan). To the non-Christian world, that may not mean much. But to Christians, it’s a milestone. It’s on par with Saved! in many regards, and it’s refreshing to see filmmakers capture the Christian experience with such hilarious accuracy.

For one, the movie is packed with euphemisms and phrases only Christians will understand. Take for instance a scene with a talent show. Two of the camp jocks are putting on a skit about evangelizing at the gym. Already, this is something that a non-Christian would be baffled by. One of them casually asks, “The love of Christ? What’s that?” To which the other masculinely replies, “Come, lift, and I’ll tell you all about the wild mystery of grace.”

Most of the lines are equally self-aware, and in a shocking twist, many are laden with inadvertent sexual subtext. Clayton makes a video journal that he calls his ‘va-journal’, he constantly references the ‘annals of Camp Manna’, and one of the cabin groups is called ‘The Passover Privates’. It’s clear that the writers have been through evangelical hell and back, and taken copious notes along the way.

In my opinion, that’s the only flaw – everything is specifically designed for Christians. If I wanted to show non-Christians how weird Christians are, I would show them Saved! instead, or even the Catholic satire Dogma.

But in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t bother me. The filmmakers clearly made this to help Christians cope with their past, in a way that doesn’t repel them theologically, but also in a way that acknowledges the pain, discomfort, and quirks of growing up in ‘the church.’

As a Christian-turned-atheist, the movie actually meant a lot to me. I had very few memories of Christian camp, mostly because I didn’t want to go back – one time was plenty, and while it wasn’t traumatic, it wasn’t where I wanted to spend my summers. Like Ian, I was short for my age, so that was one less card in my favor. And like Ian, I’ve always been a little weirded out by Christians, even when I was a Christian. Camp Manna is a welcome reminder that evangelicals are a stupefying species, and it’s perfectly understandable to feel like an outsider. I would highly recommend Camp Manna for any and every evangelically-raised male. Because I guarantee you’ll find something to relate to, that your faith (or lack thereof) will be stretched a bit, and that you’ll laugh at something other than Kirk Cameron’s mortifying incompetence.