For The Bible Tells Me So
A brainwavez.org Film Review
by Jase Luttrell
Posted: 7 February 2007
brainwavez.org recently attended a Sundance Film Festival screening and Q&A session for For The Bible Tells Me So, a thought-provoking American documentary that examines how the religious right uses biblical references to justify its condemnation of the homosexual "lifestyle" and how religious gays and lesbians struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexual identity.
In January I attended a free screening of For The Bible Tells Me So, a documentary by director Daniel Karslake, as part of the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. Before seeing For The Bible Tells Me So the only thing I knew about it was that it covered the inflammatory topic of homosexuality as represented in the Bible and interpreted by some of the main religions in America. I also knew the film would focus on the story of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. What I didn't know was that the film focusses on the history of five religious families as they struggled with the realisation that a member of their family is lesbian or gay.
The film opens with statements made by the parents of each family: how they married, how many children they had, and which child was gay or lesbian. Then all the gay children speak about their realisation of being gay and their coming out processes. Most importantly, each family talks about its connections to various church affiliations: Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, and other denominations of the Christian faith. The children of these families talk about how their realisation of their homosexuality rocked their faith in their religion and how their parents responded to their proclaimed sexuality.
One family tells a heartbreaking story with a bittersweet ending (I'm not going to mention this family much in the review because it is one of the most powerful emotional roller coasters of the film and needs to be experienced rather than reported on). In contrast, the Poteat family - a black Southern Baptist family - learns to accept its highly educated lesbian daughter, although only to a degree. The Reitan family's son comes out as a teenager, and the story of the family members' grassroots activism and overall acceptance and love of their son is portrayed. The politically-charged Gephardt family is also showcased; the Gephardt's lesbian daughter Chrissy recently came out to her family and the nation in a People magazine article to help her father's political career. Finally, as I expected, Gene Robinson's family and life story is explored, including his marriage to a woman and how his family redefined their marriage vows to help ease the dissolution of their marriage.
By introducing the families first the film frames itself in a positive light and sets the tone for the message and direction of the film. The purpose of the film is not to attack any religion, per se, but to attempt to reconcile the rift between religion and homosexuality, rather than attempt to prove any religion wrong. Every family discusses how it dealt with the son or daughter who is gay but also how they searched through their religions to find what is really right for them spiritually, morally, and ethically. By and large, the movie is very positive towards homosexuals and, most importantly, to the Christian religions explored.
The documentary, however, does more than explore the lives of religious families: a number of scholarly theologians, including an openly gay Jewish rabbi and South African cleric and activist Desmond Tutu, speak about the historical context of the Bible. Specifically, they examine the defamatory passages in the Bible most often used to condemn homosexuals. The most widely known is Leviticus 20:13, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The arguments of these theologians generally follow academic arguments that say that the Bible was written in a specific time when biological knowledge about sperm, semen, and a woman's eggs was rudimentary. This argument is used, especially, to justify Leviticus 20:13, arguing that the biblical idea of pregnancy was the direct result of the man's seed. Leviticus 20:13 condemns "a man lying with another man as he does with a woman" because it is an abomination, which is interpreted to mean that a man could lay his seed in another man.
The theologians also explain the semantic differences between "natural" and "unnatural" in the Bible as really meaning customary and uncustomary, respectively. They argue that now the word "unnatural" in the Bible is vaguely used to refer to homosexual activity but this is an incorrect translation from Hebrew and Greek texts: "unnatural" in ancient Hebrew really means "uncustomary". Therefore, the bible doesn't say anything morally, biologically, or scientifically negative about homosexuality, only that homosexual actions and relations were not a normative aspect of ancient biblical societal life.
The most in-depth and informative interpretation of the Bible proffered by the theologians is the segment on Sodom and Gomorrah, which explains that the story is not about God striking down homosexuals, as is commonly thought, but about the city changing its hospitality laws. Unfortunately, this particular segment was very quick and information dense and is far too complex to encapsulate in a review.
While the segments about the families and the theologian's discussions are emotional and informative, the most entertaining and enjoyable segment is animated. This segment explores research on a scientific basis for homosexuality. The main character of the short cartoon, a white male aptly named Christian, meets a gay man and a lesbian woman. The most current theories on the origin of same-sex attraction are explored, including studies of handedness, twin studies, studies on birth order (the idea that the more male siblings, the likelier the youngest is gay), and the chemical and biological bases for these theories. The animated segment also tackles the thorny topic of reparative therapy, effectively squashing it with evidence and support from a number of psychological and psychiatric associations, among others.
Also of interest is a short segment on the relationship between churches and capitalism. The evidence that supports churches as capitalistic enterprises is given by displaying the surprisingly high annual median earnings for religious leaders, including Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.
Finally, the film tackles the topic of homophobia, while also showcasing the fight and arrest of the Reitan family as it took on Focus On The Family, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. The newest argument I learned about this topic exemplified by this film is from the young, openly gay rabbi: he argues that homosexuals are seen as effeminate, and effeminate men are a direct threat to masculinity. In our society, most men fear being emasculated and made to seem feminine so, really, homophobia is a deep-seated fear, distrust, and distaste for women and all things feminine.
The production quality of this documentary is stellar. There are no distracting camera movements and virtually no nauseating hand-held camera movements, which are so common in today's documentaries. The audio is crystal clear throughout the film and the music, when it is noticeable, is not distracting.
However, I have three distinct critiques: the film largely ignores the issues surrounding bisexuals, asexuals, and transgendered individuals. Furthermore, the film only looked at some branches of Christianity, largely ignoring Mormons (Latter-Day Saints). Since the film was first showcased in Utah at the Sundance festival, and because one of the executive producers is Mormon and from Utah, this seems odd to me. Finally, the film tackles so many issues surrounding homosexuality and religion that the editing sometimes seems jumbled, and many issues are rushed through, especially short segments on AIDS, Matthew Shepherd, and hate-crimes legislation. The documentary was the standard length of any movie (approximate running time of 97 minutes), but if it were to delve into any of these segments fully, the film would become epic in length. Instead, it would probably have been best if the three aforementioned segments and some of the interviews with the theologians had been left on the cutting room floor.
As of writing, the film has only been shown at Sundance and is being shopped around for a full release in independent theatres. During the Q&A session, which was held after the Sundance screening, the director, a few producers, the Reitan family, and Gene Robinson, revealed that this documentary is likely to be picked up by some distribution company, but will largely rely on word-of-mouth advertising. During the Q&A session and attendee asked if the director was expecting any negative reactions similar to those received after Fahrenheit 9/11. Interestingly, Daniel Karslake revealed that Focus On The Family, Billy Graham, and other extremely religious, anti-homosexual people and organisations were signed on to the film as the director wanted their input reflected in the film to offer a balanced view of Christianity and homosexuality, but when these groups realised that specific Bible passages would be put to the test, and that the film was intended to be pro-homosexuality, they all pulled out of the film. Daniel Karslake assumes there will be some discussions, sermons, and possibly even a film critiquing his work, because "those people all meet with each other all of the time, so they know what's going on and have plans". Regardless of the negative reactions that may come from anti-homosexual religious leaders, the film is powerful, and the director rightfully has high hopes for its success and message.
Though the film focuses on Christian families in America its message obviously transcends geo-political boundaries and will resonate with audiences across the globe. The message of this film is extremely important and gets at the root of the Christian doctrine of "love thy neighbour", regardless of a neighbour's religious affiliations or sexual identity. After leaving the screening and the Q&A, I excitedly talked to everyone I could about how truly informative, creative, and stunning this film was. When it is released in theatres I will definitely see it again because I am certain there are nuances I missed because I was overwhelmed by the courage of the families, the information presented by the theologians, and the positive message the director put forth.