Monday, March 03, 2008

For the Bible Tells Me So

We saw "For the Bible Tells Me So," a new documentary about the issues between Christianity and homosexuality, and it was pretty good. We had wanted to make a similar doc for a while, and this pretty much summed up what we probably would have said. Watching it, I wasn’t entirely sure it would convince anybody who didn’t already believe the message, but then in the special features the director explained that the primary audience is the people in the middle who already wish it wasn't such an issue, and I can see how it might work for those folks. Also, he told a story of a youth who’d seen a short version of one of the stories from the film, and the young person said, “Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. Today I saw your film. I threw away the gun.” Now if that’s the real purpose – and a noble one, it is – then I can definitely see how it could save lives. Religion is far too often one of the contributing factors to the very high suicide rate among GLBT persons (particularly teenagers) – and the most sad thing is that a lot of hate speech actually suggests or recommends this! (Gene Robinson was told to do the only noble thing and kill himself, for instance, in some of his hate mail)

So if this documentary keeps someone from taking her or his life, then Amen to that. And if it helps people who really want to be over the issue get over it, then I suppose that is good also. But I don’t think it is made for people who are not convinced or on the fence. I imagine my family, for instance, and I just don’t think I’d show it to them because the arguments aren’t quite strong enough to completely change minds, and some parts of it are radical enough that it could be a turn off and lose people.

The documentary focuses on families, very religious ones, who have a child who turns out to be gay or lesbian. Most of the children are interviewed, as well as some siblings and all of the parents. Most of the parents have come to embrace their child completely, but there is variety in that one set of parents loves their child but still believes she is engaged in a sinful “lifestyle.” Still, they clearly love her deeply and accept her as a person (they don’t follow James Dobson’s advice, which is portrayed as telling the child you will never accept them until they change). So they are a nice example of parents who can’t deny what they believe the Bible says, but at the same time still exhibit love to their daughter. It’s a bit unfortunate that they are the only family of color, though, because it kind of equates black theology with intolerance, while all the white families eventually “come around.”

The families are simply delightful and I enjoyed getting to know them all. The Robinsons especially are just so sweet, and the film’s big finish is Gene’s confirmation as bishop which is quite moving. The other parents who are now activists on behalf of their children were really inspirational. I think that even if one does not agree with the message of the film, one can appreciate the love in these families, and probably find someone with whom to identify.

My main beef with the movie is a cartoon in the middle, entitled “Is it a choice?” that I found really offensive and unnecessary. It took cheap shots at Christians and was just over-the-top rude. For instance, the character “Christian” in the cartoon pooh-pooh’d science, and that’s just not accurate to the way most Christians are (yes, even Christians who believe gay sex is sinful). That would turn off most people who otherwise might have been given some real food for thought. I would beg any conservative person who watches the film to fast forward through it or at least know that it’s very biased and not really representational of the rest of the tone of the film in any way. That’s what was most disturbing about it – we had all these nice stories going on, and then it just got mean for a minute. Dumb.

Also the theological/Biblical explanations of the classic “clobber passages” were a bit too brief and relied too heavily on “expert” opinion rather than really educating. Now of course, in a movie, you can’t educate people to the extent required to change minds on this issue. So I’m not sure how to solve that problem. I just noticed it. One thing that was interesting was the “woman on the street” who said she didn’t believe we were supposed to try to “dig into” the meaning of the Bible because that was dangerous. And I thought, how sad that this woman has been taught that the Bible – a gold mine that can be dug into for years fruitfully – is never supposed to be exposed beyond its most surface layer (and might I add, that would be an English translation and probably not a very good one). I guess it’s the result of seminary, but I can’t even imagine encouraging a person NOT to challenge Scripture. Dude, God can totally take it. You’re not going to upset the real truth that’s in there!

Which sort of brings me to my other beef: I really wished there was more representation of conservative people in the theology sections. There are plenty of conservative, Bible-believing folks who don't believe in the literal reading of scripture - they could have interviewed most any of my profs at Fuller. Despite the movie being ostensibly aimed at the middle, they didn't really have any "middle conservatives" as it were - Fuller types. And a lot of these people DO believe in historical-critical readings of the Bible, and at the same time STILL hold the belief that, while being gay is not sinful, acting on it is. I respect the Biblical scholarship of many of these people and I was sad not to see that voice included. The film portrayed it almost as if anybody who still believes gay people are sinning when they have sex is a literalist, and that’s just not true. Now, President Mouw, bless him, did appear in one very short section, but all that was left of his interview was him disagreeing with the Harvard types over the interpretation of Sodom & Gomorrah (which comes down to how much stock you put in the prophetic book – can’t recall which at the moment – that says the sin there was lack of hospitality, not sexual). He brought up Romans 1 which is, indeed, the most difficult passage to reconcile with inclusive theology, and so you gotta give him props for going there. He even admitted that the Sodom & Gomorrah stuff, on its own (like Leviticus, he’d probably agree – I know my OT profs would), isn’t a very strong case, but Romans definitely is.

And then they went on to give the “expert” opinion on Romans but it was a bit garbled and honestly, if I hadn’t already studied much of it on my own, I probably wouldn’t have really understood what they were talking about. But maybe I’m just reading too much into it because I DO know there’s a huge backstory that there wasn’t time to tell. Maybe it would be enough for most people.

Anyway, I don’t mean to come off as disparaging the movie, because I really really think it was excellently made and worth watching. I just wanted to put out a few caveats so that if any of my conservative readers watch it you can be prepared not to be quite so turned off. Yes, it has a viewpoint and it’s very biased toward it. But you can still enjoy the stories and be moved by the transformations and the deep love in these families. And for that, I highly recommend “For the Bible Tells Me So” as a great conversation-starter and education into the lives of the people who are, for many of us, our very close neighbors.

(Hey, I like this review enough I think I might just try to publish it in Fuller's newspaper. We'll see how that goes over!)


Cari said...

Dear Feminary,

I have had the opportunity to speak with some of the masterminds behind this movie and there are a few things that may clear things up. First, the producers went to great lengths to line up individuals who represent themselves as conservative theologians and who were the most vocal in speaking against gays and lesbians. Included among the conservatives were Falwell and Dobson (and several other names I cannot remember). When they realized that "For the Bible Tells Me So" was a documentary in support of gays and lesbians, they backed out. Dr. Mouw was one of the only conservative (on this topic) theologians willing to be recorded.

Second, I agree it is sad that the only family of color did not seem to progress much in their understanding of their daughter and her partner. After the completion of the film, the producer took a final copy to them and sat with them as they watched it. According to the producer, the wife was really moved by the movie. She commented they were the only family that had "stopped moving" or stopped evolving towards an integrated understanding of their daughter. They went on to describe how they had loved their daughter, but they refused to acknowledge or love that part of her. The producer said he knew the movie was successful when the wife said that she wants to keep trying.

Third, this movie is made for the "moveable middle" not for the people who are never going to move. I agree that this movie will not convert anyone. The theology is not strong, nor was the theology the point. The point was to connect to the humanity of the families and their children. It was to see something in one of those families that reminded the viewer of his or her own family. It's goal was to deconstruct the idea of "the other" or the "us vs. them" and recognize that these are everyday people and families who may be your neighbor, your brother, your friend, your church member.

Finally, as a lesbian watching the movie, I found the cartoon strip so dumbed down and such a stereotyped charicature of Christianity that it was more comical than offensive. I know that Fuller may not seem progressive in this area, but it is a more progressive environment than many traditional churches in the midwest and even here in CA. I personally grew up in a church that was perfectly represented in the cartoon character "Christian." This church is right down the street from Fuller. Many of my gay and lesbian friends identified with the cartoon because they too grew up in a church that dismissed any scientific explanation of homosexuality as "an excuse to live in sin." I have even had a psychology professor at Fuller dismiss science a part of the explanation of sexuality. My point, that cartoon was not all that far fetched when viewed through the lens of homosexual people.

ok, one more point. According to the producer, the cartoon was a way to provide comic relief and psychoeducation in the middle of a heavy film. It may not have been the best way to do it because the comical part came at the cost of traditional and conservative Christians. However, "Christian" represented the attitude I encounter everyday.

I appreciate your desire to engage in this topic.

janinsanfran said...

Interesting review. I hated the cartoon character "science" lecture. All that seems ahistorical -- the contemporary understanding of homosexuality is a new-fangled 20th century creation, rather happily describing a form of sexual relations as they exist in a particular material reality. As our material circumstances change, who knows how we'll structure our relationships? Very little of this seems biological.

But criticism aside, this lesbian Christian found the film quite moving.

jadedjabber said...

I am so glad that there are other people commenting on the racism within this film. It's not malicious or overt, but it is perpetuating stereotypes and racism within the society. I know plenty of white folk who do not accept their queer kids and black folk who do.

Thank you for addressing that. I am new to your blog so also wanted to say hello. I'm a Lutheran turned UCC by the homophobia with in the ELCA in Iowa.-also in feminary.