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Gays and lesbians have had an uncomfortable place in the Christian church. Daniel Karslake aims to help them with this film. He focuses on two aspects of their experience: their relationship with their religious parents and their relation to their church.
The most disturbing part of the documentary is the footage of the hate-filled bigots who say that homosexuals are going to hell. There are many examples of screaming preachers like Jimmy Swaggart or self-proclaimed experts like James Dobson who insist that homosexuality is absolutely wrong and preventable. We also see examples of ordinary people who are not filled with hate, but who nevertheless believe what they are told about the Bible. The documentary calmly responds to this view with many experts explaining that the passages in the Bible that apparently condemn homosexuality also condemn other activities such as masturbation, eating rabbit and working on the Sabbath, and all these prohibitions need to be reevaluated in our modern context. Further, there is a question as to what exactly is being prohibited by the Bible, and one scholar argues that nothing in the Bible condemns loving relationships between people of the same gender, so what is being prohibited is forced sex between men. Another interesting point is in its interpretation of the words such as "abomination" and "unnatural" which they argue are not as strong words as we might think, but only refer to unusual or unconventional actions, rather than inherently sinful. The experts from a broad range of different varieties of Christianity make a convincing case that homosexuality is perfectly compatible with a reasonable interpretation of the Bible.
It is a little surprising that there's no discussion in the documentary of the possibility of rejecting Christianity. Some might wonder what reason there is for sticking with an unfounded system of belief that advocates intolerance for people who don't hurt anyone. However, For the Bible Tells Me So is aimed at people who accept Christianity and are struggling with how to think about homosexuality.
The more emotionally gripping part of the documentary is the coming out stories of some gays and lesbians and how their relationships with their families changed. There are interviews with Chrissy Gephardt, Jake Reitan, Tonia Poteat and Bishop Gene Robinson and their families. Some of their families accepted them swiftly, but others had major problems with their child's sexual orientation. The saddest story is told by Mary Lou Wallner, whose daughter Anna came out to her. Mary refused to accept her child, and their relationship deteriorated. Mary was horrified when her daughter committed suicide, and has devoted the rest of her life to better understand homosexuality and to help other parents to accept their gay and lesbian children. The other stories of parents standing by their children and accepting them unconditionally are far more uplifting. They suggest that social and religious change is possible. There is special focus on the election of Gene Robinson to the position of Anglican bishop.
The documentary does a good job at showing the passion of the hate of homosexuals, and it shows how homophobia runs through so much of society. There's little explanation of why people are so threatened by homosexuality, as opposed to other activities apparently condemned by the Bible such as rabbit-eating or working on the Sabbath, although one speaker does argue that the fear of effeminate men is linked to sexism.
There's an animated 4-minute section in the middle of the film that sets out the current scientific knowledge about homosexuality, and points out the majority view of psychology is that there is nothing unnatural about homosexual behavior. It argues that genes, hormones and birth order are all relevant to whether a person will become gay. Its summary of the scientific findings is perfectly adequate, although obviously very simplified. It's an awkward way to make its point, but it works well enough.
The production values are good; the talking heads are eloquent and there are many sections that are quite moving. There is plenty of documentary footage, and a few parts are reenactments of crucial moments in people's lives for dramatic effect. Few viewers will be able to see this film without coming away surer that the religious intolerance of homosexuals is unjustified and is quite incompatible with a belief system that is meant to be based on love. It would be a useful resource to use in high school and introductory undergraduate classes on sexuality and ethics, especially with students who consider themselves to be religious.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.