Documentary Review: For the Bible Tells Me So

[Originally posted on October 26, 2007 at]

The Bible is pretty straightforward in its message when it comes to homosexuality: it’s a sin, and those who insist on practicing it are going to Hell. It’s simple.

Or is it? The growing movement to reconcile gay rights with Christianity is the subject of a fascinating new documentary called For the Bible Tells Me So (we’ll call it “FTBTMS” for short).

Directed by Daniel Karslake, FTBTMS follows the struggles of five families:

  • Imogene and Victor Robinson, an elderly Kentucky couple with traditional Protestant values, whose openly gay son Gene is the controversial new Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire;
  • Jane and Dick Gephardt, whose daughter Chrissy’s decision to come out of the closet affected her father’s run for the White House. Both Robinson and Gephardt had married and tried to live heterosexual lifestyles before finally decided to accept their sexual preferences (Robinson even had two children);
  • Mary Lou Wallner, who feels she is at least partly to blame for the suicide of daughter Anna.  Her grief led her to found TEACH Ministries (TEACH = To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia);
  • David and Brenda Poteat, black ministers struggling with college-educated daughter Tonia’s open lesbianism, and;
  • Randi and Phil Reitan, who, with their teenage son Jake, have become part of SoulForce, an organization which uses non-violent means to confront religious homophobia.

The film also features several prominent theologians, among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Their arguments as to exactly what the Bible says about homosexuality, and how it should be viewed by 21st century eyes, are subtle and open to dispute. In short, they argue that the term “abomination” used in the Old Testament means “ritual transgression” as opposed to “a sin before God.” A daunting array of things were seen as abominations (the punishment for which was death), from seemingly trivial gastronomical practices, to performing certain tasks in the Sabbath, to engaging in sexual relations with persons of the same sex. In other words, disapproval of homosexuality is tied to ancient cultural taboos on the subject and not to God’s eternal judgment. These liberal Christians view the Bible as more a cultural and spiritual artifact. They maintain, or so it seems, that the New Testament reveal’s God’s plan of forgiveness and universal love, and so ancient taboos can be abandoned. (A pretty decent overview of the arguments presented can be found here.)

The film is at its most moving – and makes the most sense – in showing the power of loving families to grow in understanding and overcoming deep-seated prejudices. Their stories are at once heartbreaking and uplifting. One family (the Poteats) have apparently agreed to disagree, in that Tonia’s parents will not accept her homosexuality while still allowing her and her lesbian partner to come for family visits. All the others have arrived at both acceptance and activism – the film documents an effort by the Reitans to deliver a letter in person to James Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical organization). The Reitans were arrested.

FTBTMS is an entertaining, educational, and effective documentary, but it could have been better. It is hopelessly one-sided: not one Biblical scholar appears to refute the film’s nuanced interpretation of the Bible’s message on homosexuality (and you wouldn’t have to find a religious nutcase to defend the traditional interpretation). The film also fails to address exactly what kind of Christianity those featured are advocating. Is it a Christianity that believes in a real God? A real Hell? A divine Jesus, or just a human one? If one jettisons select parts of the Old Testament, which parts does one keep, and how does one know what to keep? Do you really need Christ to learn that it’s good to love one another and practice forgiveness?

I found myself wondering, at what point might some of these people wake up and say, “Hey, if the Bible is so hopelessly flawed in so many ways, maybe it’d be better to find our morality elsewhere.” Don’t get me wrong – I’d much rather have a progressive, tolerant Christianity than an authoritarian, intolerant one. Nonetheless, the progressives have to do a furious tap-dance to rationalize what is so obviously an outdated, flawed, and dangerous worldview; namely, the Biblical worldview.  But… it is progress of sorts; the Reitans and Robinsons and Gephardts of the world are a step closer to a wholly humanistic worldview than are the Dobsons and Falwells and Swaggarts.

Visit the movie’s official website for more information.

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