Saturday, October 20, 2007

Film Review: For the Bible Tells Me So

This past Wednesday, a friend and I headed down to the Portland Lesbian & Gay Film Festival to see a new documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So, an examination of the effect conservative Christian teaching on homosexuality has on families with a gay member and the basis for those beliefs.

It's a wonderful, moving, painful yet entertaining 90 minutes, but it fails almost completely in its anointed mission to "reconcile homosexuality and Biblical scripture." True, the roughly six Biblical passages used to condemn gay people are each pointed out, but they are rather casually dismissed. The two nearly identical passages from Leviticus where homosexual activity is labeled an "abomination" are made to seem silly, like the prohibitions on eating shrimp or wearing linen and wool together, which are similarly called "abominations."

It's a starting point, of course, to highlight other Hebrew laws we ignore, but the reason that dog won't hunt is that restrictions on food and clothing aren't seen as significant moral issues; they're not in the same arena with sexual behavior. The bans on eating certain foods were also explicitly overturned by Jesus and Peter. The better strategy is to look at passages of Biblical law dealing with moral issues that even self-proclaimed literalists today would be forced to concede are not moral. (Examples here and here.) The answer to the conservative insistence on trotting out Leviticus is not to say, "Hey, here are some other passages we ignore," but rather, "Here are some passages we both reject." I'd be interested in James Dobson's explanation for why a rape victim is bound by God's law to marry her assailant. Even his strict guidelines for parenting don't go this far.

Paul's letter to the Romans is similarly mishandled, with a lame claim that the original Greek that has been translated as "unnatural" really just means "uncustomary." The filmmakers ignore the crucial context that Paul's letter is a specific response to an inquiry from the Roman Christian community about some of the worship practices of the popular cult of Cybele. Like the conservatives who use the passage as a cudgel, the filmmakers, too, fail to turn the page to Chapter 2, where Paul makes it explicitly clear that there is no hierarchy of sin; sexual immorality is no worse than gossip. (Or, to put it another way, gossip is as bad as sexual immorality.)

As to the question of whether homosexuality could possibly be seen as Biblically compatible, somehow they manage to not point out a single gay-affirming passage. (Here, here, here, here, and here, for starters.) The scant effort at exegesis in the film was so glaring that even my non-religious friend who accompanied me remarked, "They didn't really talk about the Bible all that much."

That's not to say the film is bad or even remotely disappointing, just that the marketing's main claim is grossly exaggerated. Its value lies in the power of the honesty and naked emotion of the families it portrays and the stories of their journeys toward reconciliation. Whether it's the Reitans - a classically amiable, blond, all-American Pepsi and Wonderbread sort of Lutheran family from Minnesota, who go from trying to get their son Jacob in to "reparative" therapy to being arrested, arm in arm, for civil disobedience on the grounds of Focus on the Family's headquarters - or the Robinsons - an evangelical family from rural Kentucky who end up attending the consecration of their son Gene as the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop (to roars of approval from the crowd in attendance, amid death threats to Gene and his partner) - one gets a profound sense of what Bp. Robinson meant when he told Beliefnet a few years ago that God is doing "a new thing." It's not that God has changed His mind on sexuality, but rather that, having confronted us with our historical failures with regard to race and gender, the Spirit is still at work in our religious communities, continuing to inspire us to heed the radical welcome of Jesus' teachings and to throw open the doors and hearts of our churches to all whom God calls.


kr said...

Oy, I hoped after a day and a half I wouldn't be the first commenter.

First, a little off topic but not really, I had to laugh at (Or, to put it another way, gossip is as bad as sexual immorality.), because this summer during some personal work and analysis I came to this very conclusion, only I take it 100% seriously. Gossip is porn for people who feel most fulfilled and loved through social interactions. It objectifies someone else for one's own use and pleasuring, and, observably, seems just as addictive--and users of both tend to argue that their use doesn't "hurt anyone." (cough"bullshit!"cough)

Anyhow, as you can see, your correlation of sexual immorality with gossip doesn't, for me, logically lessen in any way the potential judgment load. (But then, as you so adroitly replied at lunch today to a different sally, "that just means you're uptight" ;). ) I recognize that given our society's cultural tolerances and norms, you would expect it to. Not that I think it was a terribly honest presentation of Paul's intention anyhow, as I will get back to, below.


More directly to the homosexual-friendly verses question, the "gay friendly" passages you chose seemed odd to me, and you skipped what I would think would be a big one--the Psalm by David to his determinedly masculine God about the lovers and the Stag.

The Old Testament is full of Deep Feeling--the culture as a whole seems to have valued extreme expressions of every type, including expressions of affiliation. Where we are a nation and a culture that values logical, dry thinking, the ancient Hebrews were pretty clearly not: they both valued feeling and weren't, erm, what one might call, the world's greatest philosophers ... (!). Of course there is speculation on the Jonathan and David situation (not least because David is such a loose cannon in every other respect), but Ruth and Naomi??? That is just beyond a stretch, good grief.

The New Testament "disciple whom Jesus loved" would certainly be in line with the OT comfortability with deep professed love between same-gender friends--which comfortability existed of course side-by-side with (and in some ways was probably enabled by) fairly clear cultural prohibitions against intra-gender sex. Which, I still maintain, were significantly specifically not recinded by Jesus in his ministry, despite several recorded occasions when he addressed marriage. And if he was involved in a homosexual relationship, even 'just' an emotional one, it would be particularly dishonest of him to not speak of the issue (Jesus+dishonesty presenting obvious difficulties to any Christian), and it would be terribly weird of the early Christian community to accept the "disciple whom he loved" terminology without comment or examination if in fact there was any suspicion of that relationship being anything but societally acceptable--either they would have chosen to accept it (with commentary in the scriptures or the other early writings) or bury it (rather than letting the phrase remain in the texts).

As for Peter in Acts, this chapter and the one following it are clearly specifically recording the surprising acceptance of Gentiles into the salvation plan, and you are playing fast and loose with your insistence on not taking quotes out of context to present this verse as spcifically homosexual-friendly. I agree that no person is inherently evil, or too "sick" for salvation, and I agree that that this verse supports that. But that acceptance applies to all humanity for all reasons, and is only "homosexual friendly" in that y'all are human. (I recognize that your humanity has been contested and some places still is--but then those people wouldn't see the verse as applying to you at all, removing its pertinence entirely.)

And to get back to the gossip/heirarchy of sin thing, I can't see how you are not shooting yourself in the foot: the same-sex acts are included, with special emphasis in placement (first) and duration (several sentences), in what is specifically a list of sins--of unacceptable acts and predilictions and habits of heart--and the rest of the list is pretty clearly sinful, however petty (bickering?) or serious (murder?) one might consider each individual habit to be. Even sans my idomatic personal disgust with gossip, "murder" and "they hate God" are not to be dismissed, and it was extremely biased of you to present Paul's apparent removal of the heirarchy of sin (a reasonable reading) as being somehow dismissive ... when he clearly means exactly the opposite (and then goes on and on and on about all of us being sinners ... ).


The ball is in your court ...

Andy said...

Oy, I hoped after a day and a half I wouldn't be the first commenter.

Yeah, me, too.

I'm not putting forward any of what I called "gay-affirming" texts as "proof texts," merely expressing my astonishment that these are available and widely discussed (though, as you astutely point out, not conclusive by a long shot) yet not even nodded at in a film that claimed to 'reconcile' homosexuality with Scripture. I think they are interesting points for discussion. And if you think the Ruth/Naomi passage is a stretch, well...clearly you've never been to a lesbian wedding. That's the obligatory passage.

And I don't think Jesus had a boyfriend, for the record. But I do find it curious phraseology. Mostly it's just a springboard for deeper discussion.

Umm...we're actually in agreement on Acts, there isn't anything I said from which you could draw the assumption that I thought it was exclusively a "gay-friendly" passage. It's sweeping.

And you've misunderstood what I said about Romans. I wasn't diminishing sexual immorality in the slightest, I was doing precisely what you seem to imply I should have done.

Lost in this silly discussion is the inescapable background context that these scriptures came from a culture that had a vastly different (and erroneous) understanding of sexual orientation and same-sex relationships. They would have understood homosexuality exclusively in terms of sexual gratification; they did not conceive of homosexuality being something innate or that two people of the same gender could genuinely, intimately love each other. We know better now. We don't have to limit ourselves to restrictions imposed on us by people who didn't know what they were talking about.

kr said...

I was talking to a mommy Tuesday at a knitting class for parents at my son's school about her separation arrangements with her son's other mommy, and discussing the child with four mommies and the child with three mommies and a daddy that I know of in my daughter's class ... and it occured to me that I should here note, for ou (Andy) or any lurkers who wonder, that I engage you on this topic because it is one I am concerned about. For lurkers, I would like to clarify (as Andy knows) that I do not attack him with Biblical (or other) "you are evil" judgments (which would make living in Portland distinctly less comfortable, I suspect : ( ). As our mutual friend Nathan pointed out the last time a serious Biblical argument went by, to many people the Bible is just an historical document, and I fully recognize that. For Andy and I the stakes are a little higher ... but I don't expect the majority of people to find my points pertinent.

Living in Portland, I forget (until reminded by a lesbian mother) that in many parts of the country this type of religious and textual-interpretation engagement could only be perceived as the attack that would be the cultural norm. I am sorry if anyone felt it as an attack.

I am glad that Andy takes the engagement seriously; there are few enough on either side that can talk to each other in a productive rather than dismissive exchange, and I value Andy's input on a number of theological matters. I consider it a good sign that we each see many of the weaknesses in the arguments from people who "agree" (more or less) with us.


Andy, thank you, I will continue to think. I do want to point out that the passage about Ruth and Naomi being used in lesbian weddings does not legitimize the interpretation ... just like all the "Biblical justifications" for anti-Semitism (as we have recently noted at Quinn's) don't play out, in broader context, even if they sound good to people who want to believe them that way.