Sunday, October 14, 2007

For the Bible Tells Me So: Moving, and level-headed documentary film about the Bible and homosexuality

For the Bible Tells Me So (2007, First Run Features, Atticus / Vision Quest, dir. Daniel G. Karsdale) may be the most effective documentary yet on homosexuality and religion, mostly (in American) Christianity. The most important characters covered are Gene Robinson, who marries, then comes out, and then struggles to be appointed bishop in the Episcopal Church; and the family of Congressman Dick Gephardt, with his lesbian daughter, and the fear that she could affect his political chances. Also covered is a the family of a Minnesota businessman, with his teenage son, who at one time attracts threats, but who eventually travels (as a family) to Colorado Springs in an attempt to confront the head of Focus on the Family, Dr. James Dobson. The confrontation and trespassing arrest, as well as Robinson’s “coronation” come at the end of the film and make its climax. In the middle, the film presents another harrowing tale of a young adult suicide, and presents frightening statistics on teen gay suicide. Oddly, the first image of the film is that of Anita Bryant in 1997, getting to become a pie face. (See the short "I Just Wanted to Be Somebody," reviewed June 17 on this blog.) There was also a reference to the group "Love Won Out."

But the real value of the film is the way it dissects the religious objections to homosexuality, and how these beliefs apparently drive some people into violence or hateful behavior that seems so unacceptable by modern moral standards of civilized conduct. There are only a few “clobber” passages in the Bible that appear to refer to (male) homosexual conduct. The famous passages in Leviticus are explained by translating the word “abomination” as a “ritual wrong” for a particular group (the Jews), not a moral wrong. Jewish law was constructed for the general welfare of the tribal Jewish people as they came together after the Exodus. Procreation was important for the well-being of the people, and there was a belief that “seed” could not be wasted (an idea that seems ridiculous to modern biology). The story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18) is told (with some excerpts, apparently from the 1962 20th Century Fox film, imported from France and dubbed, dir. Robert Aldrich -- the “spectacle” looks pretty silly comparison with the spectacle Cinemascope Fox films of the 50s, like “The Robe”). The cities might have sealed their fate by deciding that they did not have to be hospitable to strangers, a cultural requirement in some parts of the ancient world. In any case, it’s hardly clear that the angels were assaulted out of homosexual attraction as a modern understands it. Later, in Romans and Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes comments that appear to condemn homosexual conduct in the context of the way it seems to have been practiced by the Greeks and Romans. African American Harvard religion professor Peter Gomes ("The Good Book: Reading the Bible in Mind and Heart" (1996)) appears and discusses how to interpret the Bible culturally.

The real question, though, it the psychological roots of homophobia. People say “for the Bible tells me so” (even when it doesn’t) because they need to believes in some immutable moral facts as reassurance. So often there is unwillingness to question religious authority in a normal Socratic manner. But there is something deeper, here, about family. Many people have notion of heterosexual marriage – connecting sex to lineage and procreation -- as organizing society and providing meaning for everyone, providing security for the individual in a world of enemies and threats. Challenging its authority is a threat to the security of some people. (It’s also a threat to the patriarchal authority of others.) Some people may see procreation (or at least a willingness to remain silent and take a back seat to others who have kids if one personally does not – the “don’t ask don’t tell” problem fanning out from the military) as a way of paying back an “obligation” to one’s parents or ancestors. They may see disinclination to procreate as a way of passing morally inappropriate judgment on one's own family or of "cowardly" avoiding the uncertainty of reproductive risks that had been taken by their parents to create them, and they may see "normal heterosexuality" as something someone is supposed to grow into, like toilet training. In this regard, the film (in a cartoon segment) presents some information on genetic concordance in identical twins, as well as curious statistics that latter born sons seem to be more likely to be homosexual (perhaps less pressured to carry on the “family name” but more likely to become the “family slave” if an eldercare burden occurs). All of this, however, makes one wonder about where marriage can be about “love” after all – if social approbation matters more.

There was a panel discussion afterward in the Lincoln Theater, and one of the panelists said, “you can’t outthink someone who doesn’t think.”

The film is moving in a circumspect way and keeps a certain objectivity that is lacking in, say, a Michael Moore film.

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