For the Bible Tells Me So (documentary)

Many Christians say they believe homosexuality is sinful because the Bible teaches it, but the truth in most cases is that they believe it because it’s what their churches have taught them. Just reading the Bible, with no preconceived notions and no outside coaching, you’d be hard-pressed to remember it referring to homosexuality at all. Only a few verses mention it — and mostly in the all-but-disregarded Old Testament — so it’s hardly a major theme in the Good Book.

To hear some people go on about it, though, you’d think it was on every page! “For the Bible Tells Me So,” a heartbreaking and uplifting documentary, follows the stories of several religious young people whose relationships with God and their families were disrupted when they realized they were gay. The film offers proof that religion and homosexuality need not be mutually exclusive: Good Christians can love and accept their gay brothers and sisters, and gay people can still be religious. Neither concept gets much airtime these days.

We meet Gene Robinson, now the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, and the son of an adorable old church-going couple from Kentucky. The Robinsons have been married since 1946, and the Bethany Christian Church has always been part of their lives. Are they proud of their son? You bet.

We meet the Poteats, a Baptist family from North Carolina with a gay son and daughter. Then there are the Reitans, from Minnesota, whose son Jake comes from a long line of Lutheran pastors. When Jake came out of the closet, some of the locals threw a brick through their windshield and wrote “fag” in chalk outside the house. This was in the 21st century, in a civilized nation.

There’s Mary Lou Wallner, a Christian fundamentalist who rejected her lesbian daughter and whose story will break your heart. Finally, there’s Dick Gephardt, the Democratic congressman from Missouri (and a Catholic) whose gay daughter helped him campaign for the presidency in 2004.

Director Daniel G. Karslake lets these families tell their stories, interspersing them with comments from outside sources: theologians, biblical scholars, and even Desmond Tutu. The point is made repeatedly that the Bible simply doesn’t have much to say about homosexuality — and when it does seem to address the topic, it’s far from crystal-clear what its meaning is.

The Rev. Dr. Laurence C. Keene, a wise, soft-spoken theologian, gently points out that there’s a difference between what the Bible reads (i.e., the words on the page) and what it says (i.e., what it means). This notion of biblical literalism — where you take the Bible at face value and don’t consider the context, the original manuscripts, or anything else — is a 20th century phenomenon. Before that, it was understood that you had to do some work to get at the Bible’s meaning.

Several people point out the silliness of discarding the entire book of Leviticus — which is what most Christians do — but retaining the two verses that refer to homosexuality. If you keep those, shouldn’t you have to keep the verses in the same book that talk about the “abomination” (or “abomb-nation,” as Jimmy Swaggert keeps saying) of eating shellfish and having sex with a woman who’s on her period?

Biblical literalism is just as selectively applied. Plenty of people say, “Well, the Bible says a man lying with a man is sinful, so that’s all there is to it.” But do those people also sell everything they have and give it to the poor, as Jesus instructed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Well, no. Why not? “Well, you have to take into account who he was talking to, and the society of the time” — and literalism is replaced with the more reasonable contextualism.

But most people, even Christians, don’t read the Bible extensively at all, let alone work on interpreting and understanding it. They’re content merely to repeat what their pastors tell them, which may or may not be based on careful study of the Bible’s history, doctrines, and origins. This shouldn’t be. As Keene says in the movie’s most quotable moment, “There’s nothing wrong with a fifth-grade understanding of God — as long as you’re in the fifth grade.”

The idea of the Bible NOT being as anti-homosexuality as generally believed sounds heretical because it’s been repeated constantly for decades. As the film points out, however, the Bible has been used throughout the ages to justify racism, slavery, subjugation of women, and persecution of the Jews. People who clung to those beliefs probably had a hard time accepting that the Bible didn’t really endorse those things after all, too.

But here I am telling you what the movie says instead of telling you whether I agree with it, or whether it’s a good movie. It is a good movie. Karslake (who wrote the narration with Helen R. Mendoza) maintains an even mix of reason and emotion. The talking heads give us the former, while the individuals whose stories are told provide the latter. Their faith is inspiring, as is the love demonstrated between the parents and their children. It seems like a very sharp line has been drawn — either you can be gay, or you can be religious — and these brave souls show the wrongness of that thinking.

B+ (1 hr., 36 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for some heavy thematic elements.)