"The Bible is the word of God through the word of human beings, speaking in the idiom of their time,and the richness of the Bible comes from the fact that we don't take it as literally so that it was dictated by God." -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
The last few years have brought some important documentaries: Alex Gibney's Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room, Amy Berg's Deliver Us from Evil; and Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, just to name a few. 2007 is young, but Sundance is always a great opportunity to sample the documentary waters, and my favorite doc at Sundance this year was For the Bible Tells Me So, an exploration of the religious right's use of the Bible to justify shutting homosexuals out of the faiths in which they've grown up. One of the central figures in For the Bible Tells Me So is Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first-ever openly gay man to be elected a Bishop of the Episcopalian Church. Robinson's consecration in 2003 (at which he had to wear a bullet-proof vest due to death threats) was a historical occasion that caused a rift in the Episcopal church. On a more personal level, the consecration was the penultimate moment of the path on which Robinson had embarked some 20 years earlier when, with the support of his then-wife, Isabella, Robinson came out of the closet after years of attempting to live as a straight man and seeking counseling to rid himself of his "homosexual feelings."
Director Daniel Karslake explores, with various historians and religious figures including Robinson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the use of the Bible in the religous right's attempts to portray homosexuals as being abominations against God and nature. Karslake seeks with this film to both put a face on the issue of religion and homosexuality, and to give people dealing with family and friends who whip out the same few Bible verses about homosexuality as a few Biblical weapons of their own with which to respond. Toward that end, Karslake brings out a cavalcade of religious leaders to counter the Biblical arguments used most often by the religious right -- and shines a light on how often regular people believe what they've been told the Bible says about homosexuality without ever questioning what they've been told.
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer, for instance, refutes the assertion that the Old Testament verses about homosexuality being an "abomination" had, at the time they were written, the meaning that modern Biblical literalists layer on them today. "A few verses above and below it says you shouldn't plant two different seeds in the same hole, you shouldn't co-mingle your crops ... There is other text that says you shouldn't wear linen and wool together. To just pick out, this is the one that we're going to follow ... the Bible doesn't come that way -- it's selective reading ..." Mayer says.
Other religious scholars back up Mayer's assertion that the so-called Holiness Code was about helping the Hebrew people use ritual as a means of maintaining their faith when they were being persecuted, and that the Biblical verse about a man not lying with another man had to do with procreation and with the need for the Hebrew people to grow their population quickly. Therefore, notes Reverend Susan Sparks in the film, the term "abomination" was simply about a man wasting his seed. Reverend Laurence Keene says much the same thing, asserting that the term "abomination" as used in Hebrew Bible was about ritual wrongs -- the eating of pork is considered an abomination, for example -- and was never used to refer to something as "innately immoral."
The religious scholars refuting the Biblical verses, and the cute little cartoon in the middle addressing the science of homosexuality, serve as the framework of the film, but at its heart this is a film not about historical Biblical theory, but about the real lives of families with homosexual sons and daughters, and how they have reconciled their faith with their love for their children.
We hear the story of Chrissy Gephardt, who finally came out as a lesbian to her family just as her father, Dick Gephardt, was about to embark on a campaign for the Presidency. We also meet Jake Reitan, a young man from Minnesota whose coming-out when he was just fifteen has changed his entire family, leading his once-conservative parents to become gay rights activists side-by-side with their son. The Reitans, who look about as American-as-apple-pie as any family from Minnesota, never expected when their four children were young that one day they would be known as leading activists in the gay civil rights movement, getting arrested with their younger son in front of Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family and marching in parades.
We also meet the Poteats, an African-American family in which both parents are preachers still struggling to accept that their daughter, Tonia, is a lesbian. David Poteat, Tonia's father, says in the film that when his children (a son and a daughter) were growing up, "I said God, please don't let my son grow up to be a faggot and my daughter a slut." He chuckles ironically and adds, "And he did not. He did not do that. He reversed it."
The Poteat family's story rings with unmistakable truth, love, and pain -- these parents have struggled to accept their daughter as a lesbian, but still love her immensely and never cut off their relationship with her. The Poteats aren't all the way there yet -- Tonia speaks longingly of the day when her parents would willingly and gladly come to her wedding with her partner -- but at least they are working on it, and they haven't rejected their child.
Karslake mostly avoids demonizing the religious right, instead simply holding up the families at the heart of his story and saying: Here they are. These are the gay people you so fear, and they are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, the neighbors you've known for years. Karslake has made a powerful film, one that I hope will be widely seen, because it addresses the fulcrum of the religious right's objection to homosexuality without attacking those who hold those beliefs. Rather than smacking down with a righteous hammer, Karslake instead simply takes those who would believe that there is no common ground between faith and homosexuality and gently, relentlessly chisels away at every argument that bolsters those beliefs.