For a months there’s been a documentary in my Netflix queue called For The Bible Tells Me So. More or less, it’s an overview of how the Bible has been misused to denigrate and condemn gays and lesbians (and our abominable ilk) for generations.
I put off watching it because it sounded sort of dry, but last night I gave it a look. It was particularly illuminating, given the recent spate of suicides and the continuing violence and vitriol against the GLBT community.
Plus, it starts with the classic 1977 Anita Bryant pie-in-the-face clip. Who could resist that?
Go, Minneapolis! (And nice jacket, dude!)
The film makes a light examination of about five religious families and how a son or a daughter coming out of the closet has affected them — how both sides reacted to the situation at first and how they’ve gotten on since.
On exhibit are Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and his family, Dick Gephardt’s lesbian daughter, a lesbian raised by Southern Baptist preachers, a mother whose beliefs lead to a family tragedy (a particularly disturbing and moving story) and activist Jake Reitan and his Lutheran family. Cut into their stories are various commentaries from ministers, preachers, rabbis and doctors on the big-ticket biblical references that get Christian loudmouths so heated up about homosexuality.
What I kept hearing over and over in these coming out stories was how … my parents, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors love me for who I am, no matter what.
It’s that “no matter what” that sticks with me, because, while it shows great leaps forward in acceptance for parents and friends, and it is undoubtedly a Good Thing, it still conceives of homosexuality as an obstacle. It keeps homosexuality at a safe distance. The other. The unknowable. The mysterious. I love you even though you are gay. You are still my son, my daughter, my friend, even though you are gay. It’s like saying “I’m not perfect either.”
Maybe it’s too fine a point, but it’s what I saw. And I was a little startled, both by how often I saw it and by how it made me feel.
The “matter” is being gay. So, “I love you no matter what.” No matter that you lost your legs in that car wreck. I still love you.
No matter that you voted Republican. I still love you.
No matter that you are a drug addict. I still love you.
No matter that you joined that cult. I still love you.
No matter that you are in prison. I still love you.
There was a time in my life when “no matter what” was all I could dream of. Please Mom and Dad, just love me for who I am — no matter what. Let’s just get past this whole gay thing and get on with our lives. Out of the closet. Gay, gay, gay. All right, done with that now. Whew! What’s next?
Now that I have lived a good 16 years as an out gay man, having spent 13 of those years with the man I intend to spend the rest of my life with, I’m on to something better. I don’t want to be loved despite my gayness. I don’t want to be loved no matter what. I want to be loved. Full stop. “You are my son, my daughter, my friend, and I love you.”
I don’t want to be loved in comparison to something else. I don’t want to be deemed acceptable. My gayness is not a matter to get over. It is neither remarkable nor unremarkable. It is who I am.
I want to kill “no matter what.”
Of course, not everyone is where I am. For a lot of people out there, young and not so young, “no matter what” is still a pretty solid deal. This film is an effective argument against using religion to defend bigotry toward gays and lesbians, and I think it offers hope to people afraid of the religious backlash their coming out might stir up.
It has a couple of low points. There’s a cartoon about halfway through that distracts from the tone of the film, offering all kinds of explanations of homosexuality, provable and unprovable — from Freud to genetic research to studies of birth order to natural occurrences of homosexuality in the animal kingdom — that frankly I moved past a long time ago. Please don’t explain me, and certainly not to myself. I’m here. Get over it.
There are also some talking points made toward the end about the need to teach that scripture is all about love and forgiveness and compassion, and that any reading against this will lead to hatred and torture and death. It’s a nice thought, but the Old Testament is hardly all about love and compassion. In fact, a great deal of it is about vengeance and war. Maybe they’re talking about the compassion of Jesus — who, by the way, says not a single word on the subject of homosexuality in the New Testament. But in any event, it has the taste of propaganda.
I was also annoyed by a scene at the end, as the film culminates in a showdown on the front lawn of Focus on the Family, where a healthy handful of the documentary’s subjects are all on hand. It looked like it might have been staged for the film. As real as the demonstration may have been, it felt a little phony to me.
All that said, I think the most important thing about this documentary is that it is not a rejection of religion. The subjects and commentators are all very resolved in their faith. The film doesn’t try to convince us that their faith itself is wrong, and it doesn’t make fun of people of faith.
Rather, the film’s goal seems to be in showing how clerical teaching and rantings against homosexuality, and laws written in that long shadow, spring from misreadings of the bible, and that finding strength in God doesn’t depend on the condemnation of gays and lesbians. The mission of the subjects is to change the churches at the source. Good luck with that. But as one commentator said, you can’t remove the prejudice of opponents of gays and lesbians by being equally prejudiced; you must combat their fear by showing them that it is groundless.
(This is why I say over and over that coming out is so important, and why I am so frustrated by people in the pubic eye who are supportive of GLBT causes but who say that their sexuality is irrelevant. Don’t make an “it gets better” video if you’re not going to have the balls to either say you’re straight or get out of the damn closet. It does matter. That’s why you’re making the damn video.)
If anything, the movie made me nostalgic for my own long-lost faith. I refuse to be a cafeteria Catholic, picking the things I like and dropping the things I don’t, but looking at the Bible as a text that is grossly misused gives me some small hope that I might find an authentic faith community where I don’t have to hide who I am and where I feel a true and rich connection to Something Greater.
I recommend the movie as a sober, thoughtful, and (very importantly) not smug look at the the Church’s abusive influence on attitudes toward … me.
The trouble with these sorts of films is their tendency to operate in an echo chamber. The people I want to see this are far less likely to see it than people like me, who are already there. I have little faith (a word I am choosing intentionally) that churches will change their teachings as the filmmakers advocate, but I am hopeful that we can at least discredit the bigots at the top.
Just for fun, I’ll list some of the more memorable biblical illuminations from the movie.
Much is made of 20:13 (“[…] if a man lies with a man as with a woman […]”). Having sex with another man is clearly described as an “abomination.” However, the typical Right Wing reading disregards countless godly abominations that we blithely ignore today, for example:
- eating shrimp
- comingling crops
- eating a rabbit
- wearing fabric comprising linen and wool
In the Old Testament, the word “abomination” always refers to a ritual wrong, something that goes against tradition. It is never used to refer to something that is innately immoral. Eating pork is not innately immoral, but when the bible was written, it was a violation or ritual requirement. Wearing mixed fabric was an attempt to root out superstition, as many pagans thought the combination of linen and wool endowed the wearer with special powers.
Lying with another man was an abomination because, at a time when the Jews were tasked with growing their nation, it was a waste of male seed. These were — let us stress were — laws intended to help people find holiness, and the holiest thing was to increase the population of people who worship God.
It is also worth noting that parts of Leviticus condemn a man who has sex with his father’s wife, his neighbor’s wife, his son’s wife, his brother’s wife, his wife’s mother, his sister — but not a word is said against having sex with his daughter. I guess that one is fair game. Though, to be fair, it does say that you should not make your daughter into a prostitute. (So, you can’t make money off of her, but you can have her for yourself, I guess.)
Indeed, much more fuss is made about the women you should not have carnal relations with than about men.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The Right always loves to trot this one out when they talk about how America is an evil nation that God hates and wishes to strike down. Ah — this is the proof that God hates fags!
Except, the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about cruelty, not homosexuality. The cities weren’t destroyed by God because of rampant faggotry; they were destroyed because its inhabitants were hoarding their wealth and turning their backs on tradition by not showing visitors proper hospitality.
As the story goes, God sends a couple of angels to visit, and a guy called Lot welcomes them into his home to show them proper hospitality. He is following tradition here, but he is going against the populist grain. So armed men show up at Lot’s house because they don’t like strangers in their city, and they demand that Lot send his visitors out so they may “know them.”
There is some translational dispute over whether the guards want to know their identities or gang rape them (a common means of humiliation in that day). But make no mistake, the cities had been doomed to destruction by God long before anything about having sex with angels, or anything remotely gay, is described in the story.
“[…] women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. […] men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Paul is describing, with some measure of revulsion, homosexual acts among the Romans and the Greeks. He had no facility in those days to imagine the long-term, committed same-sex relationships that would exist two millennia later. Then, he saw exploitive sexual relations. Today he would see me and my partner buying a house together, contributing to society, talking about starting a family. Should we base an entire religious platform on what Paul saw 2,000 years ago?
The movie also makes some hay of the hypocrisy of religious leaders, strictly on the basis of their enormous wealth. If they were true biblical literalists, if they weren’t simply cherry-picking chapter and verse to further their own agendas, they would give all of their earnings to the poor. There’s something in Leviticus about not keeping your entire harvest for yourself, but rather leaving some dregs and scraps behind for the poor to pick at. These guy — and they are, of course, all guys — may run foundations that ostensibly help the poor. But they are very bad Christians, by their own standards, not mine, for keeping any money for themselves.
Generally, any Christian focus on homosexuality is totally bizarre, when prescriptives against anything we could describe as “homosexual behavior” appear in only six or seven verses in the entire bible. Biblical literalism is a modern phenomenon. We went almost 2,000 years without it. Why should it have such power now?
There are of course three things that that fuel the fire: fear of sex, fear of the other, and an intense fear and hatred of all things feminine. Those things, coupled with a fear of bucking authority, ensure the undeniable, indelible power of the Church over beliefs.
One sound byte from the film stands out to me as a good summary of its entire premise:
“There’s nothing wrong with a fifth grade understanding of god, as long as you’re in the fifth grade.”
— Reverend Dr. Laurence C. Keene, Disciples of Christ