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Preaching to the converted 

A new documentary bumbles a strong message.

AN AMERICAN FAMILY
  • AN AMERICAN FAMILY

“For the Bible Tells Me So” is a scattershot and often blindingly obvious film about a topic that incenses me greatly, so naturally, things are going to be a bit difficult to discuss. In the interest of structure and civility, let's start with some basics.

First, the film is structured around the story of five devout Christian families, of multiple denominations, class backgrounds, races and political outlooks, all of whom have gay or lesbian children. They aren't necessarily your next door neighbors — one child grew up to be the first gay Episcopal bishop, one child is the daughter of Dick Gephardt, and two families are now active members in Soulforce, a group of Christian activists who minister at conservative Christian colleges and churches. Each offer five, difficult, sometimes happy, sometimes unresolved, and, in one case, tragic stories of religion's influence on a family's ability to accept and love in the face of a contradictory and often hateful Christian church. These vignettes, which to be fair, make the bulk of the film, are the most involving (if not necessarily the most interesting) parts of the film — statistically, they reflect little of the massive violence and abandonment that LGBT children face. Emotionally, however, they offer touching and thought-provoking meditations on not just parenting in crisis, but parenting in general.

It's everything else that poses a problem. Along this journey of negotiating unconditional love and apparently conditional Godly love, a cavalcade of respectable and intelligent religious scholars and community activists deliver some Bible As Historical Document factoids that are typically offered to exonerate both homosexuals and the possibility that the Bible could be a hateful document. The infamous Leviticus chapter is poorly translated, Paul's letters to the Romans refers to exploitative adult-child relations, Sodom and Gomorrah refers to ancient politeness rituals, etc. This, combined with some 30-year-old science that makes the revolutionary assertion that homosexuals aren't mentally disordered a priori, makes a convincing, if somewhat dated case for the acceptance of homosexual Christians. I shouldn't be so harsh on these arguments, nor a film that so strongly argues for them. This film isn't aimed at me, a well-researched swing voter in matters of my eternal soul.

But who is it aimed for? “For the Bible” doesn't look ready to win hearts across the aisle. One look at the cadre of “sinful, relativistic” lefties (female ministers! Mel White, gay former Falwell speechwriter) will turn the good Baptists away. And as a film that preaches to the converted, this could be so much more. Despite the Crayola version of events presented here, there are much deeper and nastier politics afoot than a simple fear of gender variance. Archbishop Desmond Tutu bravely says that conservative Christianity has engaged in a form of apartheid — a strong choice of words, not just for his history, but for the economic and political import of apartheid.

Consider one of the families profiled in the film. Tonia Poteat left her rural background to come out at Yale and form a gender activism group. She comes home a withdrawn, difficult woman to get along with. Compare this to the gays and lesbians you know from TV: the witty urbanites from “Queer as Folk” and seemingly every makeover show on TLC. Despite the fact that gays and lesbians make up a crosscutting segment of the economic ladder, we remain, apparently, an affront not just to “family values” but as ivory tower know-nothings threatening populism writ large. What is truly scary about “For the Bible Tells Me So” is not that Christianity creates a difficult narrative to grow up in, but that in America, it has become the only narrative to grow up in.

Fritz Brantley

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