By Sarah Boslaugh
December 4, 2008
In his 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, Daniel Karslake examines some of the different ways Christians and Jews interpret the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. The film has two principal components: one follows the stories of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian member, while the other presents interpretations of Bible passages relating to homosexuality and other sexual practices from a variety of individuals. Karslake includes statements from anti-gay Christian ministers and spokesmen such as Jimmy Swaggart and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, as well as from Biblical scholars and theologians who explain what they believe the Bible says about homosexual behavior and how those statements apply to the modern world.
For the Bible does not attempt to be an even-handed examination of the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality, but it does make a reasoned presentation of the arguments against literal interpretation of certain Biblical passages which have been used to justify condemnation of homosexual behavior. For instance, the well-known verse Leviticus 20:13 is often cited as evidence that Judaism and Christianity prohibit male homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
Well, that’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? Maybe not, if you are one of the Biblical scholars interviewed in this film, who interpet the passage in context and with particular attention to the specific words used in the original Hebrew text. The Rev. Steven Kindle of Clergy United points out that similar passages in Leviticus say it is an abomination to eat rabbit or shrimp. Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer notes that Leviticus also says you shouldn’t wear linen and wool together, or plant two crops in the same field. Their point is obvious: when was the last time you saw a Christian minister get all worked up about people who like to eat shrimp or wear clothing made of two different fabrics, let alone assert that those who engage in such practices will burn forever in hellfire?
The Rev. Dr. Laurence Keene explains that the Hebrew word translated as “abomination” in this passage refers to a ritual wrong, not a moral wrong, in the same sense that eating pork for a Jew is not innately immoral (like murder) but a violation of a ritual requirement. Similar, he explains the famous passage about Onan spilling his seed upon the ground (Genesis 38:8-10) refers to Onan’s violation of a cultural norm: given the Jews’ interest in being fruitful and multiplying, Onan was supposed to impregnate his sister-in-law since his deceased brother was no longer around to do it.
As is often the case with Biblical interpretation, with this issue it seems that the less you know, the more likely it is to believe that you both know it all and that you know what it all means. For the Bible seems largely to have been created for the purpose of countering this tendency by presenting information and reasoned opinions about how the Bible regards homosexuality, albeit primarily from one side of the discussion. While it won’t win any points for style it serves very nicely as an educational tool and aid to discussion, and is supported by an impressive array of materials downloadable from the film’s web site (http://www.forthebibletellsmeso.org/) including two study guides.
Given that homosexuality is a topic which often polarizes people, it’s unfortunate that For the Bible doesn’t include discussion among theologians who hold opposing points of view. It’s not really fair to pit an archival clip of Jerry Falwell making homophobic remarks against reasoned statements from numerous scholars and theologians who believe that Falwell’s interpretation is wrong. I’m certainly not in Falwell’s camp myself, but is that point of view wholly without support from contemporary scholars? Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that all religious faculty at American universities, for instance, are all in agreement on this point.
It’s been my observation that people’s opinions on sexual matters are often formed not by moral reasoning but by what psychologist Steven Pinker calls “moral rationalization:” that they react to a situation or issue emotionally, then seek to find a moral basis to justify their reaction. If that is the case, then the arguments and interpretations presented in For the Bible will be useful in providing debating points to people who already agree with its point of view, but are unlikely to do much to change the mind of anyone who disagrees. And by so obviously favoring one point of view this film leaves itself wide open to charges of bias, giving those who hold other views an easy route by which to condemn and ignore it.
A different view of how literalist interpretation of the Bible can affect people is provided by the profiles of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian individual. Although this ground has been covered before, Karslake did find an interesting range of families who have different reactions to their children’s sexual orientation. Most famous are the Gephardt family (as in Dick Gephardt, long-time U.S. Representative from Missouri and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president), and the Robinson Family (as in Gene Robinson, the first gay man to be consecrated as an Episcopal bishop). But there’s at least as much to be learned from the journeys of the African-American Poteat family, the Reitan family (who were arrested as they tried to deliver a letter to Jim Dobson at the Focus on the Family headquarters), and Mary Lou Wallner, who initially condemned her daughter Anna’s sexual preference but became a gay rights activist after Anna committed suicide (motivated, her mother believes, by the rejection she experienced because of church teachings about sexuality).
For the Bible Tells Me So
Jeremy Walker + Associates/First Run Features
Directed by Daniel Karslake
Color, 2007, 97 Minutes
For the Bible Tells Me So is distributed by Icarus Films. Further information is available through their web site http://www.icarusfilms.com/new2007/me.html or by calling 718-488-8900.