Tuesday, March 4, 2008

For the Bible Tells me So

So, yesterday we watched For the Bible Tells me So, a documentary about religion (specifically Christianity) and homosexuality.

The film tells the story of five or six American Christian families whose children have come out of the closet. The film chronicles the wildly different reactions by these families (some touching, some empowering, some horrific) as they coped (or didn't) with these revelations. This part of the film was truly moving, and the stories were insightful, engrossing and sometimes truly sad.

But on the whole, I found this film perplexing and frustrating. The filmmakers were not content to let the stories of these families tell themselves. The struggle between what is right and what religion tells you is right was -- all too often in this film -- shunted aside in order to create a different narrative.

That narrative:
Christianity is not at all at odds with acceptance of homosexuality, and the Bible does not explicitly condemn homosexuality.
A huge cadre of Christian authorities are brought into the narrative, their assurances that according to the Bible, man-on-man (and, to a lesser extent, woman-on-woman) sex is A-OK woven throughout the larger story.

Each of the biblical passages that condemns homosexuality is then explored, and each is then concluded to NOT condemn homosexuality.

For instance, one interchange says something to the effect of "Sure, the Bible says when a man lays with a man it is an abomination, but abomination here really means 'untraditional.'" Maybe that's a valid take of the original Hebrew. I don't know. But immediately following that is an unmistakable command that you should stone any two such men to death and you'll be absolved for the crime because "the blood shall be on their hands." How on earth can you try to put a positive, inclusive, tolerant spin on this?

Another example: "the story of Sodom and Gomorrah isn't really about homosexuality. It's about inhospitality. The citizens were RUDE to Lott and his angelic friends, and that's why God destroyed the evil cities." Again, maybe this is a valid reading, as I'm not a Hebrew scholar. But it is in any event missing a vital part of the story. The film never mentions the part where Lott refuses to let the men of Sodom rape his male guests, but instead offers up his own daughters to do with as they will, as the rape brutalization of teenage girls was somehow far less appalling than raping men.

I'm sorry, but the Bible is extremely clear in its stance on homosexuality: gay sex = death.

It's certainly not a bad thing that these pastors, ministers and bishops have found a way to reconcile acceptance of homosexuality with their religious beliefs. Acceptance of gays and lesbians has been a long time coming, and it is a wonderful thing that there are religious communities that openly embrace homosexuality as part of normal human variation. Nonetheless, I just don't understand this contortion of interpretation.

These religious leaders point out that just a few passages before calling man-on-man sex an "abomination," the Bible also calls eating shrimp an abomination. They rightfully point out that if you can reject one commandment that makes no sense in our age (no shrimp) , why not another (no man-on-man sex)?

But if we are to do this, why not take it a few steps further and reject the "teachings" of the Bible all together? In the film, one liberal Christian leader after another comes on to say, more or less, that "you have to remember, the Bible was written by a bunch of semi-literate yokels who made this stuff up while struggling to survive in the middle of the desert, so you kind of have to take it all with a grain of salt."

Now, nothing gets my blood boiling than a fire-and-brimstone biblical literalist saying "the earth is six thousand years old and all the evidence to the contrary is the work of Satan." Religious moderates are far preferable to the hate-spewing Wesboro Baptist Church types. I just don't understand religious moderation. To me, either the Bible is the word of an infallible creator or it isn't. (And, by the way, it isn't.)

One of the subjects of this film is the first openly-gay Episcopal bishop. I'm all for progressive churches, but again I just don't get it. Just like I do not understand how an African American -- or, even more so, a Native American -- would ever be a Mormon. The church has a long and disgraceful history of open racism toward these groups. Yet, there is a decent representation of both of these groups (particularly South America indigenous people). The same goes for homosexuals in ANY Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) sect. Maybe this is one of those things I will never understand.

About half-way through the film comes, out of nowhere, a five minute cartoon asking if homosexuality is a choice or not. The cartoon brings up many good point for the uninformed, but to those who have a personal relationship with even a few gay people, the animated interlude seems oversimplified. Indeed, when the lesbian cartoon character mentions having a bisexual friend to the soon-to-be-unbigotted-Christian character, another gay character quickly sweeps the issue under the table in a "Hey! Bisexuals don't help our cause!" way that I actually found patently offensive.

Overall, this film feels like a tract for Christian parents telling them why its okay to not hate their gay children. If indeed that is the film's purpose, then it is beautifully delivered, and surely desperately needed. But for the non-religious viewer, the film seems needlessly simplistic, afraid to acknowledge questions larger than its scope, and lays bare a troubling aspect of religion:

The fact is that anyone can use the bible to justify any moral stance, whether ultimately positive or negative, and religious leaders are explicitly and knowingly doing so, manipulating biblical interpretations in order to reflect a particular point of view. This is all fine and good when used for what is ultimately a positive thing. But we are critical when we see religious faith manipulated to do damage humanity. Should we not be critical when rthis manipulation is for, if you will, the forces of good?

And if you can twist the Bible to say whatever you want it to say, well, why not just say "well, why believe in the Bible at all, then?"

Indeed, I'll say it: Why believe in the Bible at all?


Elaine said...

Yes, the fact is that one can justify ANY moral stance with the Bible ... but more revealing to me is, one can justify ANY moral stance with ANY 'religious book!' The only time we as humanity are able to reject this one-size-fits-all approach to morality and attempting to 'justify' things at all, is when we lay 'belief' and 'faith' aside and only look at the science ... the questioning ... the real answers ... mainly, the facts. How revealing is it that our culture calls them "the cold hard facts," as if they're a bad thing?

Chocolate-Loving Atheist said...

I do have a problem with the general message of this movie, which to me was: "Christianity is not intolerant of gay people." That's bullshit. But I am glad that if they're going to misinterpret the Bible, they do it to become more accepting of a minority.

However, while the people in this film were ready to accept gay people, they're certainly not ready to accept bisexuals. If you're morally limited by a book that makes no sense, all you can take is baby steps toward overall tolerance. Before bisexuality can be accepted, sex in general needs to be absolved. I think the day that will happen is either a long ways away, or will never come.

Arkonbey said...

Just a thought about the bible's stand on homosexuality.

If it is so terrible to, as some believe, shake the entire foundation of modern civilization, why is it only mentioned in a few passages and not a commandment?

I've personally known Christians who supported the death penalty (commandment 6 btw), but badmouthed homosexuals. What's up with that,eh?

GreenishBlue said...

That's a really excellent point, arkonbey.

I suppose some might argue that it's covered by the "no adultery" commandment, but then why not JUST as much fuss about any sexual relationships outside of marriage?