“For the Bible Tells Me So” is a good, maybe even very good, documentary, but it is certainly an advocacy piece, and like most such documentaries its focus is on pushing the right emotional buttons rather than putting together a cogent argument for its conclusion.
The subject of the documentary is the Religious Right’s opposition to homosexual rights. The documentary contends that this opposition is unjustified.
As I say, the film is not structured as a clear, reasoned argument. Instead, various threads are started with no narration and no explanation, and you have to infer over time why they’re in the film. For example, we are introduced to several couples talking about themselves, their children and their religious values, but it’s only over time that we find out they have gay offspring, and that their segments are included in the film to show how different families deal with such a situation and how it can modify their religious beliefs about homosexuality.
In addition to this anecdotal material, sprinkled throughout are statements about why homosexuality is inconsistent with living a moral, Christian life (by angry, sloganeering, unkempt-looking rednecks primarily), statements about why homosexuality is consistent with living a moral, Christian life (by ultra-reasonable, calm professors and kindly celebrities like Bishop Desmond Tutu primarily), and statements by medical and scientific types about homosexuality.
But the order of the material, if not random, is organized for aesthetic or emotional reasons. You can piece together arguments against the Religious Right’s positions from the material provided – and probably pretty good ones – but only by re-arranging material, making explicit some things that are left implicit, and so on. And if you want to take into consideration the most reasonable case for the other side, you pretty much have to supply that yourself as well.
Again, I don’t think this all makes this film somehow more flawed or more biased than the typical advocacy documentary. And even though I was thinking of some “Yeah, buts” along the way, I agree with almost everything this film wants viewers to believe and feel.
Though they were offered up in a scattershot fashion, I found some of the Biblical interpretation claims intriguing. Now, as a guide to my own values and behavior I don’t much care whether something is consistent or inconsistent with the Bible, any more than I care if it’s consistent or inconsistent with the tenets of some tribal religion on Bali, or with the implicit philosophy of last night’s “Star Trek” repeat. But I still find the matter intellectually interesting, insofar as so many people do look to the Bible – or think they do or claim to – to ascertain moral values.
As the film points out, there really are only a handful of verses in the Bible that do or might refer to homosexuality. Zero of them unambiguously condemn it. All of them have some other plausible if not probable interpretation. (For example, that it is contrary to Jewish tradition and rituals – akin to dietary practices like not eating pork rather than to moral principles like not murdering. Or in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, that those towns were destroyed not for condoning homosexuality or other sexual license, but for selfishly forbidding hospitality to guests and seeking to punish Lot and his guests for violating the ban.)
That’s not to say that the Bible does not identify homosexuality as morally unacceptable, only that the matter is probably a lot more debatable than most people, including most self-professed Christians, realize.
But what’s been clear to me for years about the whole debate is that it’s nearly always barely concealed hatred on the one side anyway, rather than any well-reasoned argument. If people who beat up gays for sport, and people who hold rallies and marches with “God Hates Fags” signs and such were really just fanatical about upholding everything in the Bible, then they’d attack with the same fervor those sinners who plant two crops in the same field or wear clothes weaved from two different kinds of threads (“abominations” from the same part of Leviticus that addresses homosexuality). But they don’t. Because it’s about being given license to hate and oppress and regard as inferior people who are different from you. It’s not about some arcane point of theology.
So a lot of the individual points made by the movie along the way I thought were quite good. And some of the anecdotal stuff is effective as well. What maybe hit me the hardest was the young woman who committed suicide shortly after coming out to her parents and being told by her mother that her homosexuality would never be acceptable to her. And now the mother lives with that for the rest of her life.
That kind of thing is a very useful reminder of what’s at stake when hatred and cruelty are fostered by fundamentalist religion. The world has never suffered a shortage of people who are just hateful and mean-spirited – maybe not across the board, but at least in those areas where their religion tells them to be – and there are life and death consequences to their idiocy.
But this is one of those “yeah but” moments. However compelling such anecdotes might seem to some viewers, they cannot carry much argumentative weight, for the simple reason that the other side could counter with whatever number of anecdotes they please. Maybe a wife kills herself when a husband decides he’s gay and leaves her for a man. Or heck, just roll out one after another anecdote about people dying horrible, painful deaths at an early age from AIDS who would never have contracted the disease if they’d married someone of the opposite sex and neither had ever had another sex partner but each other.
So anecdotes are effective at pushing the right emotional buttons in a “preaching to the converted” documentary, but do they really provide reasons for or against homosexual rights?
Even if this documentary is not ideally rational in how it seeks to persuade, its heart is in the right place, it’s very much on the humane side of an important issue, and it marshals some important premises in making its case.