What do Christianity and Judaism say about gays and lesbians? Even the most nominal believer is familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the chapter in Leviticus forbidding same sex intercourse. But scriptural scholarship actually presents a much more nuanced understanding of those famous Hebrew Testament passages than most followers know and one at odds with what is taught from most pulpits. For example, several hundred years of religious scholarship interprets the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as inhospitality, not homosexuality and the famous “Man shall not lie with man as with woman” verse as an insistence on procreation to build the Israelites society, not a comment on gay relationships, according to many Biblical scholars.
For the Bible tells me so, a documentary film opening tonight in selected cities, explores religious responses to homosexuality, documenting both the virulent anti-gay rhetoric and practice of many churches and the Biblical scholarship that contextualizes the ancient book. “There’s nothing wrong with a fifth grade understanding of the God,” one minister says, “as long as you’re in the fifth grade.”
The movie follows five families as they struggle to square their churches’ anti-gay teaching with their love for their gay children. The families’ stories—including one about Congressman Dick Gephardt’s gay daughter, Chrissy—are interspersed with theologians and scholars discussing the meaning of the Bible verses that appear to condemn gays and lesbians.
A Different Interpretation
Produced and directed by Daniel Karslake, a producer for PBS’ gay and lesbian affairs show “In the Life,” the film is an attempt to broaden believers’ understanding of their church’s teachings on same sex relationships.
“I hope people of faith just will be open to a higher level of conversation about homosexuality and religion,” Karslake said before his film was shown at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan Monday. “In America it’s such a given that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but there are so many thoughtful and good people of faith who don’t read it that way at all. In my work with “In the Life” I was constantly experiencing serious people of faith who had a very different interpretation of what they thought those passages were about. I thought it was time to introduce people of faith to other people of faith.”
The film is a moving and intimate portrait of familial love and the struggle of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Christians and Jews to claim their position as beloved children of God.
The Moveable Middle
“We as people of faith need to take responsibility and acknowledge that so much homophobia originates with the church. It’s is these teachings that have been used to fuel the hatred,” said Right Reverend Gene Robinson, whose 2004 election as the first non-celibate gay bishop in the Episcopal Communion continues to threaten a schism in the church. The story of Robinson, his parents and his long-time partner is one of the profiles in for the Bible tells me so. Robinson’s lifelong dedication to church and faith and his slow acceptance of himself as a gay man demonstrates a central message of the film, that one can be both devoutly Christian and proudly gay.
“I think there is this great moveable middle in America that is becoming sympathetic to LGBT people, but they crumble at the first mention of scripture or religion,” Robinson said at the film screening. “I’m so happy about this film because this is a way to give them a voice. For so long the church has done this terrible violence of severing our sexuality from our spirituality. This film is about five people who have successfully negotiated putting their sexuality and spirituality back together.”
Children of God
Karslake said he hoped the movie would help Christians gain understanding of what the Bible actually says about same sex relationships and help LGBT people who are alienated from their faith communities rethink Christianity.
“It’s a real crime that Christians are often guilty of keeping other Christians, LGBT Christians, away from their faith. Maybe people will move away from that interpretation and start to see us all as children of God,” he said.
That’s the transition Randi and Phil Reitan of Minnesota made when confronted with following their dearly held religious beliefs or supporting their son. They chose both.
When Jake Reitan, then a high school student, told his Lutheran family that he was gay his father cried. Phil Reitan had always understood the homosexuality was morally wrong and gay people sinful or ill. The Reitan parents sought advice from a relative who was a minister. The minister told them to put Jake in psychological therapy to “cure” his sexual orientation, an approach the American Psychological Association considers ineffective and harmful, as it leads LGBT people to repress and deny an essential element of who they are. When Jake came out as gay in his small town he met with anti-gay hatred. Someone threw a brick through the windshield of his car, vandalized his father’s office and scrawled FAG on his driveway.
After a year of denying an essential part of their son’s makeup and after concerted prayer and study, the Reitans decided they were taking the wrong approach. Their son wasn’t disordered, confused or wrong, their church was.
Eventually the family, still committed Lutherans, became gay-rights activists. The film climaxes at a protest outside the headquarters of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, a right-wing advocacy group that campaigns vociferously against civil rights for LGBT people on the grounds that the Bible condemns homosexuality. At the protest the Reitans read a letter to James Dobson imploring him to focus on their family, a devout Christian one that loves its gay son, and end his anti-gay rhetoric. The rally was organized by Soul Force a religiously-based civil rights organization that pressures religious congregations to behave lovingly to LGBT people.
For the Bible tells me so opens today in New York and next week throughout the country. On Sunday Oct 14th the film will be shown at the Lincoln Theater in Washington D.C., followed by a panel discussion which will include a member of Dignity USA, an organization for LGBT Catholics.