Review: For the Bible Tells Me So

For the Bible Tells Me So, a recent documentary by Daniel Karslake is an interesting beast. Through at least the last twenty minutes, my eyes were wet and my nose was running. And though that’s surely a sign of something that’s emotionally resonant, I’m not without reservation in recommending it.

After the obligatory footage of traditional views of homosexuality, the film introduces a number of people. People who are easily understood as the ones we’ll soon find out are gay. There’s Gene Robinson, the man who has become the Anglican church’s first openly gay bishop. There’s Jake Reitan, who was raised in a Lutheran home. And Chrissy Gephardt–the daughter of Dick Gephardt, who was raised Catholic as per her mother’s parents wishes. And there’s Tonia Poteat whose parents are both ministers–if their faith was made clear I’ve forgotten it.

All of this goes through the typical patterns of denial, grief, acceptance, and love. And as I said earlier that did make me quite emotional even if it was a bit schmaltzy. And I enjoyed the lesson in liberal Bible scholarship that the film’s bank of scholars and theologians offer in a gentle and friendly way.

But at some points the film overextends this gentle friendly discussion of liberal Christianity and love and gets so preachy as to be off-putting. The first example is a clip–among the literally hundreds of clips from everywhere used in the film–from The West Wing. Despite being a fan of that show, Aaron Sorkin’s smug dialogue is hardly gentle. A fictional President Bartlett berating what has to be seen as a fictional Dr. Laura about the other wacky things the Bible says aside from Leviticus 18:22–the clip’s on YouTube–is not exactly a natural fit with the detached gentleness that gave me such high hopes for the film.

This sin would be completely forgiven, did the film not then do the same thing again. Dropped in the middle of the otherwise live-action film is friendly cartoon in the style reminiscent of of The Fairly OddParents and narrated by that deep, in-every-cartoon voice of Don LaFontaine. It’s purpose: to answer the question “Is homosexuality a choice?” (The clunker of a clip is also on YouTube.) Though the point may need to be made in the film–a proposition I would tend to doubt–the way it’s made disrupts the whole flow of the film.

Nor does it help that the narrator gives a stern talking-to to an ignorant straight boy named “Christian,” who is flanked by two hip-looking and knowledgeable gay people. The whole thing, aside from feeling deeply out of place, can be easily interpreted as condescending.

And that sin reduces to the film to the one thing it didn’t need to do: comfort those already on the “right” side of the issue. To say that those ignorant people–who don’t know that Sodom and Gomorrah, as the film ably points out, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality–are really uneducated and need to be smartened up and rehabilitated.

One of the films many intelligent talking heads made the point perhaps as well as I can. The Right Reverend Richard Holloway warns that we should be careful about being “prejudiced against the prejudiced.” And if the film–and these segments in particular–are guilty of one sin it’s that they have the distinct feeling of being just that.

There’s certainly value a film that encourages those on the right side of any fight to keep fighting. My hope for For the Bible Tells Me So–and it’s stated goal–was that it could do more than that, that it might sway people who condemn homosexuality to if not change, at least think critically about their views. Having watched the film, I think it could do that, but has handicapped itself unnecessarily. Surely those who agree with the film’s message of love and liberal Christianity will be moved, but I fear that those who disagree may bristle at a few of the film’s rather ham-handed and strident bits. Certainly For the Bible Tells Me So is a good and perhaps necessary film, but I fear it’s not a great one.