02 May 2009

For the Bible Tells Me So

I was extremely impressed with this movie. In fact, I think it ought to be required viewing in every church. Not just for its take on homosexuality, which, big surprise, I'm in favor of, but more broadly for the really fascinating questions it raises about Biblical interpretation.

Ok, so let me back up. The movie is essentially about how Christians understand/deal with homosexuality, particularly those who are extremely conservative and understand it to be a sin. More specifically, it looks at what happens when they, or one of their children, come out of the closet. At times heartwarming, at times heartrending, it's a really, really powerful movie. 

Some of the things I really appreciated about it:

It considered the issue from a number of angles and perspectives, some of which were new to me. It had a brief educational segment about the science, for instance, which was really interesting and informative, even for someone quite familiar with the topic. 

Related to that, it showed different extremes, but also quite a few more middle ground positions - one family, for instance, where the parents remained opposed to their daughter's "lifestyle" while simultaneously remaining extremely loving, close parents who were very much involved in their daughter's life. It's a controversial position, and I really liked that the movie included it.

Related to that - it wasn't patronizing or preachy, or at least, it didn't come off that way to me. Certainly, it was extremely heartfelt, but it didn't talk down to the audience.

Actually, it was often humorous and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, and quite amusing.

It clearly came from a deeply Christian and devout perspective. In other words, it didn't set up an opposition between Christianity and homosexuality - it made it very clear that one can be deeply Christian and gay. 

It went back to the text! Oh my gosh, this was so satisfying. It gives QUOTES. It considers CONTEXT. It's scholarly and informed! Oh, it was wonderful.

There was a really interesting moment where one of the mothers said that she realized that part of what made her uncomfortable about the situation was that she was suddenly thinking about her daughter's sex life, and seeing that as who she was. Parents don't generally spend a lot of time thinking about their children's sexual habits. Hence, it's bound to be a bit awkward. And this returns me to thinking about how this is part of the tricky aspect of this debate, is that America has very fraught attitudes about sex in general, and sexual preference therefore opens up a massive can of worms that causes discomfort in myriad ways unrelated to the gender of the person you're going to bed with.

For all it's warm and fuzzy moments - which there were many of, and I mean that in the best possible way - there were also some extremely upsetting scenes in the film, such as a montage of images of hate crime victims. Part of me thought, hey, why are you making me see this awful stuff? And then I realized, well yes, it's extremely important to realize that homophobia doesn't just cause hurt feelings, it also causes death. Literally.

Related to that, I think this is one of the best counterarguments out there for the claim that homosexuality erodes families, destroys society, etc - pointing out how many teenagers run away from home, or kill themselves, or are victims of violence - not because of their homosexuality, but because of the horrible, violent side of homophobia. That's what destroys society. 

So, my own, nerdier take on it - 

The movie opens with the extremely provocative question of who the Bible's intended readers really are. It discusses how back in the day, the faithful weren't really supposed to read the Bible, they were supposed to listen to their priest. And the movie says, well shit, maybe that's a good thing. Because the Bible is an extremely complex text, and an uninformed, or unthinking attitude towards it can really do a lot of harm. That, to me, is an extremely, extremely problematic stance to take. 
  On the other hand, having taught Genesis to college students, one of the big things you reflect on is the status of truth in the Bible, as opposed to symbolic or allegorical interpretation. This is a complex question in Genesis, but only gets more complex as you get into the New Testament. As the movie points out, while many people are happy to say that Leviticus says gay sex is wrong, they don't seem to mind eating pork or shellfish, or wearing wool and linen together, which you'll find strictly forbidden a few passages earlier. 
  In other words, part of what's at stake here is textual interpretation. Now, I actually don't fully agree with the film's reading of Scripture at some moments, though I understand that rhetorically, it was occasionally necessary. The film does mention that the Bible needs to be understood in the context of nation-building and a much smaller population, but then ultimately turns around and says that the Bible is about loving your neighbor and inclusiveness. Well, ok guys, kind of. Certainly, Jesus advocated such things. But overall, I think the Bible was actually not inclusive at all, it was about defining and propagating a race of chosen people, and formulating strict rules for them to live by, and was pretty ok with excluding/massacring everyone else. But I don't think that would go over so well in the film... And indeed, I think as the Bible progresses, it evolves in various ways, but at the end of the day, it is an extremely complex and often contradictory work, and I certainly don't envy the task a person is faced with if they choose to take every word of it literally. 

I actually ended up thinking that I might be in the wrong career path, and considering the similarities and differences between literature professors and preachers. So as a preacher, the downside is that you're lecturing on the same text week after week. I think that would be kind of difficult, no matter how complex the work is. On the other hand though, you've got a captive audience who really BELIEVES in the text! What a treat! I try to get my students to believe in Nabokov, or see the relevance of Eva Hoffman to their everyday lives, and they look at me like I'm crazy. 
However, I realized that probably any religion that is going to bring the amount of devotion to a text that I do is also one that probably isn't interested in having me as a member. So academia it is, heh heh.

No comments: