In order to simplify life, I normally try to avoid posting on this site what is also posted at the ISSI site. However, I just finished a longer review of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So and thought it might of interest here as well. Here it is:
Have you ever found yourself on a mailing list from either a right-wing or left-wing political organization? They provide people who receive their materials with enough information to gain their support but not enough information to adequately address the complexities of the issues being highlighted. The documentary For the Bible Tells Me So by Daniel Karslake comes across like this to the viewer. It is at its best when it tries to convey different experiences among families sorting out the relationship between religion and sexual identity. But it more often than not presents interviews with selected theologians and church leaders in ways that fail to adequately address the central issues in both biblical studies and scientific research on homosexuality.
The documentary opens with some interesting quotes. For example, Peter Gomes, author of The Good Book, suggests that perhaps the Roman Catholic church was correct in medieval times to keep ordinary people from reading Scripture for themselves – to limit the reading of Scripture to those who are qualified to read it. Lawrence King refers to people who adhere to a traditional Christian sexual ethic as having a “5th grade education,” suggesting that any intelligent person would not interpret Scripture as saying that same-sex behavior is a moral concern. Mel White refers to what conservatives do as akin to what happened under Hitler – under Hitler – in terms of “telling a lie” over and over again until people believe it. This give the viewer some idea of how these very important and substantive issues are going to be addressed throughout the documentary.
For example, the segments that follow do not address the broad biblical themes and principles regarding human sexuality, nor do they address even most of the biblical references to sexuality, its expression, or homosexuality; rather, the documentary focused primarily on the Holiness Codes in Leviticus and offered commentary by revisionists with respect to how best read these passages today. This was probably the greatest disappointment in the documentary. Rather than engage how biblical scholars interpret these passages in context, the documenary focuses more on conveying apparent inconsistencies as so obviously ridiculous as to not be taken seriously, which does not lend itself to a meaninful discussion of hermeneutics (the interpretation of Scripture). This is particularly unfortunate as hermeneutics has been argued as the area many Christians see as central to the moral debate on homosexuality. (There is a brief discussion later of Sodom and Gomorrah and recent interpretations of “inhospitality” as well as a very brief interview with Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, that hints at what the documentary could have been had there been an interest in genuine exchange of scholarship in this area.)
The section on science was similarly disappointing. It focused primarily on etiology of sexual orientation with some discussion later on attempted change. The discussion of etiology is limited to males. The documentary states that this is because there is more research on males than females, and this is factually correct. However, there is also greater fluidity among female sexual minorities, and one recent study reported it was normative to have both same- and opposite-sex attraction among a sample of female sexual minorities, most of whom changed identity labels over time. Limiting the discussion to males could be seen by critics as serving the purpose of conveying something about the immutability of sexual orientation that has to be argued for and supported by science rather than portrayed through a limited review of a handful of studies. The immutability argument is strengthened by limiting the discussion to males, and then generalized to gay males and lesbians in ways that is quite misleading. In fact, the section on etiology focuses primarily on twin studies, saying that research shows up to a 70% concordance rate for gay male twins. This is highly misleading to those who are unfamiliar with this line of research, as the studies here suggest very little input from biology. (The most frequently cited study is by Michael Bailey, who in a 1991 study reported a 52% probandwise concordance rate for gay male twins. This shrank to 20% in the 2000 study when Bailey used a more representative sample. But the true concordance rate is even less than that – more like 11% – once you understand how “probandwise” concordance rates are calculated; to learn more about this, see the review in Homosexuality on pages 72-80.)
In any case, the twin and birth order studies mentioned at one point are contrasted later with the idea that homosexuality is a choice. This distinction between what is biologically based (more like left handedness) and choice confuses what is actually volitional about sexuality and what is the central concern (e.g., behavior) in a Christian sexual ethic.
There is an interesting section on those who participate in religion-based ministries, such as those affiliated with Exodus International. The documentary conveys this information through a cartoon that dismisses the experiences of those who identify as ex-gay, suggesting that they only change behavior and that the use of varied approaches suggests that nothing is helpful. These ministries are portrayed as fear-based and merely helping people to suppress their urges. This section also emphasizes the risks associated with such suppression of sexual attraction, such as shame and guilt. From an informed consent standpoint, risks are an important consideration that need to be discussed, but the documentary only cites anecdotes here and fails to mention studies of reported change of sexual orientation, such as the study conducted by Robert Spitzer, and the benefits reported there of not only experiencing change of orientation but also decreased self-report of depression.
The documentary focuses on James Dobson, Beverly LaHaye, and a few others as the main spokespersons of conventional religiosity. There really is no recognition that the move away from a traditional Christian sexual ethic is such a radical departure from orthodoxy in the areas of sexuality and sexual behavior. Again, some recognition of this and contrasting interviews with serious biblical scholars would have helped the viewer better understand the complexities associated with the ethical debate among Christians (more like the book, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, by Dan Via and Robert Gagnon).
Toward the end of the documentary is a portrayal of violence against sexual minorities. This is a sobering, painful section to watch and represents another important area for all people interested in the welfare of others. It is a topic on which both “sides” can find common ground, as Christians stand against acts of violence against gay and lesbian persons. However, the approach taken in the documentary is one that links traditional Christian sexual ethics with violence against gays and lesbians. To offer a truly substantive contribution, this assumption of a link has to be established and supported rather than just assumed and asserted. Also, logically, the moral stance has to be evaluated on its own terms even in cases in which people misuse that understanding to justify harm to others (for a discussion of this, see Homosexuality, pp. 12-13).
The documentary is at its best when it tells the stories of various family members and how they have sorted out how best to respond to loved ones. This is perhaps because there are different families represented. Although the majority have very positive outcomes of family tensions being resolved through acceptance, reinterpretation of Scripture, or unconditional love, there is one family in particular that conveys some of the challenges faced when parents do not accept revisionist interpretations of Scripture. This is perhaps more representative of help-seeking families, as they are often conflicted and want assistance in sorting out these complex issues. This is also an important consideration for families as the challenges are great when families feel they need to navigate how to be loving but not affirming as far as their conscience will allow.
There is a need for a resource that helps people of faith sort out the complex issues related to biblical studies and scientific research. For the Bible Tells Me So is not that resource. In the end the documentary is a disappointment as it fails to even attempt to show a balanced discussion of either science or religion. It will likely be embraced by those who agree with it a priori and dismissed by those who disagree with it a priori… much like the mailings you get from either right- or left-wing political organizations. It may persuade those who are unfamiliar with either the scientific research or biblical hermeneutics, but it will do so by not providing a balanced portrayal of the most substantive issues.