For anyone brought up on the juice boxes and sugar cookies of church Sunday school, the phrase “for the Bible tells me so” probably brings back a flood of memories. When I think of Sunday school, I remember listening to the story of David and Goliath as told in felt storyboards and memorizing the order of Old Testament books.
But now I have a distinctly different memory to attach to the phrase: the experience of watching Dan Karslake’s For the Bible Tells Me So as part of this year’s Santa Barbara Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival.
A documentary about the intersection of religion and homosexuality, the film dissects the various scriptural references used by fundamentalists to fuel prejudice and hate of gays and lesbians. It shows how, when taken in their cultural and sociopolitical context, these references do not condemn homosexuality but are part of a larger explanation of Hebrew traditions.
For example, since propagation of the species was, obviously, very important at the beginning of humankind’s existence, the Bible encouraged relationships that would maintain the human race. Homosexuality was considered an “abomination” (a word that, in the film, biblical scholars explain actually means that something was against tradition, not a one-way ticket to hell) because it didn’t propagate the species. However, in the fairly modern convention of allowing laypeople access to the Bible, interpretation of scripture has been skewed by people intellectually unable to grasp the contextual complexities of the text. So we now have people saying gays are going to hell because that’s what they understand that the words in the Bible imply. As Reverend Dr. Laurence C. Keene says in the film, “There’s nothing wrong with a fifth-grade understanding of God-if you’re in the fifth grade.”
One of the first things that came up when I told my parents I’m gay was whether or not I am still a Christian. At its core, being a Christian means following the teachings of Jesus to love one’s neighbor and treat people with respect. But for conservative Christians, it also means a host of other things, like supporting Israel over Palestine, and-in an odd twist of logic-being against abortion yet for the death penalty. So, when asked about my religious beliefs, I said that yes, in fact, I am still a Christian. Just not a conservative one.
My mom told me I’ve turned my back on God and that I am choosing to live a sinful lifestyle. Her condemnation of my life is based on her understanding of the Bible-but an understanding that’s based on a face-value reading of scripture, not a contextual reading of it. So when my parents and I get into conversations about my being gay, they’re discussions that become vastly more complex because they involve tangential biblical and religious arguments. See why coming out (a) took me five years to do, and (b) was particularly unique in my situation?
Although For the Bible Tells Me So may be misconstrued as a “liberal” interpretation of scripture, it’s really just a responsible account of how texts have been twisted to fulfill certain political agendas. The film concludes that fear is what drives prejudice-there is always a need to create an “other” in order to foster solidarity within the mainstream. In the past, that “other” has been blacks or women, and now it’s gays. But, according to Harvard Divinity School’s Peter J. Gomes, the sin is not being gay but rather the intolerance of those who are.
It’s nerve-wracking talking to my parents about being gay-I am something they don’t seem able to understand. But when the conversation turns to God and religion, that is when I am the most calm. When I am asked whether or not I’m a Christian, when I am told that I am turning my back on God, I feel confident in the correctness of my response: “Mom, Dad, God loves me. I know God loves me.”
The title of For the Bible Tells Me So indicates an explication of scripture. But it is also the second line in a commonly sung Sunday school hymn, “Jesus Loves Me”: “Jesus loves me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so.” It is in that first line where I find strength.