The plight of families who struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs with their children’s sexuality is the focus of the film “For the Bible Tells Me So,” which was screened recently (Feb. 12) in the Thompson Room at the Barker Center for the Humanities.
The documentary tackles the issue head-on with a series of candid interviews with children and parents of faith who struggle to come to grips with their religion’s strict interpretations about homosexuality and their love for one another.
Included in the film are conversations with the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson; Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student Jake Reitan; Chrissy Gephardt, daughter of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt; as well as other adult children and their parents facing the same challenge.
Daniel Karslake, who struggled as a homosexual growing up in a Protestant household in rural Pennsylvania, directed the 2007 film, which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Karslake, a producer of the PBS series “In the Life,” a newsmagazine program for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, first explored the link between religion and homosexuality with a profile on Harvard’s Irene Monroe, Ford Fellow and a doctoral candidate at HDS, for a segment that aired in 1998.
Later, after seeing Michael Moore’s 2002 film on U.S. gun violence, “Bowling for Columbine,” he was inspired to make a movie that “reconciled homosexuality and scripture, by bringing the argument to a level that normal laypeople could understand.”
The result is the 97-minute documentary that incorporates the voices of several religious scholars, including Harvard’s Monroe; psychologist Paula J. Caplan, lecturer in the Program on Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute; and the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church.
The film traces children’s trajectories as they come to terms with their own sexuality, come out to their parents, and work toward reconciliation and understanding within their families and faiths. It examines the genetics of homosexuality, refuting those who claim that sexual orientation is a choice. The film also counters biblical literalists, arguing that the Bible needs to be read and understood in its proper historic context.
“[Literalists] are failing to read the Bible within the context of its authors and of its original culture,” said Gomes in the film.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Robinson, Reitan, Monroe, and Caplan, who addressed a wide range of questions.
“What do you do when people who are close to you don’t fully accept you?” asked one member of the young audience, who said she was saddened at how many of her friends chose not to attend her 2005 wedding to her partner.
Robinson, who answered first, was at the heart of controversy in 2003 when he became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, the American wing of the Anglican Communion. His consecration sparked a split with a faction of Episcopalians in the United States who align themselves with a conservative Nigerian Anglican body that rejects the church’s tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. Robinson plans to marry his longtime partner later this year.
“We have to hang in there,” he said, advising her not to try to change her friends, but to do everything possible to keep an open dialogue with them. “I think the biggest sin of all is leaving the table.”
In returning to the theme of the literal interpretation of the Bible, Monroe echoed Gomes’ sentiments.
“To take the Bible so literally means we collude in this silence of terror around the biblical text,” she said, urging the audience to examine scripture in a much broader context and to make a distinction between “blind obedience and reasoned faith.”
“Do you want to treat your fellow man … in a way that doesn’t hold up the best intention for humanity?” she asked.
“We need to be active agents in choosing what our faith is,” he said.
A student of Gordon College, a Christian school, asked the group how to make a difference at an institution he described as set in its ways.
“I believe it is a system that will fall, imploding in on itself. … It’s a house of cards that cannot stand,” said Reitan, who encouraged people to come out. “By coming out, putting a face on this issue, everything crumbles.”
But Caplan was quick to add that everyone must make that decision in their own time with the right support networks in place.
Robinson is facing a new challenge this year. He was not included in the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, a gathering that is convened every 10 years at the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury. The New Hampshire bishop, who said he was determined to be at the meeting, recalled the American Civil Rights movement and drew comparisons to his own struggle for representation and inclusion within the Anglican Communion.
“Most of what I’ve learned about all this, I’ve learned from the African-American community,” said Robinson, citing the bravery of the protesters during the Civil Rights era. Pointing to their example he said, “If that doesn’t bring home Jesus’ words about if you want to save your life you have to be willing to lose it, then I don’t know what does.”
The event was sponsored by the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality; the Harvard College Women’s Center; the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at HDS; the Harvard BGLTSA; Harvard Cornerstone (the Catholic LGBT-friendly) Group; and the Harvard College LGBT Political Coalition.