This is the fourth in a short series by Larry Mark.
Amid the â€œnormalâ€ Sundance offerings, that include a documentary on horses having intimate sexual relations with men (ZOO), and a biting teen horror comedy on a woman (played by Jess Weixler) who discovers that her vagina has defensive teeth, or the fabled vagina dentata (Mitchell Lichtenstein’s TEETH), and plotting revenge against your wife’s lover (DRIVING WITH MY WIFE’S LOVER), there was a film that was oriented towards the Bible.
Daniel Karslake’s FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO does for Christians what Sandi Dubowski’s TREMBLING BEFORE G-D did for observant Jews. FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO is a documentary about various conservative Christians in the United States who must try to reconcile their beliefs on what their Bibles say and homosexuality.
Karslake’s documentary follows five families, each from different Christian denominations, and recounts their journeys and their challenges to stay in the church and remain devout believers. One of the families is that of Richard Gephardt, a U.S. Congressman and former U.S. Presidential candidate.
In addition to exploring the way religious conservative leaders and ministers have misled their congregations into believing that the Bible forbids homosexuality and how this misinterpretation stigmatizes gays and lesbians, Daniel Karslake includes interviews with various members of the clergy, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Paula Caplan, Reverend Mel White, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, and Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer.
Karslake, Dubowski, Rabbi Greenberg, and Reverend White, were four members of a larger panel that addressed the issue of â€œGays, Faith and Filmâ€ at Sundance’s Queer Lounge.
Robert Cary, director of â€œSAVE ME,â€ which also premiered at Sundance, also joined the panel, with his co-producer and star, the actress Judith Light. The panel opened with clips from and a discussion on Karslake’s film, as well as a brief clip from a rough cut of Dubowski and Parvez Sharma’s forthcoming film about Muslim gays, temporarily titled, â€œA JIHAD FOR LOVE.â€ Dubowski’s clip focused on an interview with a leading Imam, as well as the punishments meted out to some Iranian gays. All these films focus on transformation, reconciliation, liberation, and trying to influence the â€œmovable middleâ€ of American public opinion.
Dubowski spoke about how his film, TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, which has been seen by 8 million people to date, was banned by South Africa’s rabbinical court, but how his film was used to train hundreds of teachers in Israel, and was just featured on Ukrainian national television. It is slowly influencing its audiences.
Greenberg added that it is a misnomer to say that the â€œthe Bible says,â€ and that one should instead say, â€œthe Bible readsâ€ since it is a function of interpretation. He added, â€œWords when spoken fracture into multiple meanings.â€ The notion that it says it in the bible is improper since it is about interpretation.
Reverend White, who was the ghost writer for Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, the Bakers and other evangelical leaders before he came out as gay, reinforced the Sundance panel’s theme, namely that religion is a redemptive tool for gays. He stressed that the Bible is used and misused to condemn gay people. These films can be distributed and used to reach people, offer them other interpretations, and avoid the attempted and realized suicides that are not uncommon among religious gays. White, himself, attempted suicide before coming out as gay.
Greenberg, a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, stressed that homophobia around the world is just one room in a grand hotel called misogyny. As one looks at societies, the more women are treated as second class citizens, the greater the society will mistreat of gays. Gays are killed in those societies where women are not given equal rights.
Karslake came to filmmaking on a circuitous route. A Christian who worked as a fundraiser for Manhattan’s Riverside Church and The City of Hope medical centers, he interned as a producer of the PBS newsmagazine, â€œIn The Life.â€ After he produced and aired a segment on the Reverend Irene Monroe, a lesbian and Harvard University theologian, he received a letter from a boy in Iowa that read, “Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. But last night I happened to turn on your show and just knowing that someday I might be able to go back into my church, I threw the gun in the river. My mom never has to know.”
The segment, which had been tabled by its producers since the nexus between religion and homosexuality was deemed too controversial for PBS stations, had not only saved at least one life, it was honored with the first Emmy award nomination the show every received. Karslake became the â€œgo toâ€ producer at the show for stories on spiritual issues and the gay community.
â€œThat email from the young man in Iowa was the first of hundreds of emails I got from gay and lesbian people from across the country who felt so rejected and condemned by their own churches that they had considered or were still considering taking their own lives,â€ Karslake recalled.
â€œIronically gay kids, especially guys — I think because of how we’re made and who we are — many gay kids grow up really involved in their church and tend to be very much a part of that church family. So when the condemnation happens and the rejection, it’s like another family rejection. It’s very strong. So when that first piece aired, it sort of became what I was all about.â€
But Karslake felt he was preaching to the choir, and was not reaching the people who desperately needed to see a film about faith and sexuality. Then he saw Michael Moore’s, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. And he realized he could make a documentary that reconciled homosexuality and scripture, by bringing the argument to a level that normal lay people could understand.
Karslake embarked on a fundraising campaign and received large donations from Robin Voss, Bruce Voss, Michael Huffington (HuffingtonPost.com), and Robert Greenbaum, a real estate investor and philanthropist focused on ‘tikkun olam.’.
In addition to interviewing members of the clergy, and the Gephardt’s, Karslake’s film includes interviews with Jake Reitan and his family; Bishop Gene Robinson and his parents; and the Poteat family. The film follows Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire and his election to the post of Bishop even though he is gay; Jake Reitan, the descendant of many Lutheran ministers and church activists who came out as gay in high school, and David Poteat, who states in the film, â€˜I had good kids. We had one of each sex â€“ when my kids were growing up, I said â€œGod, please don’t let me son grow up to be a faggot and my daughter a slut.’ And He did not. He did not do that. He reversed it.â€
Critical to the film’s interviews are those with Rabbis Mayer and Greenberg. Mayer stresses that the oft quoted sentence in Leviticus is followed and preceded by sentences on eating shrimp, and planting co-mingled seeds; and few ministers harangue their congregations on those passages. Greenberg focuses on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. While some interpret it to be a story of homosexuality, Greenberg interprets the story as a lesson on hospitality.
Greenberg closed the panel by reinforcing the point that faith is a resource for gays and lesbians. While there are religions that will not allow conversations or questioning, there are faiths that can engage in deep and respectful dialogues, so that its adherents can find purpose, meaning, and grounding in their lives.