For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary showing at the Sundance Film Festival, explores the issue of religion and homosexuality through personal interviews with five families whose spiritual lives collided with their real lives when they learned a loved one was gay. Director Daniel Karslake and Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be elected Bishop of the Episcopalian Church, were on-hand for the fest, and sat down with Cinematical for a chat about the film.
Cinematical: I wanted to start with you, Daniel, and ask what inspired you to make this film.
Daniel Karslake: About six or seven years ago, I was a religions producer for a show on PBS, and I did a number of shows that were on the issue of homosexuality and religion. And I started meeting all these theologians, people who were very well-known, very well-respected, and when I started asking them questions about the issue of homosexuality and the Bible, they had a very different take than what I'd heard from the Jerry Falwells, the religious "stars." I was very attracted to that message, because it was something different from what I'd heard. And I live in New York, I've lived in LA, these sort of "blue state" places, and even I hadn't heard that at all, really.
So I started keeping track of that. And then also, as I produced for PBS I did a story about this woman at Harvard, an African-American, with this great life story -- tragic upbringing, but she pulled through and was doing great things with her life. She was a theologian, and she was also a lesbian, and I thought it was important for people to see that. And the day after that aired, I got an email from this kid -- a gay kid in Iowa -- that said: "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."
And I got a number of emails like that over the next few years similar to this, but this was the first that really knocked my socks off.
Cinematical: Can you give me a sense of the timeline -- from that email to deciding to make this film?
DK: That was in 1998, and that's really when I began producing only stories that were about religion. I realized the power of it – religion can be so powerful in such a positive way, but when it comes to gay and lesbian issues, and the gay and lesbian experience in America, it becomes such a negative. There were so many gay people that I knew who had such wounding, such anger, such hurt, at people who were religious and at religion itself because they'd been so denied, so shunned, by their second family.
So many gay and lesbian kids grow up and they're part of their church family, they take their faith seriously, and then just as they're starting to realize hey, there's something different about me, they're hearing from both their church family and their primary family that what they are is wrong, an abomination, and suddenly you're condemned. And you're ashamed of your family, and it drives so many gay teens to suicide.
Cinematical: And if you grow up in a religious family, whether fundamentalist Christian or Catholic, or Episcopalian, whatever, that faith becomes such a huge part of who you are as a person.
Gene Robinson: And I'd like to add to that, that it's been my experience that you don't even have to grow up in a religious atmosphere. I was a part of an organization for 12-21-year-old gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens, and I'll never forget, one night we were having this discussion -- and not a single one of these kids had grown up in a family that was steeped in religion, they didn't go to church, didn't go to synagogue. And yet every single one of them knew that in Leviticus, it says they are an abomination in God's eyes. So you don't even have to grow up in a family with a religious atmosphere -- it's in the air. And those kids were confident that they knew what God thought of them. Now, they couldn't have found Leviticus in the Bible if their lives had depended on it. But they sure knew what God thought of them.
So the religious world bears a real responsibility for this message that is out there, even among those who are not themselves religious. And I think, the reason I'm a part of this film is: It's going to take religious voices to undo that.
The reason I believe so strongly in this film is that I believe it provides a powerful counter-message, and as the film says -- the religious right got it wrong, on what the Bible says about homosexuality. People have a sense that that's the case, but the minute someone starts quoting scripture at them they just fall away and feel like they don't have any ground to stand on, to counter that. And this film gives them that ground to stand on.
Cinematical: Do you think that's partly because religion is so deeply ingrained in our culture, that people just automatically accept the Bible as an authority, whether they were raised in religious families or not?
GR: That and it's more. It's that people are apt to believe what they are told the Bible says, than to read for themselves and see if it actually says that. And so for the most part, our culture has bought what the religious right is selling about homosexuality.
Cinematical: Do you think too, though, that there's this tendency among the fundamentalist Christian pastors, the way they seem to pick and choose those passages that further their own belief systems or agendas?
GR: Of course they do. And you know, it's interesting, isn't it, that the verse in Luke, where Jesus says, if you want to be a follower of mine you must give up all your possessions – it's funny, isn't it, how we don't see people like Falwell and Robertson preaching and living that as the literal Word of God that is eternally binding on us. Of course not.
Cinematical: So how would you answer the people who are caught up in believing the message of the fundamentalist Christian movement, who are hearing these preachers telling them that all gay people are abominations who are going to hell? How do you even begin to reach people who are already so enmeshed in that belief system?
GR: I think that I'd answer that on two levels. One is a very political, perhaps even cynical level which is: Isn't it interesting that with the falling of the Berlin Wall, with the fall of Communism, and with the religious right unable to raise money by pointing a finger at the communists as the bad guys, as a source of fear, that they all of a sudden turn to the gay and lesbian community as a source of fear -- and use that fear as a means of raising a ton of money? That's the political answer. The religious answer is the sad notion that people will believe what they're told the bible says rather than finding out for themselves -- do those words really mean what they seem to mean? And the thing is that with mainstream religion, you're not asked to check your brain at the door. You're asked to use your brain in the service of what you believe. And part of that means, an obligation to use the scholarship that has taken place over the last 50 years.
And part of that scholarship is focused on: What are the communities out of which these sacred texts came? What were the cultural pressures brought to bear? So all of a sudden, Leviticus looks very different, if you understand that this is an ancient Hebrew people who have been brought to a hostile land, where they have to populate themselves as quickly as possible in terms of sheer numbers, and they are opposed by pagan peoples all around. And therefore, the ancient Hebrews needed to find a way to set themselves apart from those around them, and so you get that Levitical Code.
Well, that's not our situation today. And those texts were meant for a specific people at a specific time and are not necessarily binding in the sense that, say, love God, or love your neighbor as yourself are "binding." So I think it's time for every day Christians to take back their own authority as bible scholars, if you will. Not in the formally trained sense, but in looking beyond the surface.
Cinematical: So how do you get those every day Christians who buy into that to look beyond their "fags burn in hell" posters long enough to even see another point of view?
DK: I think you give people human stories and an alternative. And that's what we've tried to do with this film.
Cinematical: Can you tell me how you were able to get Bishop Robinson involved with the film?
DK: As I followed the story of his election and scheduled consecration, I began to feel convinced, just absolutely convinced, that Gene was the key to the film. I felt like if I could just get Gene involved, the rest would fall into place. And so I literally kind of stalked him, and figured out a way to get into his office, and I knew once I got there I'd only have a couple minutes to make my pitch before he'd call security on me, with all the threats to his life.
GR: Well, he didn't exactly storm into my office or anything –
DK: No, no, I had an appointment! I just wasn't really clear on what I was going to talk to him about, because I knew his feelings about being in the spotlight and especially protecting his relationship with Mark. So I went in and I said, please, Bishop Robinson, I have three things to ask you, and let me get through all three before you talk because I'm really nervous here.
And I said 1) We're trying to make this movie about homosexuality and religion, and I know a lot of people come to you to talk to you about that, so I was hoping we could at the very least have a regular email correspondence where I'd consult with you on this and you'd maybe share with me some of what people are saying to you. Two, I know your schedule is really busy, but we're doing a fund raiser for our film in Los Angeles and we'll fly you and Mark out -- you can stay for a week if you want, have a nice vacation, but just speak for us one night at this one dinner --
GR: And this was during Advent!
DK: Yeah, Advent. That was a good one. (laughs) And then three, I really need you to be in this film, and also I want to talk to your ex-wife and your parents. And then I just sat there and waited. And it was very quiet, and I looked up and he was glowering at me, he looked very mad. And then he said –
GR: Let me get this straight. First, you want me to share confidential emails that people share with me – emails that I get because I am a priest. Two, you want me to go to Los Angeles – during Advent, and with my schedule! – just to help YOU raise money for your film. And three, you want me to risk my relationship with my partner, my daughters and my parents, just so you can make your movie.
DK: And I just kind of sat there and said, well, yes, I guess that's basically what I'm asking. And then he said, "Let me just answer your question with a blanket 'yes'."
GR: (laughs) He thought I was going to say no! I should have said no. But I was overwhelmed by his passion and what he wanted to do with this film.
DK: He didn't just say yes, he more than said yes – he didn't just come out and speak for one night, he said, use me! Use me in anyway that can help.
Cinematical: Do either of you ever feel that there was a spiritual hand guiding the making of this film?
GR: Oh, yes.
DK: Yes, without a doubt.
For more on For the Bible Tells Me So, check out our Sundance review of the film.