January 25, 2012

for the BIBLE tells me so

Apologia, etc.
Critical Review
By Hendrik van der Breggen

For the Bible Tells Me So, produced & directed by David Karslake (New York: First Run Features, 2007)

Recently I watched For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary about religion and homosexuality in the U.S. The film well depicts the suffering some gays face and the struggles some Christian families encounter when a family member is gay, and thus the film presents some truly legitimate concerns. In fact, several of the concerns are heart-wrenching injustices. The abuse of homosexuals and the hate-mongering directed toward homosexuals are unjust—and all the more so when done in the name of Christ. Surely, followers of Christ should show genuine love to all persons, including persons who self-identify as gay or lesbian. Injustices done in the name of Christ hurt people whom Christ loves dearly. I, and no doubt many other Christians, find such injustices deeply troubling.

Having said this—and without making light of this at all—I wish to note that the film also has serious shortcomings. The documentary is misleading in at least four significant ways, which, as a Christian who is an academic, I find deeply troubling too.

First, the film poorly reports the science relevant to homosexuality. For example, the twin studies the film presents are dubious. According to the film, when one identical twin is gay the other is gay "up to 70% of the time," thereby (allegedly) demonstrating the role of genes in determining homosexuality. But, it turns out, more recent and more careful scientific investigation tells us that the actual percentage is somewhere between 11 and 20%. (For substantiation of this point, see my first recommended reading by Yarhouse below.) If science is to be taken seriously, it should be presented accurately.

(Ironically, in communicating its exaggerated report of the twin studies the film employs a cartoon featuring a character named "Christian" who displays a negative attitude toward science.)

Second, by using a cartoon the film unfairly represents those persons who successfully leave homosexuality: "We're still gay," whispers a lesbian cartoon character standing on a conveyor belt after coming out of an Ex-Gay Ministry machine. But, the careful viewer should ask: Where are the live interviews with people from ex-gay ministries such as Exodus International and National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH)? Where is the respected (if not infamous) Spitzer report concerning persons who have changed their orientation to a significant degree? Is the film suppressing the voices of ex-gays?

If one doubts the existence of ex-gays, one should see (for starters) the cover story of World magazine, December 17, 2011. This story features Alan Chambers, a long time ex-gay who is presently president of Exodus International. Joe Dallas, a previous president of Exodus International and author of The Gay Gospel? (Harvest House, 1996/2007), is another ex-gay who should be considered. Apparently, there are many ex-gays whose voices the film ignores.

(Are ex-gays rejected twice—first because of their homosexuality, and again because they are no longer gay? If the first is an injustice, then the second would seem to be an injustice too.)

Third, the film mistakenly suggests that all persons who are not pro-gay are homophobic. To be sure, some people are homophobic, that is, some people have an irrational fear of, or hatred for, homosexuals. But, it needs to be emphasized, many people who are not pro-gay are not homophobic. Why? Because they have reasonable concerns.

Some reasonable concerns about same-sex sexual behaviour stem from findings in the health sciences. For evidence, see the medical section of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations' statement on homosexuality (scroll to bottom for references). (CMDA is a Christian group, but the studies to which they appeal come from various secular scientific sources.) See too NARTH's medical issues page.

Moreover, some reasonable concerns stem from principled moral positions having to do with gay-related social issues such as same-sex marriage.

For evidence, take at look at the arguments of Margaret Somerville, professor of law at McGill University. See Somerville's essay, “What about the Children?”, in Daniel Cere and Douglas Farrow, editors, Divorcing Marriage: Unveiling the Dangers in Canada’s New Social Experiment (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004); and see Somerville’s essay, “The other ‘rights question’ in same-sex marriage” at the Institute for the Study of Marriage, Law and Culture.

By ignoring such reasonable concerns, the film gives the impression that disagreement on same-sex issues is fueled only by homophobia, not sober-minded rational concern. This impression is neither true, nor fair to critics, nor does it contribute positively to informed discussion.

Fourth, the film weakly and unfairly presents the hermeneutical/ interpretive issues involved in reading the Bible carefully. The film suggests that those persons who disagree with gay revisionists should be dismissed as "biblical literalists" or as having merely a "5th grade understanding." In fact, however, many who disagree with gay revisionist interpretations of Scripture do not always take texts literally and are highly educated.

Why didn't the film interview experts in Biblical scholarship pertaining to homosexuality who strongly disagree with gay revisionism, are not "biblical literalists," and have high academic credentials? I'm thinking here of Harvard and Princeton educated Robert A. J. Gagnon, PhD, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2001). Another important scholar is Andrews University’s Richard M. Davidson, PhD, author of Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Hendrickson, 2007). The film is supposed to be taking the Bible seriously, isn't it?

There are more than four problems with the documentary, but these are sufficient for illustrating the grounds for my concern.

Where For the Bible Tells Me So is good, which is in many places, especially its depiction of the struggles of gay individuals in their Christian family contexts, it is really good; but where it is bad, which is in many places too, such as those I’ve presented above, it is really bad. The danger in this film is that the emotionally-charged good parts will probably jam (block, interfere with) those bad parts where careful thinking and background information are required, thereby letting poor reasoning and falsehoods slip by unchecked. As summary descriptors of the film, the words “propaganda” and “manipulation” come to mind, though these words are too strong. Probably a better word is "unbalanced."

My recommendation: See the film, take the good parts of its message to heart, but think very very carefully as you do—and maybe even do some research first.

P.S. A helpful, more-detailed review of For the Bible Tells Me So can be found at psychologist Mark Yarhouse's blog Limning the PsycheA helpful resource for Christians dealing with gay issues on a more personal level can be found in Mark Yarhouse's book, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends (Bethany House, 2010).

P.P.S. Here are some additional Apologia columns that address homosexuality:
1. Homophobia, bigotry, intolerance?
2. It's all society's fault?
3. Born gay?
4. The ad hominem fallacy

UPDATE: Exodus International has closed its doors and Robert Spitzer, the author of the Spitzer report, has changed his mind. For further insight into these events, see my January 14, 2014, Apologia column: Three clarifications concerning 2013's news.


Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. V.,

Your post here has alerted me to a documentary I had not heard of, but which I then shortly after saw.

I have written a little reaction myself, and while I would like to address your comments, I probably need to watch the documentary one more time before doing so.


Al Hiebert said...

Yes, God loves all sinners, whether their sins are fashionable or not. Yes, parents like Dick Gephardt need to love LGBTQ children like Chrissy Gephardt (on CNN) and so should we. That does not make their choices morally right, any more than if those choices were to steal, lie, commit adultery, covet, be greedy or a host of other sins the Bible names as sin, even if our culture makes them socially acceptable. Bible-believing Christians need to avoid letting current culture squeeze them into its mould (Rom. 12:2).

We need not be surprised that LGBTQ militants use the Bible to promote their agenda. That does not sanctify their morality as biblical, regardless of how much truth they mix in with their immoral commitments.

Thanks for your fine critique, Hendrik. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Hiebert,

There is little I perceived as militant in the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So.” There is little I perceive as militant in the expectation that the people you have chosen to call “Bible believing Christians” defend the relationship they have drawn between texts of the past and lives of the present.

It’s one thing to look at the biblical data, as Gagnon does, and come to the conclusion that someone like Paul disapproves of every form of homosexual behaviour known to him, but it’s quite another thing to determine that Paul’s judgment should be our own. Such a determination lies outside the domain of biblical scholarship, and to assume that people will recognize that because something condemned in the Bible it is still worthy of being condemned is an assumption rarely given much attention.

It’s true, I would imagine, that people can use the Bible to promote their own agendas. Certainly this would not sanctify such a morality as biblical, but is that the goal, to have a morality which is biblical? Last I checked, there are competing moralities within the sacred texts because there are various persons writing who have been conditioned by various ages and various ways of thinking: “Religious texts are bound in reciprocal relationship to the societies in which they originate.” What is presented as morality in the Bible is purified throughout the biblical tradition, and in Christian history, and if you are assuming that this process of purification is complete with Paul’s letter to the Romans, then this is a second assumption which perhaps you are not being fair in supposing that others will readily attach themselves to. It’s an assumption that a good many members of the larger Christian community no longer find tenable.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

This is a bit of an aside, but related. Remember Zach Wahls' case in favour of same-sex marriage? Zach Wahls is a fine young man who was raised by a lesbian couple. His 3-minute Youtube video went viral. Wahls' main point: I turned out okay, so same-sex marriage is okay. Alan Shlemon (another fine young man) sets out a 14 minute response. Shlemon's main point: "Making laws based on an exceptional case does not make good public policy. And so we shouldn't deconstruct the entire institution of marriage and our entire model of parenting just because Zach Wahls turned out wonderful." For further food for thought, take a look at the videos: Zach Wahl, Alan Shlemon.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

On Sexual Orientation and Reason

Below are a couple of passages from psychologist Stanton L. Jones (January, 2012), "Sexual Orientation and Reason: On the Implications of False Beliefs about Homosexuality," digitally published at www.christianethics.org (Center for Applied Christian Ethics); an abbreviated version of this essay was published as "Same-sex science," First Things, February, 2012, pp. 27-33. Stanton L. Jones is Provost and Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, Illinois.

From Stanton L. Jones:

Homosexuality in particular, and sexual orientation, sexual identity and sexuality in general, are enormously complex topics, about which religious and social conservatives are prone to believe a number of falsehoods. This reality exposes us to derision in the public arena and weakens our capacity to engage this issue effectively. These false assertions include that:

• homosexuality is properly understood as a mental illness, and all homosexual persons are deeply psychologically disturbed (even if some are capable of hiding their pathology),

• the homosexual condition is fundamentally a choice, and the flurry of research suggesting genetic or biological causation of homosexuality is a fraud foisted upon the public by pseudo-science,

• all homosexual persons could change their sexual orientation and embrace their intrinsic heterosexuality if they simply willed the choice, or were truly open to pursuing psychological maturity, or truly repented, or truly opened themselves to possibilities of spiritual healing, and

• homosexual relationships are always disordered, unstable, emotionally abusive, or worse, and homosexual parenting is always distorted, abusive, predatory, and narcissistic.

But religious and social conservatives are not the only ones embracing false beliefs about homosexuality....

The false beliefs about homosexuality that I wish to address include that:

• being gay is just as healthy, both in terms of mental health and physical health, as being straight;

• sexual orientation, just like race, is a biologically determined given to which environmental variables such as family and culture contribute nothing and to which individuals make no voluntary contribution;

• sexual orientation cannot be changed, and thus the attempt to change is intrinsically harmful;

• homosexual relationships are equivalent to heterosexual marriage in all important characteristics; and

• identity is properly and legitimately constituted around sexual orientation....

Public opinion and social policy developments today are being driven by assumptions that cannot stand under rigorous examination. Some of these beliefs are unhelpful simplifications, some simply go beyond what we reliably know, and others are demonstrably false....

Perhaps if our culture can recognize the fluid and incomplete nature of our knowledge of the homosexual condition, if we can recognize the limits of reason, we may be able to create a public space where differing parties agree to disagree and give each other room to live in civility. But the best ecclesiastical, professional, legal and social policy will not be founded on falsehoods or on grotesque and indefensible simplifications, but on a clearheaded grasp of reality in all its complexities, as well as on a humble recognition of all that we do not know.

I appreciate Stanton Jones' respectful and sober-minded investigation of a highly divisive issue. The rest of Jones' article can be read here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Stand To Reason's Alan Shlemon has an insightful article, "Does homosexual behavior in animals mean it's natural for humans?"

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

See N.T. Wright on the (biblical) debate on homosexuality here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

For an interesting study that relates to the question of whether children of homosexuals are more apt to be homosexual, look here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

A Witherspoon Institute article reports the following: "Judges and justices who reasoned in favor of same-sex marriage based on social scientists’ “no-differences” thesis must now contend with better research: Heterosexual married couples offer the best family structure for children, according to a new, rigorously-researched sociological study." See Supreme Court Take Notice.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

New York pastor Tim Keller provides a helpful reply to the charge that Christians are inconsistent in the way they allegedly ignore some Old Testament passages while accepting other passages that say homosexual behaviour is a sin. See pastor Keller's June 2012 article "Old Testament Law and the Charge of Inconsistency".

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

The Old Testament tells us not to eat shellfish and not to engage in homosexual sex. Today, some people wonder why Christians object to homosexual sex but not the eating of shellfish. What gives? Here is a very short and helpful video from the One Minute Apologist, featuring Dr. Michael Brown speaking on the types of laws of Leviticus (ritual purity laws vs. universal moral laws). Look here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Remember the West Wing episode in which President Bartlet tells us about the silliness of the Bible passages on homosexuality? Here is a 15 minute podcast in which philosopher William Lane Craig debunks the president's "biblical" arguments: Reasonable Faith - West Wing Homosexuality Episode.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Here is an important critical review of For the Bible Tells Me So from Thomas Coy over at Ex-gayTruth.com.

Patrick said...

Very helpful contributions.