"God hates fags" is a common phrase in For the Bible Tells Me So, or at least the sentiment is: The film opens with a stunning montage of righteous bigotry, featuring silver-tongued Christian activists, grandstanding preachers, and crazy people screaming on street corners. All of them express one sentiment, more or less: That the Bible says homosexuality is an "abomination," that gays and lesbians are doomed, and that they might be dragging the rest of us down to Hell with them. (Thanks a lot, gays!)
Director Daniel Karslake's acclaimed documentary has an interesting enough premise: Going a step beyond homophobes' rhetoric, he assembles a slew of religious experts to examine ye olde Good Book to see if the Jesus freaks have a point. The answer, pretty unsurprisingly, is no, they don't: Sure, biblical literalists insist that there's only one way to interpret the Bible, but anyone with a knowledge of history or literature can attest that there's a whole slew of ways to interpret a text.
The fact that one can use the Bible to justify... well, pretty much anything, really, shouldn't be a shock to anyone. Luckily, the film has another facet: In its fascinating examination of five religious families in which a son or daughter is gay (surprise!), For the Bible Tells Me So is nothing less than astonishing.
The families are a cross-section of Christian America: There are the Poteats, an African American couple in North Carolina, both ministers, who go into shock when they learn their daughter is a lesbian. (This despite David Poteat's desperate prayers: "When my kids were growing up, I said, 'God, please, don't let my son grow up to be a faggot, and my daughter a slut.'") And there are the Robinsons, two adorable, doddering Kentuckians—each of whom is roughly 900 years old—who go to the library to research homosexuality after their son, Gene, a priest, admits that he's gay. (Later, with his parents' support, Gene would go on to become the first gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, wearing a bulletproof vest at his consecration.)
Other families, too, are equally remarkable: The Minnesotan family the Reitans find themselves joining with their gay son to protest Focus on the Family's headquarters; one-time presidential candidate Dick Gephardt talks about how having a lesbian daughter affected his career; and one tortured mother blames herself for the suicide of her lesbian daughter. It's on the strength of these captivating profiles—which are disturbing, moving, heartwarming, and insightful—that For the Bible Tells Me So succeeds as it does.
Unfortunately, Karslake is better at interviewing people than he is at making documentaries. While his profiles of earnest, loving families wrestling with genuinely challenging issues hit home, his cheesy music cues don't help, and neither does an awkward, childish animated interlude. When Karslake's camera veers away from the families themselves, the film gets remedial and redundant, often feeling like an introductory class video for Gay People Have Feelings Too 101. To some, perhaps, it might come as a shock that fundamentalist Christian beliefs have a very real, very brutal effect on all gays and lesbians, even those who still love Jesus. But chances are, if you're the sort of person who'd be surprised by that revelation, you're probably going to be watching The Chronicles of Narnia with your church group for the umpteenth time, not watching For the Bible Tells Me So.