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For This Documentary Tells Me So

By John Murphy

Posted 9/15/08 at 10:56 AM

The idea that documentaries are unbiased truth is well-established nonsense, of course, but some filmmakers are better at covering their ideological tracks than others (the good ones are, anyway). For the Bible Tells Me So tackles a tough, timely topic: the antagonism between Christian fundamentalists and practicing homosexuals. This complex subject deserved a more nuanced, reflective treatment than it’s given here. Daniel Karslake, the director, has made a warm and genial film that lands, quite predictably, on the ‘let’s all just get along’ platform. The majority of Christians have no problem following that prescription, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to concede theological wrongheadedness.

Karslake stacks the deck in his favor. The best argument is usually a bait-and-switch: set up your opponent’s key points then systematically knock them down. Showing clips of sweaty, swaggering Jimmy Swaggart decrying gays as ‘abominations’ is is not exactly intellectual fair play. By contrast, someone like Gene Robinson, interviewed here as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, appears the paragon of composed lucidity. Robinson’s fundamentalist parents, an adorable elderly couple trying to reconcile their beliefs as Christians with an unconditional love for their child, are shown in a sympathetic light, testifying to Karslake’s appealing humanism. This humanism shores up his lack of intellectual rigor. Instead of pointed, penetrating conversations between well-informed, well-matched proponents of both sides, Karslake mostly sticks with soft human interest stuff: profiles of contentious parent-child relationships. These are affecting, anecdotally interesting stories, that don’t ultimately add anything to the larger debate.

Karslake attempts to settle the debate with an unctuous cartoon sequence featuring a buff, blonde gay man and butch lesbian telling the subtly named ‘Christian’, a meek-looking eunuch sporting an Argyle sweater, exactly why he’s an idiot. (Gays as much as Christians should be offended by the distasteful stereotypes—I kept expecting the blonde metrosexual to give Christian a make-over). The cartoon appears without preamble or commentary, so one can only assume that this is the filmmakers’ sound-bite summary of the movie: gays are hip and cool and up on the latest scientific findings; Christians are backwards dweebs. Christians, however, can earn some cool credibility (a pop culture version of redemption) if they embrace homosexuality.

Despite such sophomoric devices, For the Bible Tells Me So stunningly (or not?) earned a 100% fresh rating on Rottentomatoes.com—every single major critic recommended this documentary, deploying adjectives like ‘fair-minded’ and ‘thought-provoking.’ There’s isn’t much thought behind it, unfortunately, and any documentarian who wears his or her ideological agenda like an honor badge should consider other career options—marketing executive, for example. What the movie turns out to be is a well-meaning piece of propaganda, with an engaging cast of talking heads, but it’s a botched bit of reportage because all the talking heads essentially agree with one another (which is to say, they agree with the director, who assembled and edited the interviews), or they at least arrive at the same conclusion. In other words, why should anyone be convinced of the movie’s main points? For This Documentary Tells Me So. Gays and Christians alike deserve better.