Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fish Out of Water: a movie review

This week, I showed my classes a film I recently discovered called "Fish Out of Water."  It's a documentary about a young woman's journey to discover what the Bible really says about homosexuality.  She was propelled on this journey her senior year of college at Vanderbilt University when she "came out" to her sorority sisters.  Instead of receiving support and love, what she got was condemnation and exclusion.  Part of the reason for this is because Vanderbilt is in the "Bible Belt" of America and is very socially conservative.  The director, Ky Dickens, was actually one of the leaders of the popular Crossroads Bible Study on campus.  Her decision to come out as a gay Christian, and the resulting ostracism she experienced, caused her to travel across America, meet with various pastors, priests, and Bible scholars to get to the heart of what the Bible and Christianity have to say about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Her journey happened at a time when several states (like California and Arizona) were passing legislation banning same-sex marriage.  A lot of the justification for these laws came from people's religious beliefs, largely Christianity.  If so much public policy on this issue is being driven by Christianity, Dickens wasted to know exactly what the Bible had to say on the matter.

Before talking to pastors and Bible scholars, however, she spoke with lots of ordinary folks, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight, to see what people knew about what the Bible teaches about this issue.  What she found was that people were largely uninformed.  Many people had never read the Bible and, among those who had, very few had taken the time to do a serious study of the handful of passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality.  I myself would fall into this latter category.  I've read the Bible, but up until very recently I'd never taken the time to really study the seven passages in the Bible that deal with homosexuality.  By "study" I mean not just reading the texts, but reading what scholars have to say, reading about the social/historical/cultural context in which they were written.  As one priest says in the film, "There are two Christianities in America…popular and academic."  Unfortunately, the average church-goer doesn't keep up with biblical scholarship, and the average biblical scholar does not do a great job of informing the public about what they find.  Ky Dickens' film does a fantastic job of bridging the gap between these two worlds, the popular and the academic.  As an academic who enjoys writing for a popular audience, I deeply appreciate what she accomplishes with this film.

The film deals with each of the main Bible passages that has been used to condemn homosexuality.  One of these passages comes from the Old Testament (or Torah) book of Leviticus, which is full of "Purity Codes" for the ancient people of Israel.  Among these Purity Codes we find a number of forbidden practices that mainly have to do with the social and cultural context of the times they were written.  According to Leviticus, the ancient Israelites were forbidden from eating certain foods like pork and shellfish.  They were forbidden from wearing clothes made from two types of fabric.  A man was forbidden to touch his wife for a week after her menstural cycle.  The ancient Israelites were forbidden from planting two crops in the same field.  And men were forbidden from "lying with men as like a woman," which mainly had to do with property law.  

In the world of Leviticus, women were the property of men and one way to consummate the ownership was sex.  Leviticus says that a man may not consummate his property in this way with another man.  This, like eating shrimp, is an "abomination."  As with any ancient text, we must take into account the social and cultural context.  There are many laws in Leviticus that modern Christians do not follow.  Ham (a form of pork) is a very popular Christmas dinner, despite the fact that this would have been an "abomination" to the Israelites for whom Leviticus was written.  Most Christians today wear clothing made from more than one material.  I know of no one calling for a legal ban on cotton/polyester blends.

The Levitical Purity Codes offer some good advice for modern Christians, and they also offer a lot of laws that are totally irrelevant to modern society.  Our modern idea of same-sex couples in a committed, loving relationship in which one person is not the property of the other would have been a completely foreign concept to the ancient Israelites.  Ky Dickens's film looks at each of the main passages in the Bible used to condemn homosexuality and what she discovers is that all of them has been misinterpreted and decontextualized by modern Christians to mean something they did not originally mean.  For the sake of brevity, I will not discuss all of them here, but I would encourage you to watch the film, which is streaming on Netflix.

Better yet, I would encourage you to study the passages for yourself, not just devotionally, but also academically.  See what historians and scholars today have to say about these passages.  If a Christian is going to take a political stand on an issue like same-sex marriage, one would hope he/she is well-educated and informed on the issue.  As with anything, a deeper understanding brings tolerance and openness.  This is true not just for religion, but all aspects of life.  The more I learn, the more I understand the complexity of issues I once thought were black and white.

As a teacher and lifelong learner myself, I'm constantly reading, discussing, and trying to understand life.  The film "Fish Out of Water" is a gateway to deeper understanding.  More than that, it encourages me to choose learning over judging.

The centerpiece of Christianity is Jesus, and Jesus never once even mentions homosexuality.  What Jesus DOES talk about an awful lot is love.  Christians are called not to judge, but to love.  In fact, judging is explicitly forbidden by Jesus. Christians are called to love, openly, selflessly, unconditionally.  The fact that it was largely religious/Christian groups who spearheaded Prop 8 tells me a lot about contemporary American Christianity, but it tells me nothing about Jesus.  To understand Jesus, I have to to go the gospels and when I do I cannot help by be astonished at the selfless, beautiful person I find there.

I cannot fathom how the Jesus I encounter in the gospels would be in favor of denying rights to people based on sexual orientation.  I cannot fathom how the Jesus of the gospels, who astonishes me with his concern for the marginalized and the afflicted, would want any part in further marginalizing same-sex couples.  On the contrary, I believe the Jesus of the gospels would stand up in churches who supported Prop 8 and say what he said to the religious leaders of his day, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."


  1. From Wikipedia: "LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or, informally, the Mormon Church) members contributed over $20 million, about 45% of out-of-state contributions to came from Utah, over three times more than any other state. ProtectMarriage, the official proponent of Proposition 8, estimates that about half the donations they received came from Mormon sources, and that LDS church members made up somewhere between 80% and 90% of the volunteers for early door-to-door canvassing.