About midway through For the Bible Tells Me So, Daniel Karslake's riveting documentary about the decades-long pummeling gays have been subjected to by religious fundamentalists, a woman holds up a protest sign that reads, 'Stop Spiritual Violence.' After 30-plus years of a non-stop media campaign ( from Anita Bryant to George W. Bush ) from these fearmongering religious conservatives, here at last was the phrase that hits the nail on the head. Subconsciously, that's what I've been reeling from since Bryant went public in the mid-'70s with her anti-gay rhetoric—the first celebrity that I can recall spewing this non-stop form of, yes, 'spiritual violence.'
A vintage photographer of the Gephardt family, profiled in For the Bible Tells Me So. Dick O'Day. Photo by Rick Aguilar
Bryant eventually got dumped as the spokesperson for Florida orange juice for her strongly held convictions that we homos were an abomination, but did enormous damage that still lingers. She was famously caught on camera during a press conference taking a pie in the face for her intolerant stance in 1977, and it's this footage that opens Karslake's film. The clip includes what came after—when Bryant ignored the dripping pie and seized on the chance to further dramatize the moment. Clutching the hands of her cohorts, she immediately leads a prayer for the soul of the depraved 'fruit' pie thrower and his ilk—sure to be damned to the proverbial 'lake of fire' if the 'sin' of homosexuality wasn't renounced forthwith.
But as Karslake's movie asks, 'Is the Bible an excuse to hate?' and 'Can the love between two people be an abomination?' These are huge questions for one movie and Karslake's film obviously can't answer them, but it does delve into how this social conundrum came to exist. It also traces the rise of religious intolerance for Our People as it follows the stories of several gay and lesbian individuals raised in families with strict religious beliefs and their relationships to these families as they came out. The profiles include the troubled journeys to acceptance of two well-known leaders in the gay community—Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson and Chrissy Gephardt, daughter of politician Richard Gephardt. Interspersed among these stories is a group of religious scholars who examines the questionable way homosexual references in the Bible have been historically twisted by fundamentalists to line up with their narrow viewpoints.
Many of these Religious Right leaders are defined as being Biblical literalists who interpret ancient scripture through a modern prism. The scholars point out the craziness of this literal point of view and Karslake includes a scene from an episode of the TV series The West Wing in which Martin Sheen, as the president, confronts a fundamentalist to emphasize the point. Karslake also points out that the majority of these religious leaders are raking in millions—a convenient lapse in adherence to Biblical literalism. But none of these conservative big guns is taken to task for their misguidance or is confronted on camera. I would have liked a more hard-hitting approach to the topic ( as in the recent abortion documentary Lake of Fire ) , in which on-camera interviews from the opposing viewpoint might have offered. Karslake includes a potentially galvanizing 'what if?' moment when, at one point, David Poteat—a young gay activist—and his parents, who have converted to true Christian values, do try to meet with Focus on the Family's James Dobson in Colorado but only get as far as stepping onto the property before being arrested.
This isn't surprising. With such a great fear-based, hate-filled cause useful in raising millions for their coffers, which one of these media-savvy fundamentalist leaders would be expected to backtrack—especially on camera? What's in it for them? But even though For the Bible Tells Me So doesn't give us confrontations and bites off more than it can chew, it offers plenty of anecdotal evidence that supply hope that these intolerant, prejudicial opinions will move in a more enlightened direction. The heartbreaking example of Mary Lou Wallner, a former archconservative whose rigidness led to her lesbian daughter's suicide, is more than enough of a lesson to serve as a warning of the terrible price religious ignorance can garner. Here's hoping that those who need to hear it most are listening. Plays exclusively at the Music Box Theatre, Nov. 30-Dec. 6. www.musicboxtheatre.com
In addition to the heart-wrenching, fascinating For the Bible Tells Me So, the Music Box Theatre is also offering something much lighter: a one-night midnight screening of Sing-Along Xanadu ( a Chicago first ) . This sure-to-be-memorable showing of the rancid but beloved 1980 roller-disco musical starring Olivia Newton John, her leg warmers, hunky Michael Beck and Gene Kelly ( in his last film ) will be emceed by Dick O'Day, the alter ego of yours truly. My Dick O'Day character has joined with Hell and a Handbag Theatre's Artistic Director David Cerda and members of the Handbag company to present the first in a seasonal series of 'camptacular' midnight screenings of classics called appropriately enough 'Camp Midnight.' The Sat., Dec. 1 midnight screening of Sing-Along Xanadu will include lots of games and surprises as well as prizes ( including a pair of tickets ) from Xanadu on Broadway and an audience of queens belting out Magic, Xanadu, I'm Alive, and all those other songs. Costumes and roller skates are encouraged. Tickets are $12 and are available in advance. www.musicboxtheatre.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.