DEEP FOCUS: "For the Bible Tells Me So"

Jacob P. Reitan, a student at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS), shocked his traditional Minnesotan Lutheran parents when he came out in high school. Today, the Reitans get arrested together, protesting on the frontlines for gay rights in the church.

The new documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So,” directed by Daniel Karslake, tells the story of five different Christian families, the Reitans included, dealing with the sexual orientations of their children. Some are more supportive than others. The five families come from all spectrums of life: one is a southern black family of preachers, and others include gay Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson, political bigwig Dick Gephardt, and a woman whose daughter committed suicide after she came out.

Interspersed throughout the families’ personal stories are clips of multiple Christian evangelicals preaching on the sinfulness of homosexuality, a cartoon explaining the science behind being gay, and a scene in which leading theologians debate the Bible’s stance on homosexuality.

Karslake tapped two Harvard affiliates, Professor Peter J. Gomes ’68 and Reverend Irene Monroe (a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Divinity School), for their expertise.

While working for the PBS news magazine “In the Life,” Karslake profiled Monroe, and their interaction served as a catalyst for the documentary.

Many factors contributed to the film’s lineup. According to Reitan, Monroe led Karslake to Gomes, who in turn got Bishop Robinson involved.

“That was the main impetus of the movie,” Reitan said in a sit-down interview with the Crimson. “He wanted Bishop Robinson’s story to be told. I think from there it sort of grew, people would recommend people.”

Reitan’s mother first got him involved with the activism portrayed in the film. “We are a fairly religious family, a Lutheran family,” said Reitan. “After I came out, it was very important for my mother in particular to see that the Lutheran Church changed on this issue.”

She discovered an organization called Soulforce, a non-violent resistance group dedicated to ending gay bigotry with religious roots, and was unbowed in the face of the group’s arrest record. Her drive inspired Reitan to take a more active stance.

“She said, ‘Well I don’t know about the arrests, but their message is right on, and they’re the only organization that I know that will really be doing major demonstrations there, and I’d like to be a part of it. Your father and I are going and we’d like you to come,’” he said.

Along with his family, Reitan attended a Washington, D.C. demonstration for gay rights. Karslake’s cameras went along for the protest, which featured the Reitans reading an open letter to Jim Dobson, founder of evangelical group Focus on the Family. True to form, the family got arrested while trying to deliver the letter to Dobson.

Reitan saw the movie together with Gomes, who is also his thesis advisor. Gomes did not remember filming the scenes Karslake used in the film. “I get many request for interviews, and I’m sure this one was among them,” said Gomes. “I have to confess this was not at the front of my memory and I had to be reminded that I was in it.”

Both Gomes and Reitan agree that Karslake’s film is important. “I was very impressed. I though it was a very good movie,” said Gomes.

But Gomes voiced concern as well. “My only fear about the movie is that it is, as we say in the trade, preaching to the choir,” he said. “I fear that the only people who will see it are the people who are sympathetic.”

According to Reitan, people who have been through similar struggles with acceptance are most affected by the film. His mother frequently attends screenings in Minneapolis, where she is often recognized.

“Gay men come up to my mom in tears saying, ‘I so wish my mother would have been able to get to the point you’re at,’” Reitan said.

At one showing his mother saw what appeared to be a bearded homeless man crying in the theatre. “After the show ended, she realized it was Ian McKellen,” said Reitan. The actor, who is also gay, was in town playing “King Lear,” hence the beard.

“I think someone like Ian McKellen gets it on a level that other people just can’t,” said Reitan. “He’s been through it. He’s experienced it.”

But that’s not enough. Reitan stressed that people cannot go on being satisfied with the status quo, and motivating activism is central to the movie’s goals. “For a straight person who just feels, ‘Wow, it’s a different age, we’re in the age of ‘Will and Grace,’ things are better, things are great—to go see this movie and understand that there’s still a big battle to be fought,” he said.

Homosexuality and religion has been the subject of many of Gomes’ works since 1991. “I became interested in it because I am a gay person and I’ve had to deal with relationships between homosexuality and the Christian faith for a very long time,” he said.

“So the Bible Tells Me So,” at the very least, will influence the cultural climate. Added Gomes, “I hope it gets a wide circulation, and it actually will cause people who wouldn’t be thinking otherwise to think.”

—Staff writer Candace I. Munroe can be reached at cimunroe@fas.harvard.edu.