Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, June 04, 2012

Love Free or Die movie

The new documentary about Bishop Gene Robinson, Love Free or Die, having won a special award at Sundance, was screened this week at the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF). It was my first opportunity to see it. The best and most moving scenes, from my point of view, were 1) the joyful water “fight” on the beach with two gay parents, their four sons, and Bishop Tom Shaw; and 2) the ten-minute, apparently unscripted, prayerful silence on the floor of the Episcopal General Convention after the vote to allow openly gay people to be ordained (it reminded me of the similar silence before the vote for women’s ordination was announced, at the 1976 General Convention).

After the screening, the audience stayed for a Q & A with one of the two principal filmmakers, Sandy Itkoff. The question that struck me was this (I think I can reproduce more or less the same words as those of the questioner):
I don’t know much about the Bible. You have framed the debate in terms of civil rights. Why did you decide to do that without any reference to what the Bible says about this issue?
The answer was partly inaudible, but I did not get the impression that it was particularly substantive. The filmmaker described himself as “not religious” and seemed to be saying that the decision to ignore biblical passages and theological discussion was made deliberately in order to streamline the film’s overall message of impassioned support for Bishop Robinson’s cause (that’s my interpretation, not his actual words).

The point I want to make is this. We have not had the necessary theological discussion. I say this from a moderate, perhaps even an “evolving” position; but I for one will never be able to “evolve” fully until and unless we have the theological discussion. As long as the matter of homosexuality is framed by the church in terms of civil justice, we stand guilty of allowing our own fundamental teaching to be hijacked by secular trends.

Why has sexual (both hetero- and homosexual) restraint been so highly valued in the Judeo-Christian tradition? What does it mean that this value has almost disappeared in the last forty years? What do we have to say about this phenomenon? What exactly is Christian marriage anyway? What is the relationship of “male and female” to the image of a self-giving God going out to the Other? Is homosexuality a “normal variant of human sexuality” as some have said? Or is there something fundamental in the “order of creation” as it has been traditionally understood? What is the meaning of “so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (RSV)? (The NRSV translates as follows: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” I am persuaded by those who know both the Hebrew and the nuances of grammar—Vernard Eller in particular—that the RSV is more faithful to the original than the NRSV—the latter translation has sacrificed the subtlety of the shifting pronouns in the interests of “inclusive language.”)

I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think the Name of Jesus Christ was uttered a single time in the film. Certainly Bishop Robinson did not use the Name in either of the prayers he offered in the film (and it seemed very odd to me that he kept looking out at the assembled multitudes as he read his prayer for Obama’s inauguration, as if he were addressing them instead of God). I don’t think Scripture was ever quoted by Bishop Robinson, except once (again, I may be wrong) when he said he was quoting (not quite accurately) from John’s Gospel when he meant the first Epistle of John. Other than that, the message was largely indistinguishable from those put forward by the culture at large. In other words, there was nothing specifically theological in the entire movie. Bishop Shaw, a celibate gay monk, comes off well, and I know him to be a thoughtful and generous Christian leader who does not demonize anyone, but even he seemed to slip when he said “we are worthy,” when the traditional biblical affirmation is the universal confession, “Lord, I am not worthy to come under thy roof, but say the word only…”

If there is a hero in the movie besides Bishop Robinson, it’s Bishop Barbara Harris, known for her acerbic tongue and disdain for all who hold otherwise (speaking of her peers at the General Convention, she says, “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport”). She is given a larger speaking role than most, and is presented as wholly admirable. Given the purposes of the moviemakers, it’s understandable, but the “loyal opposition” figures appear almost as caricatures of themselves. No attempt was made to flesh them out. Bishop Duncan occupies his usual role as the heavy (I don’t need to dwell on the tiny hate group from Kansas that plays its outsize part on every official occasion). Particularly reduced onscreen was Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana, a highly conscientious and principled man who for many years has pleaded for a biblical and theological discussion only to be patronized and dismissed (maybe he wouldn’t put it that way, but that’s the way I see it). He is depicted in the film as a lonely figure shunted aside by history. As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, a major intellectual and scholar who has been dealt an impossible hand, he appears several times, but is allowed almost nothing significant to say.

This film was at least six years in the making, and obviously cost a good deal of money. It is a professional and artful product, with a well-constructed narrative arc. It just seems sad to me that the filmmakers could not have taken the more difficult path of examining the debate in all its painful detail, instead of offering what amounts to a hagiography.