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Christine Wicker

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Learning to Talk About God and Sex

Posted: 09/27/10 09:34 PM ET

For all the shouting back and forth we hear in the media over gay marriage and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the issue at the heart of all the rancor -- what the Bible says about homosexuality -- is still remarkably difficult for everyday people to talk about.

No wonder, since it involves two subjects that easily scare the bejeebers out of folks: God and sex.

Fear has a stifling effect, and for some time, that silence has accompanied the business of tearing apart families, communities, churches, and, some would argue, perhaps even the whole of Christianity.

When Daniel Karslake set out to make his 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, all he wanted to do was start the conversation, because he believed there was power in talking. He attracted some big names to the project: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Gene Robinson, the Episcopal church's first openly gay bishop. But the core of the film is really the intimate stories of Christian families, including Gephardt's and Robinson's, who discovered they didn't have to choose between their faith and their gay children.

Remarkably, when most documentaries would have come and gone, For the Bible Tells Me So is still riding a wave of momentum three years since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Screenings are going on around the country and as far away as China, Chile and Botswana, and the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly has put it in the company of An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove, two Oscar winners, as one of "Five Movies That Changed the World."

It has earned audience awards at nine major film festivals, but most of its success has truly been word of mouth, which is proof enough that it's doing exactly what Karslake had hoped. Even more powerfully, from the countless stories and testimonies he's heard, he knows the film has reached into people's hearts. It's given them the courage to start talking and, for that matter, listening.

Now, with the release of a companion study program, the film seems destined to stretch its reach even further.

The publisher of the study, Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, had nothing to do with the making of For the Bible Tells Me So. Impressed by the message of the film, they approached Karslake's production team with the idea. A trustworthy guide to accompany the film could bring the conversation to people and into places that might otherwise shy away in fear.

The result is a six-week course for individual and small-group study called "This I Know," a title that (like the movie) borrows from the familiar children's hymn "Jesus Loves Me." It suits the material well because, from start to finish, the study is an invitation to move beyond fear and toward the radical, unconditional love that Christ modeled.

With the film setting the standard, Northaven assembled another stellar roster of contributors (all of whom donated original work) to act as guides along the path.

Brian McLaren, the innovative evangelical thinker and "godfather" of the emerging church movement, begins with an essay on fear that makes the important point, often missing in gay rights arguments, that opposition to homosexuality isn't just about homophobia.

Indeed, fear arrives in so many other guises. There's the fear endured by families sitting in the pews, terrified they'll be ostracized if their church finds out about their gay son or daughter or brother or sister. Among many Christians, there's the fear that engaging the issue will create even more division in the church. For McLaren, there was the fear "of being criticized and judged by my fellow conservative Christians if I changed my views, and the fear of being criticized and judged by progressive Christians if I didn't change them."

Perhaps paramount, though, is the soul-wrenching fear of going against biblical authority, the fear that surely has created such a bitter stalemate in the debate. On one hand, if you truly believe Christianity condemns homosexuality, then you are bound by your faith to embrace this belief, even if your heart and experience tell you something different. On the other hand, if you truly believe homosexuality is not a sin, then how can you possibly embrace Christianity?

This is the dilemma that has vast numbers of young people -- the majority of whom, polls show, consider homosexuality to be a non-issue -- rejecting Christianity. And that has many wondering, me included, just what future awaits a church that drives away the next generation.

Meanwhile, the majority of Christians are stuck in the middle, frozen in their fears, perhaps replaying the pulpit admonitions they heard as children but resisting deeper reflection.

As a writer who has researched evangelical Christianity in depth, I don't believe this "mushy middle" is found exclusively in mainstream churches. I've talked to too many conservative Christians who've told me the same thing. They tend to tune out the sermons that preach against homosexuality. It's an issue, they say, that's just too contentious, too confusing, too discomforting to think about.

"This I Know" meets these people where they are, in the middle, with a tempered and even-handed approach. There's no doubt it has a particular point of view, but it respectfully beckons its participants into discernment and discussion rather than dragging them by the collar into some ideological corner. "Gay agenda" - whatever that loaded phrase means - is hardly what came to mind as I read it.

Most impressive to me was the essay written by Roberta Showalter Kreider, a devout Mennonite now in her eighties who grew up believing homosexuals were destined for an eternity in hell. After her beloved younger brother died of AIDS in 1984, she spent the next 10 years praying for God to send her other homosexuals so she could help them save their souls. But when a neighboring Mennonite church flouted policy and began welcoming same-sex couples, she felt her soul stirring in an unexpected direction. Tentatively, she began seeking out and listening to the stories of the homosexual Mennonites who attended the nearby church.

"Confronting the reality of people's integrity," she writes, "makes it difficult to judge or condemn."

She discovered, as the families in Karslake's film did, that one can be both wholly gay and a holy Christian. She also came to a new understanding of sin as "anything that harms another person." She could find "no harm in the loving, committed relationships" she encountered in her expanding circle of gay and lesbian friends.

Kreider's story is a vivid expression of Christ's love by example, but renowned Jesus scholar Marcus Borg offers the theological underpinning in the study's final lesson:

"For Christians, the Bible is not the ultimate Word of God, nor the ultimate moral authority. Rather, Jesus is, and the Bible is second in importance to him. From its very beginning, Christianity has affirmed that Jesus is 'the Word of God' become flesh, incarnate in a human life (John 1). This, not biblical absolutism, is ancient and traditional Christianity."

Borg challenges us: Learn "how not to fear and how to love." Learn "how to participate in God's passion for a different kind of world."

This message -- above all else, love -- is the mandate of Christian faith. It is what the world judges Christians by. And the hard truth is, if Christians can't rise to that mandate, they will never win the world.

Christianity is paying an enormous price for its numbers who fixate on the few scriptural passages that address sexual behavior in an ancient, oppressively patriarchal culture. This fixation diminishes Christ's life. It erodes the moral authority of Christianity, and that in turn, does harm to a wider society that needs all the moral authority it can get.

As my friend Jim Henderson, a spiritual "anthropologist" and author of Evangelism Without Additives, wryly summarizes: "I would just like for Jesus to have as much sway in society as Oprah does."

Collaboratively, For the Bible Tells Me So and "This I Know" finally put Christ back where he belongs in this issue -- front and center. It's in the context of his love that we can finally find our way through this mire and perhaps even reach the other side.

Now all we have to do is start talking.

The "This I Know" study, which includes a DVD copy of For the Bible Tells Me So, can be purchased at www.thisiknowstudy.org. The film's website is www.forthebibletellsmeso.org; the website for Karslake's upcoming documentary, Every Three Seconds, is www.everythreeseconds.net. Christine Wicker is the author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne, 2008). Her website is www.christinewicker.com.