Fish Out of Water (Dickens, 2010)

A Film by Ky Dickens

In the television show Cosmos astronomer Carl Sagan once famously opined that “to truly make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”

I suppose a Christian corollary would be that to truly make a Biblical argument, you must first develop a systematic theology.

Ky Dickens’s Fish Out of Water blends personal narrative, oral history, and academic investigation. The director tells her story of coming out as a lesbian only to be rejected by most of her friends (though ultimately accepted by one). She interviews several professional ministers and clerics, including Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, about their interpretations of Biblical passages commonly used to condemn homosexuality. Finally, she interviews a cross section of members of the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer) community who share their (mostly negative) experiences regarding how churches or Christians in their life have treated them.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a sixty minute film, and if I felt the film would have been stronger (and more effective) had it focused primarily on any one of those three threads, that’s not to say there were not pieces here and there that were genuinely thought provoking. While the film did not persuade me of the truthfulness of the director’s thesis—that an accurate and impartial investigation of the Bible shows that true Christianity does not condemn homosexuality—it does, perhaps, more than most films in this vein provide some hope that a reasoned, substantive debate about the issue might be possible.

The tag line of the film’s DVD cover asks the question, “What does the Bible really say about being gay?” Since the film is framed and marketed with the theological investigation taking prominence, the personal narratives often come across as appeals to emotion, effective at what they were doing (though perhaps less so than in a film like, say, Stonewall Uprising), but running the risk of appearing a red herring for the thinness of the argument surrounding the seven Biblical passages Dickens and her interviewees attempt to debunk.

It is understandable that Dickens would want to interview as many clerics or theologians as possible to avoid claims that the views of those she interviews are singular. Her doing so, however, reduces the interviews to sound bites and the interpretive claims are developed through repetition rather than through explanation or exposition. (This might be as good a place as any to stress that this doesn’t mean the claims are untrue; my goal is to review the film—including how cogently and effectively it presents its argument—not to participate in the debate from a partisan position.)

A good example might be in the section dealing with the book of Leviticus where the rebuttal of the passages amounts to the repeated claim that there are many prohibitions in the Levitical law (such as a prohibition against eating shellfish) that are no longer followed by those inside the church. While this is an adequate and reasonable point to make about the passage, it comes across a little as a bait and switch argument since the film here essentially is arguing not that the Bible doesn’t really say something but that the application of what it does say is inconsistent. Stated differently, one of the challenges confronting those who would challenge traditional interpretations and applications of certain passages in the Bible is that almost all interpretations (on either side) carry with them a bevy of assumptions about the nature of the Bible and how it should be correctly interpreted. Absent laying a foundation for a systematic, internally consistent approach to what the Bible is and how its parts relate (or don’t) to one another, the film may appear to some to do exactly what it accuses anti-homosexuality interpreters of doing: using isolated arguments to explain particular passages without looking at whether the assumptions embedded in those particular interpretations are consistent with one another, much less with other passages of the Bible.

This practice of proof-textual exposition may be more problematic to some Christians than a gay-tolerant reading. Two examples from the film might be when the interviewees emphasize that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality and when Bishop Spong shares his personal conjecture that Paul was a repressed gay man. The former claim carries an unexamined assumption that the Pauline epistles are somehow less authoritative (or inerrant) than the gospels. Again, I’m not stating that such  assumptions must be rejected out of hand by any reasonable investigator, but neither should they be accepted a priori as the foundation upon which the interpretive conclusion rests. The Spong passage, as well as being (needlessly, I think) polarizing, also tends to undercut the film’s effectiveness in other areas because it conflates speculative conjecture with academic exegesis.

All of this may be a long-winded way of saying I’m not the target audience for the film or that the film is not the one I would have been more engaged by. Certainly that hypothetical film would be more comprehensive and would have developed its arguments a bit more rather than simply repeating a series of  assertions. That said, there were two things about the film that I did appreciate.

The tone of the film is less strident than some contributions to the issue that I’ve encountered, and its ultimate plea (the DVD comes with a study guide outlining the passages dealt with in the film) feels less like “you will submit to my superior expository skills!” and more like “investigate the Bible on your own and come to your own conclusions rather than simply taking it for granted that what people say about it is accurate.”

Secondly, the film effectively prods the viewer (especially the Christian viewer) to confront the question of how well he or she really knows the Bible. I’ve certainly been around my share of evangelicals who will adopt the rhetoric of “the Bible says” or “the Bible teaches” without being able to specifically expound on a particular passage, much less explain what sort of consistent, coherent interpretive strategy governs their approach to the whole text. If some of rebuttals in Fish Out of Water appear all over the place, some might argue that this could be because so too are  the traditional cultural interpretations that frame the argument.

Much as with the abortion debate, the current status of debate over sexual orientation seems gridlocked in a series of what are essentially rebuttal arguments. I’m fond of telling my rhetoric or composition students that even a devastatingly effective rebuttal (and I’m not saying Fish Out of Water is that) does not ultimately validate the truthfulness of the opposing argument. Things can be true and poorly argued. Things can be logically argued and still be false. Dickens’s film implicitly raises the question (although it does not ask it overtly) of with whom the duty rests to make a comprehensive, affirmative argument. Some may say it lies with those sympathetic to gays and lesbians since they are the ones unhappy with the status quo. Yet one might just as easily say it lies (or should lie) with Christians who hold a traditionally negative view of homosexuality since they are the ones who claim in the first place that what the Bible says ought to be the determining factor on how we live our lives.

For that reason, I think it is significant that the tag line for the film is framed rhetorically as a question: “What does the Bible really say about being gay?” rather than a proclamation “What the Bible really says about being gay.” The latter would suggest that Dickens was trying to get the viewer to accede to her interpretation. The former suggests that what she is actually doing is asking the Christian whether or not he or she is willing to honestly explore his or her own. I’m not convinced that most Christians who do so will come to the same conclusions Dickens does, but I am willing to entertain the notion that an inability or unwillingness to address any issue in a thoughtful, clear and self-examining manner is more likely to result in beliefs that reinforce one’s own inclinations than in ones that can effectively form the foundation of debate, persuasion, and just public policy.

(Disclosure: First Run Features provided a press screener of this film to 1More Film Blog.)

About Kenneth R. Morefield
  • Wade

    Ken,

    I saw the film last night, and agree with your review here. I was particular struck by your statement that ‘I’m not the target audience for the film’, as I think that is true of myself. I viewed the film trying to put myself in the place of my parents who were brought up in traditional Baptist and Lutheran understandings of the Bible and how it is to be a guide to us in our lives. I think the ‘raising questions’ aspects of the film would definitely cause them to do some investigating on their own.

    I think there were really only two clergy who spoke for the traditional (anti-same-sex) interpretations, and having one of them be Fred Phelps makes it clear that the filmmaker wasn’t necessarily interested in bringing the most engaged pastors or theologians from the traditional viewpoint.


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