The discussion board (literally a bulletin board) at Canadian Mennonite University is called The Wittenberg Door. While I was a student there in 2008, I watched a conversation about homosexuality erupt after I posted a “thank you/coming out” letter in support of bisexual people.
People who know me well won’t be surprised that one part of my soul said: “Yes! Pot successfully stirred!”
On the other hand, I was surprised that my simple affirmation touched off something of a firestorm. We (whether Christians or not) still have a long way to go toward actually being able to talk to each other— without fear—about our sexualities, lives and (a)theologies. There are issues of Biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, identity, politics, human rights, and even love that get so tangled up that it’s hard to separate the threads and have a clear, comprehensive, theologically literate, and loving conversation. (And yes, the length of the previous sentence was meant to prove the point!)
Soon after, I went to see a film called Save Me at ReelPride, Winnipeg’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival with others from an informal discussion group at CMU called Thursday Night Theology. I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest: probably a ringing ‘liberal’ endorsement of homosexuality against a conservative religious backdrop, complete with evasion of the biblical texts (as is the case, unfortunately, in Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks). But it wasn’t really that film (despite scant treatment of the Bible), and I was glad for the questions it raised, even while acknowledging the deep harm of so-called ‘reparative therapy’ in thousands of lives. (WARNING: Spoilers below!)
Chad Allen (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), himself a Christian, plays a troubled young man who is manipulated by his brother into attending a Christian 12-step group for healing homosexual orientation, led by Judith Light (Who’s the Boss?). Though initially he resists, Allen’s character finds a community where he is truly loved for the first time in his life. Things get complicated when Light, consumed with guilt over the death of her gay son, takes a special interest in him, particularly to protect him from the influence of Robert Gant (Queer as Folk US), a long-time program member with whom Allen falls in love.
Some viewers, understandably, may argue that Save Me is full of tired clichés and telegraphed dramatic moments; nevertheless, I found much to like, and to ponder, in this film. Somewhat predictably, the film opens with a tastefully filmed but vaguely disturbing (though still hot!) sex scene, intercut with a local congregation singing “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine.” As the scene progresses, we hear the hymn while watching the sex scene, and vice versa. Though I thought this was a profound theological statement, what it is probably depends on the viewer as much as the scene itself. Does God’s presence embrace us even during—especially during—the act of (gay) sex? (Let all the people say, “Amen!”) Or does God’s presence coax us out of sinful (gay) sexual acts and broken orientation into the knowledge that we are “born of His Spirit, washed in his blood”? (Let all the people say, “Amen!”) Is it something else?
Far from vilifying those who lead or those who participate(d) in ex-gay ministries or faith communities with a traditional Christian position on sexual ethics, the film struggles to portray all the characters as flawed but loving human beings just trying to hold on to something solid in a complicated world. But the film is also critical of the politicization of ex-gay ministries in the US culture wars. (The film was released before Exodus International shut itself down.)
Toward the film’s start, we see a member of “Genesis House” sitting across from the local congregation’s pastor, telling their stories and confessing their sins; only at the end of the film do we realise the true purpose of the interviews when the pastor asks Judith Light, “How much should I make the cheque out for?”
We’re left to wonder if everyone has been fully truthful. Have they testified a certain way to avoid censure? to maintain the community they’ve found? both? something else?
Although Allen and Gant leave the program as a couple, they don’t seem too distressed when a young teenage boy and his parents pass them by into Light’s welcoming arms. (That moment, in fact, was and is difficult for me—how do we find community without doing each other harm?)
This is not an easy film to watch, and it does not always resolve the questions it raises. But I think a film like Save Me—along with communities and conversations characterized by Generous Space—might allow the church to hear and reflect on a wider range of voices in the current (and often harrowing) debate.
If we are open, I am confident we will hear the voice of Jesus say, “You are mine, even and especially when you get it wrong.” Let all the people say, “Amen.”