Fish Out Of Water

First Run Features,

Ky Dickens

Rev. Dr. James Bankston, Frederick Clarkson,
Rev. Dr. Sheldon Culver, Rev. Gregory Dell, retired, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, Rev. Dr. John Fellers, Pastor David Ickes, Dr. Amy Jill Levine, Rev. Marilyn Meeker-Williams, Rev. Dr. Fred Niedner, Rev. Fred Phelps, Bishop Dr. John Shelby Spong, Dr. Linda Thomas

Unrated, 60 minutes

Lost In Translation
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, May 2010

There can never be enough documentaries to address this subject. Fish Out Of Water, directed by Ky Dickens, explores the dangerous consequences of interpreting the Bible too literally. Throughout history, passages in the Bible have been used to justify slavery and segregation, and to deny the rights of women. Now it is being used to condone institutionalized homophobia. What's an Inquisition without a victim, right?

But what does the Bible really say about homosexuality? Yes, the Book of Leviticus does state that a man shall not lay with another man for it is an abomination, but another verse in the same chapter calls for the execution of children who curse their parents. Eating shellfish is also a definite no-no, as is wearing clothes woven from two different fabrics, and men touching their wives when they're menstruating. It would seem to be a no-brainer that much of what is written in the Bible was meant for another time vastly different from today. It is also a given that many pious church officials and their flocks pick and choose the passages of the Bible that they want to follow in much the same way that the Bush administration cherry-picked the intel that justified the war in Iraq. There are over 6000 passages in the Bible and only seven remotely refer to homosexuality. Fish Out Of Water employs numerous theologians - all of them straight I might add - who place these controversial passages into the context of their times.

Our guide is filmmaker Ky Dickens. She tells us that, while attending Vanderbilt University, a conservative Bible Belt school, she came out during her senior year. Instead of being accepted by her sorority sisters, she was told that she was going to Hell. Tired of feeling "like a fish out of water," she consulted numerous ministers and theologians. They all agreed that the Bible has been grossly misinterpreted and, from these experts, she learned more about theology, Biblical language translation and Jesus' teachings in three weeks than she had learned in 12 years of Sunday School. Their scholarship is juxtaposed with stories told by gay and lesbian youth about the ways in which they have tried to reconcile their faith when faced with the rampant forces of religious discrimination. Most admit that they're clueless about what the Bible really says about being gay and have always just believed what they were told.

Because these seven Biblical passages are often used as the basis for standards of morality and legislation, Dickens argues that it is necessary to discover exactly what these verses say and determine the context in which they were written. The meat of the movie is the section in which these ancient passages are broken down by various theologians. These passages are:

Genesis 1:1-31 and Chapters 2-3 - Adam & Eve
(be fruitful and multiply)
Genesis 19:1-29 - Sodom and Gomorrah
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 - Man shall not lay with
another man
Romans 1:26-27 - Exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones
1 Timothy 1:9-10 - Laws are not for the righteous but for the sinners (and who these sinners are)
1 Corinthians 6:9 - Those who will not inherit the
kingdom of God

Most of this was not new territory to me (see also the more comprehensive 2008 documentary For The Bible Tells Me So) but what interested me the most in this film was when the ministers broke down words from the original Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) and discussed the ways they have been mis-translated and misinterpreted over the ages. I offer here one of the examples: 1 Timothy 1:9-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 both list a lengthy roster of sinners in which "those who defile themselves with mankind" (King James translation) are lumped with the worst of the worst. According to the film's talking heads, both verses are used to teach that queers are going to Hell. However, translations of the original Greek text are problematic. The original Greek word is Arsenokoitai. This word only appears in these two passages and nowhere else in the New Testament. One expert tells us that arsen means male, another explains that koitai means bed and guesses that this made people translate Arsenokoitai as "men in bed" or "bedding men." This archaic, and very vague, word that no one knows the real meaning of has appeared in different translations of the Bible as sodomite, effeminate, sexually perverted, sin against nature, and homosexual - which is especially interesting when you consider that the word homosexual wasn't coined until the 1800s.

The Sodom and Gomorrah story is retold in great detail. The actual sin of Sodom is never mentioned in the tale itself but readers are able to gleam from other Bible passages that the sin was not homosexuality; it was the refusal to help strangers. For one of the experts consulted in the film, the real sin of the story is when Lot offers his two virgin daughters to be gang-raped by the men of Sodom who gather outside his home. This same theologian provides the film's funniest moment when she recounts the end of the story - about how Lot's two daughters got their father drunk and then had incestuous sex with him while he was passed out so that they could become pregnant - and then says "And that story is used to condemn homosexuality???"

It is these scholarly moments that stood out the most for me. This is a pretty good primer on the subject but, truth be told, it barely scratches the surface. For starters, Fish Out Of Water is only an hour long and it feels very rushed - like a Reader's Digest Condensed Book with much of the nuance removed. I have no doubt that many people will learn much from this film but this reviewer has a few issues with the way that the material is presented.

A good part of the film, especially its autobiographical interludes and Biblical stories, is animated. These crude cartoon sequences might make the film more accessible to some viewers but the cutesy tone irritates after awhile. The animation makes the Bible passages look even sillier than they are - this was probably the director's intention and I have no problem with that. This approach provides a good giggle now and then, but it also impacts the ability to take the film seriously as academia. The more traditional sequences utilize talking heads, news footage and clips from those old hysteria-inducing instructional films (think "Duck and Cover") that once were used to brainwashed schoolchildren.
Fish Out Of Water preaches to the choir but, in an effort to at least appear impartial, the director includes interview footage with two dissenters to represent the other side. One of them is the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (as he takes a few minutes off from picketing funerals). Phelps - who I have always thought was separated at birth from the evil preacher in the Poltergeist movies - uses such colorful metaphors as "Hellbound beasts" to describe the LGBT community. I'd like to point out that Phelps reveals himself to be anti-Semitic as well as homophobic when he says "I don't know how you got that way you dirty lowdown sneaking criminal Jew but you better stop it if you want to get to Heaven." When juxtaposed against the more scholarly talking heads, no one with a brain could possibly take this man seriously. He comes across as a bigoted buffoon, and can almost be considered the film's comic relief.
The many experts employed by the film all emphasize that Saint Paul, who wrote a good chunk of the New Testament, never conceived of loving and nurturing relationships between two men or two women (but would have been very familiar with issues of the day like "temple prostitution.") His teachings have to be read in the context of their time; Paul also disapproved of women being ministers. As far as Jesus' teachings go, he never spoke out against homosexuality. He was always on the side of the marginalized; Jesus went around restoring people to the community and many modern church leaders are throwing people out of the community instead. Many of those interviewed explain that some pastors are so concerned with unity, and keeping the flock together, that they will remain silent about the moral issues of our times, such as the war in Iraq or gay marriage. Some pastors have been silenced for their pro-gay views while others received death threats. Others courageously take a stand and so there are many uplifting glimpses of gay weddings scattered throughout the film.

Fish Out Of Water is an obvious labor of love. I would have liked its tone to be a bit more serious but its light touch might actually help it find more of an audience. I have my quibbles, but its message is an important one. If Fish Out Of Water helps even one parent leap beyond selective church teachings to accept his or her gay child, or one legislator stop voting against gay rights, then the film has achieved its purpose.


See also:
For The Bible Tells Me So
Sole Journey