For The Bible Tells Me So
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the guys talk about what's what in the barber shop. But first, our weekly faith matters conversation. If you're a parent, you may have had this conversation or maybe you know someone who has. A beloved child comes to you and says he or she is gay. Now if you're also a person of faith, you may be wondering, is this a path to true-self identity or to damnation? Or is there something in between? What does the bible say?
A documentary out this month in select theaters across the country looks at five Christian families and how each responded when a child came out of the closet. It's titled "For the Bible Tells Me So" and two of its subjects are with us now. Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of the diocese of New Hampshire is here in our Washington studio. He is the first openly gay bishop ordained by the Episcopal Church in the U.S. It's an ordination that's still the subject of passionate disagreement in the church worldwide. And Brenda Poteat, she and her husband are ministers at Faith Harvest Church Ministries, a predominantly African-American church in Burlington, North Carolina. Their daughter Tanya came out several years ago. Brenda Poteat joins us from member station WUNC in Durham. Welcome to both of you.
Reverend BRENDA POTEAT (Minister, Faith Harvest Church Ministries): Hi.
Bishop GENE ROBINSON (Episcopal Bishop, Diocese of New Hampshire): Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: Is this the first time you two are talking?
Rev. POTEAT: Yes.
Bishop ROBINSON: It is who I — I've certainly admired Brenda and her husband but only from the movie. So we have never met and it's a joy to be on this show with her.
MARTIN: I'm glad that you're both here with us together. Even though we're in different cities, we're all together so thank you for this.
Bishop Robinson, before we talk about your parents, I would like to talk with you a little bit about what it's been like for you to come out of the closet both as a gay man but also as a great public religious leader.
Bishop ROBINSON: It's been an astounding experience mostly because God has seemed so very close during all of this. People say, well, how are you doing? or do you regret this? And I always say, how could I possibly regret any experience that brings me closer to God? And given all the controversy and so I don't think I could've gotten through this without God's loving presence.
The other thing that I'm a bit fascinated by and somewhat relates to this movie that Brenda and I are in, is that in some odd way I think the Episcopal Church is reacting to me the way any family reacts when one their kids comes out as gay or lesbian. There's a wide range of emotions as, you know, denial and anger and grief and sadness and all of that, and then in some odd way I think the whole church is responding in much the same way that a family does when a son or daughter says, mom, dad, I'm gay.
MARTIN: Brenda, what do you think about that? Do you think that's true?
Rev. POTEAT: I guess, as an adult, when you come out, the church would be your family and would react to you in that way. I guess you're right about that. I have never really thought about it but that seems plausible.
MARTIN: It's interesting because you all have different roles in this film. In the film, Gene is the child and Reverend Poteat, in the film, you are the parent. It's your daughter who is the person who has come out and - let's start with Gene's story.
Gene, you talk about the fact that you grow up with parents - I think it was your grandfather or your great grandfather had been one of the founders of the church that you grew up in, and that you were always rooted in this church as the floor beams.
Bishop ROBINSON: Yes, I was about the eighth or ninth generation actually in this small rural parish in Nicholasville, Kentucky. And so for me to question that in any way and then to ultimately joined the Episcopal Church seemed like a rejection but for me, the Episcopal Church was a kind of fulfillment. It added history and liturgy to the religion that I had grown up with. But, you know, I still go back and worship at that church. I love it. It's a - it is where my roots are and after all they gave me the foundation and scripture that serves me to this day.
MARTIN: And your father in the film - your parents admit to being a little confused when you came out but they seemed to take it pretty well. Here's a clip from your father.
(Soundbite of movie "For the Bible Tells Me So")
Unidentified Man: We didn't know about gay people really. I think northern people accept gay people a lot better than the south does. So we got a couple of books and read about gay folks and we try to learn all we could about it.
MARTIN: Was it really that smooth? And do you think it was luck or perhaps grace that your parents were able to accept your sexuality?
Bishop ROBINSON: It was certainly grace and it took a very long time. I mean, what's wonderful for me about this movie is that this is 21 years later and the journey that my parents have been on and where they have come with this is just so astounding to me. I often remind adults who are coming out that - like in my case it took me 39 years to admit who I was and to come to grips with it, and to affirm that God loves me. And then the very next day I expect my parents to catch up on what took me 39 years to learn. And now I've been alive and they've been alive long enough that they have really made this journey with me and I think my story and all the stories in the movie are really about the triumph of a parent's love for their child over - whatever else they believe.
MARTIN: Reverend Poteat, this journey has been a more recent one for you. Would you mind telling me what it was like for you when your daughter came out to you?
Rev. POTEAT: It was devastating and it's been longer than you think, she told me when she was 20. She came in my bedroom where we've had mother-and-daughter time together. She was home from school. And she had talked about seeing some lesbian activity in her sleep and I think that was her way of trying to tell me that she was a - believed that she was lesbian. And she told me and I immediately, you know, her future was planned. She had a fantastic future ahead of her and as Gene said or his father said, being in the South, there was condemnation - not conviction but condemnation - on homosexuality. And I thought you have screwed your life. And I told her that, I said, don't you tell anybody, it's just a phase you're going through. Don't open your mouth. I'm not telling your dad, we're not telling anybody. You'll get through this.
MARTIN: Was your concern theological because you believed that she is damned? Is your concern political in part? You know what, life is harder enough as an African-American woman and you don't need anything else is your concern?
Rev. POTEAT: And that's what she tells me that - right, that's what I felt more political than spiritual at the time. She told me because when she came out to me we were not ministers, and that was one of the things that she said to me, mom, I know how hard this is going to be. Do you think this is something that I would choose? Because I told her that, I said, you just had some bad relationships. You've been looking for your relationships to make you happy. You have to be happy within yourself and you don't need to do this to seek happiness.
MARTIN: And is it fair to say that it's still a source of a gap or a breach in your relationship?
Rev. POTEAT: She knows that I do not agree with it but I have changed in a lot of my thoughts and attitudes about homosexuality and I don't think that there's a breach there that there had been at one time accept...
MARTIN: Here's a clip from her from the film. Let's play it and see what you think.
Rev. POTEAT: Okay.
(soundbite of movie "For the Bible Tells Me So")
TANYA POTEAT (daughter of Reverend Poteat): We were kind of both walking on eggshells around each other in our conversation and I'm embarrassed making a commitment to each other that we wouldn't do that anymore, that we would say what we felt, say what we thought, not just in ourselves, just in that effort, just kind of be present with each other in a relationship.
Rev. POTEAT: That's right. You know, we have learned to lovingly disagree, we have learned - we're not on eggshells any longer but she knows what pushes my button and I know what pushes hers. I have learned to accept her partner. When I look at the relationship at more than how a person has sex then I was able to feel a little differently. I was - it was just like an eye-opener for me, that she was still the same person that she was before she came out to me. And her sexual life was her private life and that's how I dealt with it.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about "For the Bible Tells Me So." It's a new documentary about the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality.
Reverend Poteat, I still have to ask, though, for your part - now once you got pass the politics of it and realizing that she can function, right, as a young woman in the world, she can function, nobody's, you know, following her in the street and stoning her - there is a spirit aspect to work with…
Rev. POTEAT: That's right.
MARTIN: …and for you, this is fundamentally what, this is just fundamentally, morally wrong?
Rev. POTEAT: Right. I believe that - first of all, sex is for the marriage bed and that is something that God gave us, not only to enjoy, but to procreate. And everybody who's married does not procreate, but that's - they can if they want to or if there's some other reason that they can't, some medical reason. I just don't think this is what - it's what God intended. I really do not. I know that He loves her, Gene and everyone else, because we're all His children. I don't think the love of God - we lose the love of God because they are - we are homosexual, or liars, or cheats, or whatever. But I just don't - I cannot believe that it is right.
MARTIN: And Reverend Poteat, if I may, how do you address the argument that God does not make mistakes?
Rev. POTEAT: Because - oh, I can't say that God did this. What I'm saying is, we choose our life's path on a lot of time. And I'm not comparing a person who's homosexual or a person who's a robber or a thief, but they know that's wrong. They'll know they'll be ostracized, but sometimes they just choose to do that.
MARTIN: And you feel fundamentally this is a choice?
Rev. POTEAT: Right.
MARTIN: Bishop Robinson, how do you grapple with the question of fundamental values, fundamental right and wrong? There are those who argue that people who question the Bible's instruction on this point are selectively interpreting the material in ways that they don't tolerate for other things that they agree with. You know, you don't argue about whether it's right to kill or not to kill. You don't argue about whether it's right to commit adultery, and you sort of accept that. And then this is an area in which you're just choosing to interpret the Bible according to your wish. What do you say to that?
Bishop ROBINSON: Well, actually, we do argue about some of those things. The Bible is pretty clear in the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not kill, yet we would make exceptions in cases of self-defense. We obviously make exceptions in times of war. So what, at first, appears very clear and very simple often turns out not to be. And…
Rev. POTEAT: I agree.
Bishop ROBINSON: …I think most of us really do interpret the scripture, in the sense that even by picking and choosing what we focus on, I think, that is somewhat of an interpretation. And I - you know, I do believe the Bible to be the word of God. I would say that I don't believe them to be the words of God. That is to say I don't believe they were dictated by God, word for word, and, therefore, are somewhat bound by the culture in which they were written.
So, for instance, everyone in biblical times was understood to be heterosexual. So to act in a same-sex manner was thought to be against your nature. And it was only about 125 years ago that the whole notion that a certain minority of us might actually be born with a same-sex orientation. And - so that's a very new concept. And to read that back into an ancient text does the text violence. So, you know, I believe that the Bible states exactly what people believed was true of God in that particular culture. But we've changed our minds about a lot of things since those times. For instance, we - until 150 years ago, we were using scripture to justify slavery; we've used it for the subjugation of women.
MARTIN: To justify beating women.
Bishop ROBINSON: Absolutely. You know, Jesus says that - right before He dies, on the night before He died for us, He says to His disciples, there are things that I want to teach you but you're not ready to hear them.
Rev. POTEAT: Right.
Bishop ROBINSON: So I will give you the Holy Spirit, who will lead you into all truth. So I believe that there were things that we weren't ready to hear yet. And so I believe in a living God, who didn't stop revealing God's self when the scripture was closed, but continues to reveal God's self. I know Jesus in my own life. He is as alive and well and living here as I am.
Rev. POTEAT: Amen.
Bishop ROBINSON: And I believe that the spirit might be, at least might be, teaching us something new here, leading us into the truth that Jesus said He would.
MARTIN: Reverend Poteat?
Rev. POTEAT: You know, I agree with what he said. I know that God left the - Jesus left the Holy Spirit here for us, and unless the Holy Spirit interprets the word for us, we don't get interpretation from it. It's not anything that we can do on our own. But he said the Bible is the word of God; not God's words, but the word of God. And I believe that God does not change. I think that through the Holy Spirit, we do learn things that may not have been happening in, quote, "biblical times," but I think that if we stood on that solely, we couldn't on the foundation that the Bible can answer all questions for here, for now, and forever more.
MARTIN: Do you believe that it is possible - that it will be possible for people of faith to be reconciled on this issue, and I don't mean just in the sense of being cordial to each other in a way that you all clearly are, and loving toward each other in the way that you clearly are, and toward members of your families with whom you have had some breach - but truly, spiritually, and theologically reconcile?
Reverend Poteat, do you foresee that being possible?
Rev. POTEAT: Truly, spiritually reconcile. No.
Bishop ROBINSON: Well, if I weren't hopeful about almost everything, it would be hard for me to…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Bishop ROBINSON: …claim the name Christian, because I believe that being Christian is about hope. And I do believe that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, as the scripture tells us. And I don't know when it will happen. It may not be in my lifetime. But, yes, I actually do believe it will happen because I think, in the end, God will welcome us back home and somehow, in God's good time, this will work itself out. And I - but the important part is that we love each other in the meantime.
Rev. POTEAT: That's right.
Bishop ROBINSON: And I think that's what this movie is so powerful about is that, in the meantime, while we're trying to figure all this out we're going to hold on to one another and love one another no matter what.
MARTIN: Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire. He was here with us in our Washington studio. We're also joined by Brenda Poteat, minister at Faith Harvest Ministries in Burlington, North Carolina.
Reverend Poteat, Bishop Robinson, it's a pleasure to speak with you both. Thank you so much.
Bishop ROBINSON: Thank you.
Rev. POTEAT: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.