Fewer subjects at the intersection of faith and culture are more inflammatory than that of changing sexual orientation. According to summaries at Wikipidea, estimates in competing studies about how many people could successfully change their sexual orientation range from 66% to 3%. As with so many passionately debated topics, even just finding unfiltered information is a challenge. Definitions are hotly contested. Claims and counter claims of bias are argued even more strenuously than claims about the subject itself.
In such a landscape, it’s probably important to emphasize that Sing Over Me isn’t an argument. In Christian terms, it is a testimony or a witness. Christian music composer Dennis Jernigan relates how he found “healing” and “restoration” from his own struggles with homosexual desire. He says little but implies much about what his own story means for those who see no sin in being gay and those who do but think their orientation is unchangeable.
Before the reservations, the good stuff–and there is some important good stuff here. Jernigan relates powerfully and palpably the crippling effects of condemnation, both that which comes from within and that which comes from others. If there is a message to heterosexuals, and I think there is, it is that our first and most important duty towards gay people is love them and let them know that God does too. The people who were most instrumental in influencing Jernigan’s life in a positive way were those who prayed for him, shared their beliefs about how God would use him and his music to bless other believers, and vowed to love and support him as he sought God’s will for his life and not just after he had enacted it.
Jernigan avoids labels for what he is, emphasizing the he rejects the labels of ex-homosexual or “recovering” homosexual. The latter is a label that comes from conceptualizing homosexuality as a disease, and while he doesn’t specifically renounce such a conceptualization, he only really speaks of his own sexuality in religious terms.
That terminology, while wresting Jernigan’s story away from the most overt circles where it could serve as propaganda is still problematic, however, because language is almost never neutral. Jernigan speaks of homosexual desires as “temptations” from which it is possible to be “set free.” He characterizes time spent as a practicing homosexual as “living in depravity.” His most problematic statement, for me, was that God “loved me enough to not leave me there.”
While it is great that the film avoids implying that those who do not want to be gay but remain so are simply not strong or willing enough to break free, doing so appears to inadvertently lay the groundwork for a claim that they are less loved by God. God’s love is measureless; Dennis Jernigan appears to understand that better than most Christians. Even if one accepts a model where all homosexual activity is sinful, why God would (or does) deliver some practitioners out of it and not others is as much a mystery as why God does or does not answer any prayer for deliverance from any perceived bondage.
The film also floats–albeit very, very tentatively–a reverse persecution argument. Jernigan’s claim that he has contemplated the possibility that he may live to see a day where “telling my own story” is considered “a hate crime” was the one place in the film that made me roll my eyes.
Yet for the most part the film sidesteps playing to controversy by relying heavily on Jernigan’s earnest delivery and sincere demeanor. I would have liked to have seen and heard more about Jernigan’s process in writing music. His insight that “all the psalmists were just bluntly honest with the Lord” resonated deeply with me and would appear to have implications for all Christians, not just those wrestling with the issue of same-sex attraction. Such is the way with many biographical documentaries; they argue that people should not be reduced to one thing but often have difficulty representing the their subjects as multifaceted.
Sing Over Me challenged many of my assumptions about sexual orientation, and I was glad I saw it for that very reason. I don’t mind films that take a stand contrary to popular opinion so long as they are not overly bombastic. The writing, editing, and direction are professional quality. A more amateur hand might tend to linger over the more sensational elements (such as when Jernigan relates the response of the first Christian mentor to whom he revealed his secret), but Jacob Kindberg seems to understand that with material this emotionally raw, the audience needs reflective space to consider what they are hearing and to develop a comfort level with Jernigan so that they are ready to hear more intimate stories.
Where is the audience for such a film, I wonder? I fear that the film may get co-opted by one side of the culture wars, as ammunition for assumptions about sexual preference and whether it is a choice. That in turn could alienate the very people who might benefit the most from hearing Jernigan’s story–those of us who often forget that homosexuals are not a monolithic class of people all with the same goals, beliefs, and convictions about their own orientation.