On Friday night I was privileged to attend a special screening of Roger Ross Williams’ 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield, the final instalment of an LGBT film festival organised by Hidden Perspectives in association with POUT.
For those of you who have not come across it, Hidden Perspectives is a project based in the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield and headed-up by Dr Katie Edwards (Lecturer in The Bible in Contemporary Culture and Society), which aims to open up interpretation of biblical narratives to under-represented groups. In 2013, the first year of the project, the focus has been on the Bible, gender and sexuality, and the work done has both made a hugely important contribution to the discipline of biblical studies, and had a big impact outside of the academy, not least on the cultural and intellectual life of Sheffield.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Dr Edwards and also featuring Dr Adriaan Van Klinken, who is Lecturer in African Christianity at the University of Leeds, and Dr Susannah Cornwall, who is Advanced Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a specialist in the relationship between theology, sex, sexuality and gender (and also, I should point out for the sake of editorial honesty, and pride, my wife).
In the juxtaposition between its two major narrative settings, the film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance festival, presents a deliberately stark contrast between a huge, wealthy, American conservative evangelical church preparing young people for African missionary work, and those caught up in the intense, ideological, social and at times physical, battle going on in Uganda surrounding LGBT people.
The church concerned is the headquarters of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, Missouri (not to be confused with the all-together more edifying International House of Pancakes (IHOP), based in Glendale, California), a former base of Lou Engle, sometime darling of the religious right and leader of Pentecostal rally movement The Call — who will be somewhat familiar to anyone who’s seen the (similarly styled) 2006 exposu-mentary Jesus Camp.
The chief premise is that a straight (pun intended) connecting line can be drawn between demonization and abuse of LGBT people in Uganda and the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill that has been before the Ugandan Parliament since 2009, and the efforts of people like Engle, who led a The Call rally in Kampala in May 2010, and Scott Lively, an attorney, extremist preacher and co-author of The Pink Swastika (which blames the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis on the high levels of homosexuality within the party), who went on an influential speaking tour to Uganda in 2009. For the film, the anti-gay message of these extremists has lost all purchase in America, and so, in their determined quest for power and authority, they have turned to Africa, the ‘savage continent’, where their hate-message can still find a sympathetic, even enthusiastic, ear.
While there is clearly an important story to be told, and any film can be forgiven a little simplification, rhetorical intensification or poetic license in the attempt to embody a greater truth, as came out strongly in the post-screening panel discussion, God Loves Uganda is so heavy-handed in its message, selective in its perspectives and vague about the real detail of its argument, that, ultimately, it sheds a lot more light on the politics and cultural sensibilities of its makers than on the situation in Uganda.
It is not at all clear, as Drs Van Klinken, Cornwall and Edwards expertly highlighted, that this ‘culture war’ has been lost in America and therefore exported elsewhere; or that American evangelicalism/Pentecostalism/fundamentalist/right-wing/conservative Christianity (the film’s terminology is overly loose in this area) has anywhere near the level of unanimity on issues of sexuality that is suggested; or there was a strong link between the extreme message of figures like Engle and Lively and the group of undoubtedly culturally naïve and theologically unsophisticated, but not obviously malevolent young, American missionaries depicted; or why we should not immediately reject the film’s tendency toward a one-dimensional, caricatured portrayal of Ugandans as uncritical sponges, ever ready to absorb western ideas (and to act on them in the most unsophisticated of ways).
In the end, the panel and audience seemed united by a healthy suspicion of the idea that certain contemporary American evangelicals can be directly blamed for what is clearly a profoundly complex product of numerous postcolonial political, cultural and ideological factors.
Even if flawed, the film is still an interesting watch, and certainly made for a stimulating evening’s discussion. Although one of the less, er, flamboyant of the several events that Hidden Perspectives has staged this year, the screening (and film festival as a whole) was another well-deserved feather in the project’s cap, a cap which I expect will soon be more feather than anything else.
[EDIT (20/12/13): sadly, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill has now been passed by the Ugandan parliament, although it will not officially become law until it is signed by President Yoweri Museveni – for more see here]
Jon Morgan is Lecturer in Biblical Interpretation at Chester