There will be no Academy Award for young filmmaker Stephen Cone’s considerable achievement: Best Movie Depiction of the Evangelical Subculture Without Lampooning It. Cone’s small, heartfelt film, “The Wise Kids” (available on Netflix and iTunes), gives conservative Christians a largely sympathetic but sharp-eyed treatment. Evangelical Christians will find the music familiar. Also, the propensity to end discussions with: “I’ll send you the verse.” And the tendency of evangelical youth to end public prayers: “In Your awesome, holy, amazing, awesome, awesome name we pray.”
But the movie is important because it depicts a traditional religious community in the midst of a moral earthquake. The film’s protagonist (Tim) is a gay, Christian high school senior and not particularly anguished about the whole thing. In part, this reflects Cone’s own experience as the gay son of a Southern Baptist preacher in South Carolina, which was considerably less traumatic than you might imagine. “At the age of 12,” Cone told me, “I wanted to see ‘Philadelphia’ [a groundbreaking movie about a gay man with AIDS], and my dad took me. Afterward, there were no lessons offered, no discussion of immorality. He just let it be.”
Cone reports that he has gotten some criticism for his movie’s lack of bitterness. His parents, he said, “found a way not to close off the possible.” But that has hardly been the uniform evangelical response to changing social norms.
Mostly it is denial. “The Wise Kids” depicts how three generations of gay Christians have been accommodated in conservative churches: an older organist who could never even imagine the possible and is treated as a likable eccentric; a music director who finds himself trapped in a good marriage without physical attraction; a sensitive, talented young person who goes off to art school in New York and is likely to find communities willing to accept his whole self.
Cone’s film emphasizes something that non-evangelicals often miss. Evangelicalism is not fundamentalism. It is a form of conservative Christianity determined to engage culture rather than escape it. And the influence goes in both directions. Secular music and films, scientific cosmology and modern conceptions of gender are powerful forces of modernity, transforming even those who try to resist.
Many evangelical Christians have made their peace with a more equal role for women in society. Nearly every religious tradition admits that some of the cultural assumptions about gender held by the authors of sacred texts (say, the Apostle Paul’s instruction that women remain silent in church) are not normative. Many evangelicals also are not, hmmm, living in a manner consistent with New Testament views on divorce (where it is seldom justified). Divorced people generally sit in the pews of evangelical megachurches without stigma.
Now the question is raised: Is sexual identity a thing like gender roles and divorce — something on which a rough accommodation can be made? It is already happening. According to the Pew Research Center, a third of evangelical baby boomers say that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Remarkably, 51 percent of evangelical millennials say the same. Overall evangelical agreement with that statement rose about 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.
Why this shift? Some of it is certainly due to the pervasive power of scientific consensus to determine cultural assumptions. This is the age of the gene, and there is serious evidence that sexual identify has a heritable component. According to Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History,” studies of twins have provided “incontrovertible evidence that genes influenced homosexuality . . . almost as strongly as genes influence height.”
A version of natural-law reasoning then follows: If same-sex attraction is not entirely a choice, is it appropriate to regard it as a sin? And if there is nothing morally wrong with having a gay orientation (as most Christians believe), is it fair or realistic to expect lifelong celibacy — a commitment that is historically viewed by Christians as a heroic, individual calling, not as a universal expectation?
In the movie, Tim’s father finds uncomfortable comfort when his son finds a “buddy” in college. So many evangelical parents want stability, companionship, affection and love for their gay children. And they wonder if their Heavenly Father really wants less.
The religious debate is not quite as easy as I have presented it. But evangelical youth groups and Christian colleges would uniformly benefit from screening “The Wise Kids,” if only to struggle honestly with the issues it raises. And parents should watch it, if only to glimpse the massively changed world their children inhabit.