Author Archives: Clarke Morledge

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit.

NASA Perseverance on Mars! The Most Awesome Thing You’ll See Today!

As someone who worked previously as a contractor for years at NASA, this is really incredible. Not only is this the product of years of hard work, the videos below will definitely be the coolest thing you will see today. The first video shows the challenges that NASA faced to try to land Perseverance, from a flying fireball through Mars’ atmosphere to a safe, steady position on the Martian surface. The second video is the video that Perseverance shot of itself during the landing, last Thursday. The third works best on the YouTube app on a SmartPhone, whereby you can move your phone around to get a 360 degree view of the Martian surface, from atop the rover… then the rover will spend the next several months looking for water… and looking for life. Pretty awesome!

Is there life on Mars? To borrow a line from Larry Norman, “If there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure that He must know. And He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls.”

 

 

 


Were Ravi Zacharias’ Accusers Lying?… (Were the Apostles Lying About the Resurrection?)

About a week ago I wrote a blog post about the Ravi Zacharias scandal. Most reactions to the news about Ravi have been understandable: a mix of shock, anger, dismay, empathy for the victims, and a call to self-reflection and greater accountability. However, some reactions have been in the extreme.

On one side are those who will use the Zacharias scandal as yet another reason why Christianity can not be true, and Christians can not be trusted. There will always be people in this category, it seems.

On the other side are those who profess to be Christians, but who have come with a variety of reasons why one should be dismissive or skeptical about the findings of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM)’s internal report. Here are the most common reactions I have seen:

  1. We are all sinners. Why all of this focus on what Ravi did?
  2. Why bring all of this up after Ravi has died?  The man can not defend himself.
  3. Why did these women witnesses not come forward until after he died? How trustworthy are they? Ravi was a great man of God!”

What am I going to do with my Ravi Zacharias books?  Read my answer here.

I want to briefly address each one of these responses/reactions, before I get to my parenthetical question: “Were the Apostles Lying About the Resurrection?

The first reaction has definitely truth to it. But while it recognizes a particular Scriptural truth, that all of us fall short of the glory of God, the tendency here is to forget that Ravi’s sin went far beyond your “average sin.”

We are not talking about a pornography addiction here, that vacillates between shame and repentance, that may or may not have a direct impact on others. What we are talking about is a repeated pattern of behavior, over many years, with no evidence of repentance, that subjected harm and deception upon multiple, vulnerable women. These women were taken advantage of by a stronger, more powerful man, a man claimed to be the “greatest Christian apologist of [the 21st] century,” who further abused them spiritually.  But the objection is right to protest the focus upon Ravi. Instead, we should be remembering his victims, and pray for them.

The second reaction is peculiar, as though it assumes some sort of statute of limitations. Perhaps this reaction is made, as a way of defending Ravi’s family, so there might be some understandable motive here. But as apologist David Wood argues, if he were to die tomorrow, and then someone found 20 bodies buried beneath his house, would you not want to know how those 20 bodies got there?

Ravi Zacharias is in many ways like Amnon, David’s most favored, first-born son, a man of great “integrity”, who in 2 Samuel 13 abused his sister Tamar. Amnon has been dead long ago, but God saw fit to preserve this story in our Bibles. I believe, part of the reason, for preserving the story, is to help us all to remember the Tamars of the world. Even though Ravi is dead, the Tamars in the Ravi story are still living.

The third reaction is meant to test the credibility of the female witnesses. If you have the time, you might want to view the YouTube video below, an interview conducted on the Capturing Christianity YouTube channel, with female Christian apologists Alisa Childers and Dr. Liz Jackson, who tackle this reaction in more detail.

What I want to highlight here is the nature of cognitive bias, and how it can so easily trick us into believing something that lacks evidential support. As I mentioned in my earlier reports about Ravi, I really did not want the negative stories about Ravi to be true. Ravi was not my most favorite Christian apologist…but he still seemed like a genuine, reputable guy, with the most winsome, popular appeal, having a positively great impact on many of my Christian friends. I really wanted to believe that there was some good explanation for what had happened. Sadly, the evidence points to the reality that the situation with Ravi was far, far worse than anyone could have imagined (see apologist Mike Winger’s video).

I had some serious doubts about Ravi, when the first set of allegations about him came forward THREE YEARS AGO. But after having talked with someone at RZIM, I was given assurances that RZIM was serious about the matter and that everyone in RZIM’s top leadership was being held accountable, and that everything would be OK.

But the funny thing about evidence, is that when you begin to take a serious look at the available evidence, it can have a serious impact on how much you trust your previous assumptions. It can challenge your wishful thinking. If substantial evidence is analyzed, that refutes your wishful thinking, then you have to make a choice. Either you revise your cognitive bias, and rethink your wishful thinking, and follow the evidence wherever it leads….. OR you will choose to continue believing what you want to believe, and simply ignore the evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

So, were Ravi Zacharias’ accusers lying? The problem with assuming that these women were lying is that they all gave the same type of testimony, despite being independent of one another. First, we have the Canadian supporter of Ravi’s ministry, who first challenged Ravi, in the 2017 sexting controversy, Lori Anne Thompson. She is the only named witness, but prior to RZIM’s internal investigation, there were at least three other witnesses, involved in Ravi’s spa business. RZIM’s internal investigation revealed five other witnesses to Ravi’s behavior. Then there are about 200 women, with photos solicited by Ravi Zacharias, on the phones that he had, over the past 7 years or so, which in some of those photos, the women where naked. With such independent, multiple witnesses (8 thus far, by my count), along with the evidence from the cell phones, this makes for a substantial case against Ravi (None of this even touches on the academic credentials controversy, or the report that while Ravi was a younger preacher, he pressured his brother’s girlfriend to get an abortion).

Is it possible that all of these women just happened to give very similar stories that were all fabricated? Were all of these electronic photos on Ravi’s phones fakes? Possibly. But how plausible is that? Even more so, how probable is that?

Compare all of that to the evidence we have for the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul reports some 500, unnamed witnesses to the Risen Lord. We have four, different Gospel testimonies, that all feature the Empty Tomb. The New Testament tells us numerous stories of those who saw the Risen Jesus. Interestingly, the first witnesses to the Resurrection were those who were most suspect in terms of giving an accurate testimony: they were women.

Consider this: We have more substantial evidence that demonstrates that Ravi Zacharias was a sexual predator than we have for the Resurrection of Jesus.

Think about that for a moment.

Nevertheless, there are many Christians out there, apparently, who still believe Ravi to be completely innocent, and who buy into Ravi’s own rhetoric, which calls the critics of Ravi to be “demonic,” or otherwise, “tools of Satan,” or other sayings like that.

It really makes me wonder why so many Christians call themselves Christians. If the evidence against Ravi can not be believed, why do such people believe that Jesus really rose from the dead?  What type of cognitive bias is in play here? What type of wishful thinking keeps folks from accepting evidence that runs counter to what is believed?

The same can be said for non-believers, who reject the Resurrection of Jesus. Though the evidence for the Resurrection is not as clear-cut as the case against Ravi, the evidence for the Resurrection is still very, very good. So, if you easily accept the verdict against Ravi, as a “no-brainer”, what is it that is preventing you from accepting Jesus as the Risen Lord? What type of cognitive bias is in play here? What type of wishful thinking keeps folks from accepting evidence that runs counter to what is believed?

Something to think about.

Oh, one more thing, before I close out: REMEMBER THE VICTIMS AND PRAY FOR THEM.


A New MAGA?: Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again… Post Ravi Zacharias Evangelicalism

By now, many of you already know about the final report from RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries), detailing some of the sexual abuse committed by Christian apologist/evangelist Ravi Zacharias, through day spas he owned over a decade ago in Atlanta. It is pretty devastating.

There is the sexual abuse pattern, involving multiple reports of molestation over the years, that is of grave concern. Ravi’s victims, to varying degrees, have suffered. But there is more to it than that, as none of us are “sin-free.” Let me be clear about this up-front.

The bigger story is the utterly unrepentant attitude that Ravi apparently had, as he continued to solicit and receive photos of young, female massage therapists on his SmartPhone(s), up until a few months before his May, 2020 death. But the most egregious thing is the extreme lack of accountability that Ravi had in his ministry and personal life, a failure among even his closest friends and colleagues to ask tough questions, to speak openly and honestly, and to encourage the pursuit for truth, among others who had questions. Sadly, any attempt to question Ravi’s behavior or at least divulge more information was met with talk of “spreading rumors,” accusations that those who asked such questions were “demonized,” and even one report that Ravi went into a rage and threatened to resign, if pressed any further to provide more information. Ravi even threatened at least one victim, that if she ever told anyone what had happened, that it would put “millions of souls” in danger of eternal hell-fire.

When I became aware of the first controversy, in December, 2017, involving misleading information about Ravi’s academic credentials, I was hoping that this controversy would be the end of it. I had been given the impression by staff at RZIM that the academic credentials issue was simply a matter of confusion and cultural differences, and that there was a good explanation behind the sexting incidents involving a female friend and devotee of Ravi’s, Lori Anne Thompson.

Like many of the staff at RZIM, including the person I talked with, we all hoped that everything could be satisfactorily explained. After all, I have personally invested a lot of time and energy over the years promoting Ravi Zacharias, RZIM, and Ravi’s teaching materials. I have taught two adult Bible classes, at my church, based on Ravi’s teaching material, and co-taught another class with some friends, using Ravi material. Though my specific role was minimal, I helped to work with a team at my church for at least 5 years or more, to try to get Ravi Zacharias to come speak at my church, which eventually did happen, about a decade ago.

Ravi’s appearance at our church was the single largest event, in my church’s history. Folks came from 3 to 4 hours away to hear him speak. The place was packed. It was exciting. The atmosphere was electric.

But after what I agonized over in December, 2017, and listening to all of the accolades given at his memorial service, back in May, 2020, I started having that sickening feeling in my stomach, that something still was not right. The then Vice President Mike Pence hailed Ravi as the greatest apologist of this, the 21st century. Well, what was I to make of that?

Thankfully, it took the courage of one woman, a follower of Jesus and one of the massage therapists Ravi groped over ten years earlier, to finally speak up. The only one who would listen to her was an atheist lawyer, and that finally got the ball rolling. Other women spoke up and the story broke back in September, 2020. Still, RZIM at the time decided to double-down on the message that there was a good explanation here, and everything was still OK. Other defenders of Ravi continued to double-down and profess his innocence, explaining that the accusations were all “attacks from Satan,” intent on destroying a godly man’s reputation. Meanwhile, I have had conversations with skeptics who only look at this as simply yet another reason why Christianity can not be true.

Yet, at the same time, RZIM did agree to conduct an internal investigation, and this time, they promised complete transparency. Why did it take so long? Almost THREE YEARS LATER????

Well, we finally got the story this past week….. Thanks to the courage of that one woman who finally spoke out.

Now what?

It does not roll off the tongue very well, but I propose a new “MAGA” slogan: “Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again.”

There are several problems though, with my new slogan. First, “Anti-Celebrity-Christianity” is an almost impossible goal to achieve.  It comes with the territory. After all, the Apostle Paul, and the rest of Christ’s earliest disciples, were known as pre-modern equivalents of today’s celebrities, in their own circles.

Jesus is and will always be THE reason for why we believe. Nevertheless, we simply can not separate the Christian faith completely from those who claim to represent Jesus. There is no way that any single one Christian can have complete adequate knowledge of the faith, without having a measure of trust in other Christian leaders, who know more than we do about certain aspects of Christianity, who can live as examples for us to follow.

Take Tim Keller, for example. As co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, Keller might come as close as possible to being a spokesperson for broadly-Reformed-minded evangelicalism.  But he is nevertheless a celebrity. He recently was interviewed on a podcast where he talks about the dangers of celebrity Christianity. When hardly anybody knew who Tim Keller was he was a pastor of a rural church, in a town less than an hour away from me. But now he gets people asking for autographs for his books. It is pretty awful. I would encourage folks to listen to the full podcast, as Keller has some excellent observations to make about the current state of evangelicalism today.

I also remember when it came out that the famous liberal Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, had been secretly involved in numerous sexual affairs, outside of his marriage, throughout much of his adult life. His adulterous infidelities were so bad and numerous, that even his wife sought relief in her own sexual affairs, just to cope with the trauma of living with a sex addict. Tillich had sought to completely recast a vision of Christianity with a multi-religious worldview, that incorporated many non-orthodox theological perspectives. Nevertheless, he has been hailed as one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century.

It is very easy … and tempting… for an evangelical like me to dismiss Tillich out of hand, with some measure of secret pleasure over his downfall, in his reputation. But then I think of Ravi Zacharias, and I realize, yet again, that none of us are far away from missing out on what God truly seeks to purpose in our lives.

So, where do we go from here?

Practically speaking, what do I do with my Ravi Zacharias books? Well, I have never owned any Tillich books, but I have a few of Ravi’s…. and I have a few other books written by people who have gone through serious moral failures, even such failures that continued on for years.

It is important to remember that even if an author has a personal failing, that it does not necessarily invalidate the message that the author is seeking to communicate. We must evaluate the writings of a person based on the evidence, logic, and claims that the author is making, and not strictly on the character of that author.

I personally do not plan on tossing out my Ravi Zacharias collection anytime soon. But I do not feel compelled to recommend him either to others. The main reason for saying that is because I think there are a lot of other Christian apologetics authors who are just as good, if not superior to Ravi Zacharias, in making their arguments for the Christian faith.

A good example would be from Michael Licona, perhaps one of today’s most well-known defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, who has produced a short video, putting the Ravi Zacharias scandal in perspective, when it comes to making good arguments for the Christian faith (see below).

But the bigger issue for me is this: How can we get away from an evangelical sub-culture that tends to idolize its celebrities? Here are my big takeaways:

  • Cultivate church and ministry leadership structures where there is sufficient accountability. Do NOT promote “lone ranger” Christianity.  Get into an accountability group yourself, where someone you trust (or more) can hold you accountable.
  • Develop institutions centered, not around personalities, but around good, solid Scriptural doctrine.
  • Invite questions, dialogue and conversation. Allow yourself and others to express their doubts, and work through them. Pray for one another. Love one another.

Those are probably some good places to start…. to start to “Make Anti-Celebrity-Christianity Great Again.”


The Two Popes: Why Would A Pope Resign?

When Pope Benedict made his announcement on February 11, 2013, it shook the Roman Catholic world, like a lightning bolt. Since 1415, he was the first pope in hundreds of years to effectively retire from the office of the Holy See. To most Roman Catholics, popes simply do not do that type of thing.

Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes chronicles the story of how Joseph Ratzinger, a Bavarian born son of a policeman, would eventually become Pope Benedict, only to have his top role in the Roman Catholic Church transferred to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a once-aspiring chemist turned Argentinian Jesuit priest, known for his work among the Latin American poor, who would himself become Pope Francis.

Ratzinger grew up in the shadow of Hitler’s Germany as a teenager, despite his father’s futile efforts to shield his son from the Nazi’s fascist control of the Germanic peoples. Young Ratzinger declared early on, that he wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest, but that was not enough to keep him from being drafted into the war, serving in an anti-aircraft unit for the defense of Munich. After the war, Ratzinger was able to continue in his theological education, and enter a career of teaching Catholic theology.

Most people are not aware of this, but the young Ratzinger worked alongside notable thinkers like Hans Kung at the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, to bring about progressive reform in the church. Yet Ratzinger ultimately backed off from his liberal leaning theology. He eventually was appointed as the head of the former “Inquisition” of the Roman Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger came to regret his earlier trajectory towards theological liberalism, becoming increasingly concerned that such progressive ideas would partner with relativism and secularism trends, to ultimately undermine the Roman Catholic faith.

Ratzinger was charged by John Paul II to revamp the “Inquisition” into the “Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” formulating catechetical instruction for the worldwide Roman Catholic faithful, following a conservative interpretation of Vatican II. The most significant work that Ratzinger supervised was the 1992 updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authoritative guide to Roman Catholic teachings. Ratzinger was noted for his efforts to reign in liberation theology, by removing the leading advocates for that theology from their positions, in order to promote John Paul II’s neo-traditional vision of Roman Catholic life and theology. He even managed to get his old friend and colleague, Hans Kung, removed from teaching theology to priests, after the latter wrote a book obliquely denying papal infallibility. Ratzinger had become the leading pick as a successor to John Paul II, following John Paul’s death in 2005.

The somewhat younger Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew up in Buenos Aires, originally pursuing a career to become a chemist, and even took a brief romantic interest that made him question occasional thoughts of becoming a priest. But a life threatening illness as a young man, that permanently injured a lung, steered him in a different direction, whereby he entered the Society for Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1958. Like Ratzinger, Bergoglio too was at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He was known to be conservative in most matters of Roman Catholic doctrine, though more moderate in areas dealing with social justice reforms, seeking to carve a middle way between the right and left, of a politically divided Argentina.

His efforts to walk a political tight rope in Argentina, forced him out of Argentina for a time. Some accused Bergoglio of not doing enough to help the people he was called to serve, while others thought he interfered in matters that were none of his business. But he was eventually brought back to Argentina, eventually to be elevated as an Archbishop. As Archbishop, Bergoglio followed his Jesuit instincts and rejected use of a private car and chauffeur, opting to ride the public bus instead, to make his appointments. Bergoglio was the second most favored choice to succeed Pope John Paul II, behind Ratzinger. Thus, when Pope Benedict announced his retirement less than a decade later, Bergoglio remained a serious candidate, who eventually won out over the others.

So, why did Benedict resign? It seems very strange that Benedict, a stalwart defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, would so readily hand over the leadership of the church to someone whose views were more radical, and more apt to undo Pope John Paul II’s program to revitalize the Roman Catholic Church, that was aimed at reaffirming traditional theological commitments in an increasingly secular world.

The stated reason was that Benedict felt that a younger, more vibrant man was needed to do the job. But Anthony McCarten thinks that Benedict’s failure to aggressively address the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the global church as ultimately to blame. McCarten faults Benedict for focusing too much on taking down errant liberation theologians, and in defending and upholding the integrity of the Roman Catholic priesthood, at the expense of the sexual abuse victims, who suffered under wayward priests. Admittedly, the Vatican knew that the Church had her enemies, and for decades, since as early as the 1860s, had sought a policy of moving priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes, and urging the victims themselves to take oaths of silence, in order to protect the Church from her enemies, who would otherwise use such accusations to try to destroy the church.

It is clear that McCarten views such polices of deception and concealment to be counter-productive at best, if not purely criminal, at worst. This is where a book like The Two Popes often tells us more about the writer than the subject(s) being examined. Anthony McCarten is a New Zealand author and playwright, who grew up in a devout Roman Catholic household, only to say laterthat his faith has lapsed, noting that he now regards the biblical story of the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ as ‘a tall tale.'” Many former Roman Catholics like McCarten grew up in the church, only to be secularized upon entering adulthood, after being disillusioned by what they saw as a religious institution that could no longer be trusted.

Pope Francis does not escape criticism either in The Two Popes, as McCarten tells the sordid tale of Bergolio’s disputed involvement in partially propping up a right-wing, military government, that overthrew the inept rule of Isabel Peron, in politically unstable Argentina, in the 1970s. Thousands of Argentinian dissidents were “disappeared” during these years, but the Argentinian Roman Catholic hierarchy was more worried about a threatened communist takeover from the left. Some of Bergolio’s fellow Jesuit priests were abducted as well, and critics charged Bergolio with not doing enough to protect his fellow priests, even to the point of claiming that Bergolio aided corrupt elements in the government in their persecutions of the poor, and those who tried to help them. Two of these priests were tortured before being released, and blamed Bergoglio for having abandoning them and their mission work. Bergolio’s defense was, “I did what I could.

Pope Benedict had his sins, but Pope Francis had his sins as well. McCarten’s Bergolio comes out looking better than McCarten’s Ratzinger, but both men who became popes have failed, in McCarten’s mind, to inspire deep confidence in following the Roman Catholic faith.

Pope Francis, as the first Jesuit pope and first Latin American pope, who still refuses to live in the finely furnished Vatican apartments, and who still likes riding the public bus, has proven to be a popular yet enigmatic figure. Progressive Roman Catholics applaud the type of changes Francis has made to reform the Vatican, and voice great frustration when he does not do more, whereas traditional Roman Catholics are deeply concerned that Francis is turning into yet another “bad pope,” and compromising fundamental doctrinal stances of the church.

As concerns about Francis have grown, the former Pope Benedict emerged briefly in recent years, as a move that many observers believe was meant to be a check against Francis’ more progressive policy leanings. Time will tell what type of legacy Francis will ultimately leave.

A good example of the type of reforms that Francis is encouraging can be found in the January 2021 letter, Spiritus Domini, which seeks to institutionalize the practice of having women serving as Acolytes and Lay Readers in worship services. Such practice is already happening throughout various parts of global Roman Catholicism, but this is the first papal pronouncement formally acknowledging that this is good and right Roman Catholic doctrine. Throughout the 2,000 year history of the church, women have never served as priests (or presbyters), but women did serve as deacons, a practice that was abandoned in the West by about the sixth century. Supporters of Francis see this as restoring the ancient practice of the early church. Critics, however, are concerned that this might pave the way to allow women to serve as priests, despite Francis’ explicit reservations to the contrary.

Anthony McCarten’s cynicism about Roman Catholicism remains held back for most of The Two Popes, but it finally emerges the most starkly in his epilogue. “Were we able to look far into the future of the Catholic Church and learn that its fate was to become nothing more than a sacred book club, where fans gathered once a week to discuss their favorite characters and chapters, debate passionately the themes, and draw real life-lessons from shared readings, it could do a lot worse” (p. 205). So much for the inspirational character of the Roman church, rooted in real, historical truth. But McCarten’s cynicism is not just about Roman Catholicism. It is about the Christian faith itself.

There is a tension that McCarten exposes for all Christians to see. On one side is a reactionary, fundamentalist form of Christianity that believes that the Christian faith is under siege, and that the only option we have is to circle the wagons and fight against the incoming onslaught of secularism, etc.  On the other side, is a watered-down form of Christianity that completely empties itself out of any and all concrete, historical reference points, in an attempt to show that Christianity is not fundamentally different than what a secular vision of reality is. Such liberal approach to Christian faith is merely a following of the secular trends, with a thin veneer of religious vocabulary and symbols pasted over the top. McCarten finds this latter approach to be more acceptable than the former. But interestingly, such liberalism is not compelling enough to encourage re-embracing the Christian faith himself.

I am not surprised.

Both forms of Christianity, the reactionary, conservative one, and the watered-down liberal one have effectively nothing to offer to the secular skeptic today, as McCarten would most probably describe himself. From my vantage point, the best path forward to revitalize Roman Catholicism and re-inspire the disillusioned is to be found in a robust dialogue with the other great traditions of the faith, evangelical Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in order to recover lost ground, and to rediscover what C.S. Lewis aptly called “Mere Christianity.”

The Two Popes was made into a Netflix film. I have not been very enthusiastic of some of the films Netflix has promoted, but this film is an exception to that. The Two Popes is very entertaining and the acting is really, really good (Anthony Hopkins, who plays Benedict is fantastic). Both men come across as more attractively human figures, as opposed to stereotypical, stuffy church officials. But the film lacks the nuance that the book has, which is probably to be expected when you try to take a book like this and squeeze the story down to a 2-hour film.  The film takes a deeper look at the story of Francis, while comparatively spending less screen time looking at Benedict’s life story. For those reasons, I would recommend the book if you want a fairer treatment of history, but recommend the film for the entertainment value. In the end, viewing the film and particularly, in reading the book, it all helped me as an evangelical Protestant to understand the challenges of trying to maintain a robust, traditional Roman Catholic faith in an increasingly secular, postmodern world, that instinctively is prone to distrust religious institutions.


Loving Those Who Wrestle with Transgendered Experiences : A Review of Preston Sprinkle’s Embodied

First, let me start off with a personal story. I am a biological male who feels quite comfortable with being gendered as masculine. But it was not always that way.

I was never much of an athlete growing up. In elementary school, I was shorter and smaller than the other boys, and I was always the last one to get picked on a side for kickball. I especially dreaded it when girls played with us, and the girls got picked first over me. I was generally consoled when there was at least one or two girls left, after I got picked. But it still was not a great feeling.

That began to change as a 12-year old, when I discovered the sport of tennis. I learned from my coaches that I was actually pretty good at it, compared to a number of the other kids. I won match after match with other boys in a local municipal league, throughout an entire season. Having grown up thus far, playing in the dirt, building dams in the small creek behind our house, and being fascinated with dump trucks and bulldozers, I was finally beginning to feel comfortable with my “boy-ness.” My tennis experience with other boys seemed to confirm it.

Then, I was lined up to play a girl my same age in the girl’s league. It went like this: 6-0, 6-0, 6-1. I was completely devastated by the loss. At least I got one game in the victory column. But it cemented in my mind the same type of feeling I had being chosen for kickball in elementary school…. at the bottom of the list.

Well, as it turned out, this girl who destroyed me in tennis was the daughter of the president of the local university in my hometown. She probably started taking tennis lessons at age 5, for all I knew. For when she got to high school, she ended up being a Virginia State Champion in tennis, with an almost unbroken victory record. I do not know if she actually went to the Olympics or not, or played professionally, but she could have. She was definitely THAT good.

I put the tennis racket away after that.

I never touched it again until my years in college, and then only briefly. I was never able to fully enjoy the sport until I hit my 30s. I was completely sandwiched in by social expectations, formed by traditional stereotypes, that I was somehow “less than” a boy, because I was completely humiliated by a girl in sports. Sure, you could call it “sexist,” on my part (Though for being a kid just out of 6th grade, that seems like a heavy trip to lay on someone). As for me, a growing adolescent, I thought it was confusing. For if I was really a boy, why was I such a poor athlete compared to girls my age? What does it mean to be a “boy” after all?

What made the experience worse is that I hit puberty rather late. Plus, I received little to no sexual education, even in school. As an only child, who was rather shy to begin with, figuring out how I fitted in socially was difficult. I was a bookish nerd, intimidated by the athletic boys, and I generally felt less threatened around girls than with boys. It was not until probably late in my freshman year, that I finally settled on the answer: “Yes, I really was a boy.” The biggest factor was in realizing that I was attracted to girls, in a way that I never really felt before. Yep, that was DEFINITELY the game changer.

But it took a while. And I had more than a few doubts along the way. Without going into further detail in this online forum of a blog, let me just say that there was a period of time, perhaps a few months or so, where I was really confused about my gender status.

I look back on those experiences as a kid, as though they are part of a distant land and distant time, particularly the gender crisis I went through in my early high school years. Frankly, this has become one of those life stories that I would rather just forget about.

But the world has vastly changed since then. Vastly.

Today, I am a so-called “typical male,” in that I am a single-task operating system, who can not multitask as women generally do. I have a big love for sports and playing sports, my biggest love being for playing soccer. I still like playing in the dirt. I pretty much fit all of the culturally assumed norms being masculine. But back in those childhood and teenage years, I had no one to talk to about my gender insecurities.

Not friends…. (except for perhaps one awkward conversation with one girl I knew in my gym class, so I am not sure if that counts).

Not parents.

Not teachers.

Not someone in my mainline Protestant church. No pastor. No Sunday School teacher. No youth group leader.

No one.

Fast forward decades later to 2021: The concept of transgender is now relatively commonplace in colloquial discussion. It is certainly freely talked about in social media, as there is less social stigma. There is a sense that this can be a good thing, as sweeping difficult conversations under the rug is never a good thing.

However, there is another side to this. The rise of what has been described by some as “Transgender-ISM” has become an extremely volatile and politically charged topic. In some alarming cases, government overreach has dictated to people what they can and can not say, a direct threat to free speech (Just ask Jordan Peterson).

We live in the age of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. We live in an era when a sitting U.S. President, on his first day in office, signed an executive order to ban discrimination against transgender athletes, a move that supporters say will offer “hope for young trans athletes” (Bryan Armen Graham, in The Guardian), and critics say will signal the end of women’s sports (Rod Dreher, in The American Conservative). On top of that, Rachel Levine, an openly transgender doctor, has been nominated to be the new assistant health secretary, a definite first for a top federal official position.

What was once such a personal matter has now triggered a whole culture, set on edge. Struggling people, who would rather not be left exposed in the middle of a culture war, are caught in the crossfire.

One of my nieces coaches girls soccer. Just a couple of years ago she was told to admit to her team a boy who was transitioning to becoming a girl, to play in the position of goalie. “She” became the best player on the team. Something like that would have been unthinkable, just a generation ago. The culture has changed so rapidly within the past decade.

The Transgender Conversation in Today’s Post-Modern, Post-Christian Culture

How do Christians today navigate the transgender conversation going on today? Is being male or female a fundamental characteristic of human identity, or is gender merely a social construct? How should one address another person transitioning from one gender to another? What type of pronoun should you use, without compromising your Christian beliefs? These type of questions dominate the minds of Christian believers who work with, go to school with, or who have family members who wrestle with some type of transgendered identity (whatever that really means)…. it also, quietly, keeps a lot of young people, who are confused about their gender, awake at night…. like it did me, back in 9th grade.

Thankfully, there are some very good theological resources for the transgender conversation today. Let me walk you through my journey with some of these resources.

But can you do me a favor here? Can we hold off just a bit on the whole Target’s bathroom policy-type stuff? I want to get back to that before the end of this post, but let me lay down some groundwork first.

I first read Andrew T. Walker’s 2017 God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity? a few years ago, as an introduction into the transgender conversation. It offers a good approach, from a conservative evangelical theological viewpoint, that offers nuanced wisdom in how to effectively love someone who is deeply impacted by confusion regarding their gendered experience, while maintaining a theological integrity in affirming that God created every human being in his image, male and female.

However, there is a weakness in Walker’s book in that it does not provide sufficient enough insight into the stories and experiences of persons who personally wrestle with such deep and disturbing questions. Furthermore, while Walker’s book does cover the general science outlook on gender dysphoria, it does not really dive into some of the more complex scientific issues surrounding gender. As wonderful a book God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity? is, I still was looking for something with more depth, and even more nuance, that would help me in my conversations with those who have anxiety about their gender…. along the lines of what I experienced as a kid, or way more intense than that.

This is why I was excited to read and review Preston Sprinkle’s new book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church, & What the Bible Has to Say. In my view, Preston’s earlier book, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue, is the best book available on how to understand questions regarding same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage, from an evangelical and orthodox Christian perspective (I reviewed that book several years ago here on Veracity, with some deeper dive looks at the Bible, prompted by Preston’s book:  including an examination of the sin of Sodom, the relationship between temptation and sin, the language of Christian “identity,” and the history of the word “homosexual” as it has appeared in modern Bible translations).

In Preston Sprinkle’s Embodied, the author sets up the book very well in that it emphasizes a variety of stories of persons whom Preston knows, who fall all over the spectrum of transgendered experiences. This is critically important to understand because there is simply no one, single category that defines transgendered experience. Psychologists will typically call transgendered experiences an expression of gender dysphoria, which the American Psychiatric Association defines as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.

The first step that Preston encourages every Christian to cultivate is an attitude of listening, and learning to know and better understand the experience of someone with gender dysphoria. The second step that Preston encourages is to realize that transgendered experiences are complex, they differ greatly from person to person, and the definition of terms is critically important in an effort to have good conversations with others.

The Problem with Words: How Do You Even Start a Conversation?

The problem of words, and their definitions, and how those definitions can change over time, can not be underestimated. What is the difference between male and female? What is the difference between sex and gender? The list goes on, but thankfully, Preston takes great care to define terms, acknowledging that not everyone even accepts his definitions. For example, Preston prefers the term “trans” over “transgender.” Who knew there was a difference? Though primarily a theologian, and not a scientist, Preston does a good job interacting with the science, and explaining different points of view, as expressed in the scientific literature, that is accessible to the general public. But the problem of words and their meanings remains…… And this is not just about pronouns.

Here is a good example of the problem. Preston has a chapter about “intersex,” which involves the problem of persons at birth possessing some of sort ambiguity regarding their sex identification. Doctors will put the “sex” of the child on the birth certificate. But what if there is some biological confusion, that makes it difficult to assign one’s “sex” with a high degree certainty?

When I was discussing this with my wife, I told her that this “intersex” condition is “rare.” It sometimes requires surgery to resolve, but not always. Different authoritative resources regarding intersex will agree that calculating the frequency of intersex conditions assumes that there is a spectrum of difficulties in making a clear determination of a person’s sex. I told my wife that one particular estimate of at least some possible condition on the intersex spectrum impacts roughly 1 out of 2000 babies (some of the more rarer conditions rank 1 out of 100,000 or more).

In my mind, that type of ratio, 1 out of 2000, means that intersex is “rare.” But my wife objected. In her mind, 1 out of 2000 is not some statistic that could be trusted in that it implies that intersex is rather “common.” As a result, she is suspicious of such statistics, as she believes that such “scientific” estimates are more informed by political concerns, and less by science. She believes that such “science” is being used to push an anti-Christian, anti-biblical agenda in the cultural sphere.

Well, 1 out of 2000 still sounds “rare” to me. I mean, compare that to the relatively much more “common” condition of someone on the autism spectrum, which in 2016 has been calculated to be 1 out of 54, by the American Center for Disease Control. But the debate I had with my wife just shows how difficult it can be to navigate such discussions about such a complex topic. How we define words in our conversations make a big difference.

Preston includes some thought provoking chapters on other topics, such as “what about the eunuch?,” as Scripture talks about; the ongoing debate about the “material” body versus “immaterial” soul, and how that all relates to gender identity; brain science and sexual differentiation; and the recent explosion of rapid onset gender dysphoria, that is producing intense anxiety for many teenagers today. The overriding theme is that Christians should become better informed about these topics, and when doing so, should exhibit some caution towards coming to premature conclusions.

For people in the workplace, or in school, surely the most difficult question, over the use of words, and their meanings, comes down to what pronoun you should use when talking with a transgendered person: “He?” “She?” “Surely not ‘it.’  “But what then?”  “By using a certain pronoun, am I implicitly endorsing an alien belief system?” “How can I let someone know that I want to be their friend? “

This is a complex topic, with concerns about ideological dogmatism, when it comes to enforcing language codes, which is an affront to free speech, on the one side, versus concerns over offering hospitality to the other person, for the sake of maintaining a friendly relationship. Preston offers an excellent chapter in Embodied, dedicated primarily to this one issue, which is worth the price of the book, on its own.

What Does the Bible Say about Transgender?

The most important chapter in Preston’s book is regarding what the Bible says about how being male and female is related to God’s good creation. The footnotes alone for this chapter will stimulate the student of Scripture to dig deeper and deeper into God’s Word. The bottom line is that according to what is taught in the Bible in Genesis, we are all created in the image of God, male and female. Therefore, fundamentally, sex and ultimately gender are not social constructs. Biological sex plays the much larger definitive role in determining what is male versus female, as opposed to culturally defined expectations of gender characteristics. Someone’s gendered experience may not match up with social stereotypes, as it did for a relatively short period of time in my youth.

Large swathes of our society give us very culturally-bound ideas of gender, some that are uniquely Western. For example, American men typically do not hold hands with one another, though women holding hands together is a lot more common. Compare that with the fact that in many developing countries, men will often hold hands with other men. This does not mean that such men are gay, or that they are having some transgendered experience. This simply means that men holding hands with other men are but one cultural expression of gender, a sign of showing affection in male to male friendship. But these varying cultural stereotypes do not mean that being male and female are simply products of culture, in every respect.  Instead, the fundamental Christian claim, according to the Bible, is that being created male and female matters to God, and that such differences in being male and female ultimately transcend culture.

Preston does interact with theological viewpoints that do not line up with historically, orthodox Christianity, making a good faith attempt to be as generous as possible with critics. I would probably give Embodied a fully deserved 5-star review, if it were not for the fact that Preston sometimes is overly cautious to a fault, when landing on a firm theological footing (I would give Embodied a 4.5, but Amazon does not allow for fractional reviews, so I decided for a more conservative evaluation and round down slightly). Now, let me be clear here, in case a potential reader might be nervous: Preston does eventually get to and affirm an historical, orthodox theological perspective. But in the process of getting there, through pages and pages of back and forth, yet rightly thorough analysis, Preston may leave some readers puzzled as to why he is as cautious as he is. He puzzled me in a couple of cases.

For example, Preston briefly addresses the question of whether or not intersex is a product of the fall. He has generally opted to say that intersex is indeed a product of the fall of humanity, but that in researching for the book, he has become more cautious in making such a conclusion.

I understand why Preston brings out some caution, and he clearly acknowledges that one of his intersex friends firmly acknowledges that the intersex condition is indeed part of “the fall,” and that this knowledge provides a form of comfort. But if that is the case (and I would agree with the viewpoint of Preston’s intersex friend), I am puzzled as to why Preston is so cautious as he is. Perhaps it comes down to one’s definition and understanding of what “the fall” entails.

How Our Theology of “The Fall” Can Guide Us Through the Transgender Conversation

Going back to my own experience, I grew up also with a significant speech impediment. I stuttered quite frequently during my elementary and middle school years. Thankfully, my stuttering eventually subsided somewhat, and I learned to gain more confidence when I speak with other people. One of my greatest joys in my college years was that I even became a disc jockey for about a year and half, hosting a jazz music program on my college’s radio station. I would never have been able to do anything like that, if I had continued stuttering as severely as I did in elementary school.

But I would definitely say that my speech impediment was (and still is) a product of the fall of humanity. I do not believe that God would intentionally create me with a speech impediment, as part of his good design for creation. I look forward to that Resurrection Day, when I will no longer have to worry about how my verbal speech with come out, and embarrass me in front of others.

Nevertheless, God has given me a type of gift, due to that experience of the fall. I am more hesitant to speak, because I am sometimes self-conscious about messing up with my words and syllables in public. As a result, I often find myself more inclined to listen. In a world where so many people want to be heard, I have realized the gift that God has given me to use my hesitancy towards speaking, in learning how to better effectively listen to others, thus gaining more empathy with them.

I would think that experiences of intersexed persons, and transgendered persons (otherwise known as simply “trans”), who go through periods of gender dysphoria, would best frame their experiences in such a theological framework. The experience of being “trans” for a follower of Jesus would lead to the realization that such consequences of the fall also provides opportunities for God to give good gifts to such a person, that most other people will never, ever have. Sin does have consequences, and can impact people through no obvious fault of their own. But God is a God of redemption, who can turn what the Evil One meant for evil into something good. In the process, God’s children are given gifts that bring God the most glory possible…. and that is Good News! I think Preston Sprinkle would still agree with me here. I just wish he had come out more firmly on this with less hesitation.

Listening with Compassion, with Theological Clarity

With that caveat in mind, please do not let that deter any reader from picking up Preston Sprinkle’s Embodied. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader encouragement, that having experiences of gender dysphoria does not disqualify anyone from being a genuine follower of Jesus. Preston is quite frank in admitting that he has friends, having a “trans” background, who are often some of the most loving and Christ-like persons he has ever met. One need not follow the secular culture, in order to be fully human. No one needs to be dismissive over what Scripture teaches regarding being created in the image of God, as male and female. Instead, we are all challenged to enter in the mystery of celebrating our differences as male and female.

My experience of gender dysphoria, as a young teenager, was pretty mild and short-lived. I rarely ever think about it any more. Others though, have had severe problems, that persist into adulthood, ultimately leading such persons to pursue transitioning into a gender identity contrary to their birth, sexual identity, through various types of medical procedures, such as hormonal treatments, or even surgery. An alarming, growing number of such transitions happen among children. Sadly, many have gone through such experiences, only to ultimately regret such decisions to go through with such hormonal treatments and/or surgery. Preston rightly points out that the mental health risks for those who transition to another gender identity, through surgery, are significantly higher than for those who do not transition. It is a lot more difficult to transition back, than it is to transition in the first place. Sometimes transitioning back is medically impossible. Those reasons alone are important enough, simply from a medical perspective, for those considering transitioning to not take that step of transitioning in the first place, or at least to delay it as much as possible. In many cases, such gender dysphoria disappears over time, assuming a person has a loving environment that supports them.

What about people who have already transitioned? Preston admits that this is a really difficult situation to deal with, for a Christian befriending someone else who has transitioned, whether that other person is a Christian or not. In such situations, it is really best to walk alongside those people who have taken that step, first and foremost as listeners and as a friends, and trust that God will intervene in such a way to bring about healing, according to God’s own timing and purposes.

More and more people who have transitioned to the opposite of their birth sex, have been transitioning back, and Preston observes that this number is continually growing, despite the social pressures against transitioning back. But in the final analysis, Prestron rightly affirms that it should be the truth of Scripture that should guide us, and not concerns over what is practical or not.

The Failure and Opportunity of the Church to Model Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

One big problem in many churches today, particularly Protestant evangelical ones, is that many have not figured out a way to model what Christian masculinity and Christian femininity look like. Some fall back on traditional cultural stereotypes. Some Christians are so freaked out by the rise of radical feminism, that women are almost completely marginalized in the use of their God-given gifts for ministry. Others go for the stereotype where the women pretty much do 90% of the “spiritual” work, and the men are just dragged kicking and screaming to church.

Other churches, on the less traditional side of things, have become too quick to show how men and women, particularly in church leadership, are simply interchangeable, whereby there is no real fundamental difference theologically between men and women. Sadly, the whole debate between complementarians and egalitarians, tends to narrowly focus on whether or not women can serve as church officials; particularly as elders, thus missing the more fundamental theological reality, of distinguishing between male and female, within the context of corporate worship (I have written extensively about this particular topic elsewhere on Veracity).

As a result, the sacramental expression of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman, in the life of the church, gets cast aside. Children growing up into adulthood suffer the most, as few young people have an effective means to work through their anxiety, as to what it means to be male and female, in the sight of God, as opposed to simply following cultural imposed patterns of what masculinity and femininity look like.

Rapid changes in Western culture are only making the problem worse. Preston Sprinkle highlights the shocking statistic, just from one study in the United Kingdom, where the number of males questioning their gender has risen by 1460%, and the number of females questioning their gender has risen by 5337%, just in the last ten years.

1460%. 5337%. Those are real numbers. Experiences with gender confusion among American teenagers are not too far behind, as such startling statistics appear to be becoming part of the norm. Christian parents trying to raise their children in today’s anxiety ridden culture do not have the luxury of ignoring these massive cultural shifts.

Strangely, the silence of evangelical churches, when it comes to discussing this transgender identity crisis, has become deafening. And when it does get mentioned, if at all, such as in a sermon, it is typically either within the context of just how rotten the culture has become, or chiding less “enlightened” people for their “bigotry.”

The idea of men mentoring men (and boys) and women mentoring women (and girls) has become a lost art, in too many churches. How many churches still have men’s groups, where they talk about what it means to be a Christian man? How many churches still have women’s groups, where they talk about what it means to be a Christian woman? If we want to stem the tide against efforts by the culture to aggressively “normalize” ideologically driven concepts of “transgenderism” (a pejorative label, for some), churches need to do better in modeling what it means to be male and female, even in how we conduct worship services. No matter what churches do, cultivating the art of listening is essential, in figuring out ways to give young people permission to talk about their doubts and experiences.

Our Western culture today has made it socially acceptable to discuss issues related to “trans” people. That is a good thing. Evangelical churches tend to be behind the eight-ball on this, but at least, the secular world offers a variety of counseling, medical, and psychotherapy options for young people to process their anxieties.

On the other hand, the growing rate at which young people are considering themselves to be somewhere on the “trans” spectrum is particularly alarming. The drive to somehow “normalize” such “trans” experiences, even in psychological counseling, is particularly outrageous. We hear stories of concerned parents who want to immediately rush to give their child sex hormone therapy, if the child begins to experience even the mildest form of gender dysphoria. The shocking rise of rapid onset gender dysphoria, particularly among girls, over the past decade is horrifying….. and yes, there are legitimate concerns that Target’s bathroom policy might invite “fake” trans-people to take advantage of such policies and invade the private space of women. Who will speak out for the protection of women, who feel threatened by cultural shifts like this? Or will they experience the disdain of “cancel culture,” that the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling experienced?

But as Preston Sprinkle reminds the reader, fits of outrage and horror do not lead to healing and real change. Instead, it is through the expression of the love of Christ, through listening to others, that real change happens. We need less of our love for outrage and more outrageous love.

Listen.

Take a deep breath.

Be a part of the conversation, instead of always rushing to pontificate on just how awful the culture has become…. or how closed-minded others on your Facebook page appear.

One simple (though perhaps still expensive) suggestion for churches, would be to offer single-person-use bathrooms in church facilities (what some might call “family restrooms”). That one act, of providing a restroom where a “trans” person can discreetly take care of business, is an excellent way to offer hospitality to someone who is new to your church, that might lower the anxiety and stress level of a visitor. Installing signage, that indicates that a single-person-use restroom is just down the hall, is a great way of saying to a “trans” person that they are welcome to visit your church.

Extending Outrageous Love to Trans-Persons

Preston tells one story that really stands out to me, that of Lesli, who was biologically born female, but who went through a confusing, difficult period of gender dysphoria. When she confided her struggles with her pastor, the pastor escorted her out the church back door, and told her never to come back again. She left the Christian faith at that point. She ended up becoming a lesbian, and married another woman. But when her same-sex marriage partner died, she wanted to find some way for her spouse to have a decent funeral. Lesli finally worked up the courage to call some church office, out of the blue, and ask if the pastor there could perform the funeral for her deceased partner. Instead of giving Lesli a knee-jerk theological justification for condemning homosexuality and the transgender “lifestyles”, the pastor simply said, “We would be honored to [help out, and perform the funeral service].” It was that loving expression by that Christian pastor that eventually led Lesli to return to the Christian faith.

That is a challenging message. Yet that is the challenging message that undergirds Preston Sprinkle’s excellent Embodied. We need to land somewhere between oversimplifying the growing transgender awareness in our culture, as merely a Satanically-inspired political conspiracy, and on the other side, a fear-based resolve that we must choose between transitioning and suicide, as the only alternatives for moving through transgender conversations.

Sadly, some of the folks I know who would probably benefit the most from reading Embodied are most likely those ones who will not read it. I am just as horrified, as are many other Christians, as to how aggressively “transgenderism”, as a negative ideological category, has become a forceful cultural, even an activist, political movement. Likewise, I am also deeply concerned about the connection between suicide rates and gender insecurities.

But what this is ultimately about is people. People who wrestle with some form a gender dysphoria are people whom Jesus sought to die for, that they might be reconciled to God and find healing. What is really needed is a way for Christians to trust Jesus enough to give them the wisdom necessary to know how to best extend the hand of Christian friendship, to someone who wrestles with transgendered experiences.

Beginning February 1, 2021, pick up the book at Amazon, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, by Preston Sprinkle, or wherever you can find it. Try out the audiobook, if you prefer, as Preston reads his own book, which is a great experience. This has become my “go-to” resource for addressing this critical and deeply sensitive issue today.

In the following discussion between Preston Sprinkle and Christina Beardsley, an openly transgender person, who is also a priest in the Church of England, I found the conversation to be difficult to follow at times, but it just shows how complex the cultural conversation is. One of the best ways we can love a transgender person is to try to figure out how people define the words they use in conversations.


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