Tag Archives: transgender

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Carl Trueman on Our Cultural Crisis … and “Mr.” Potato Head??

Who am I?” A profound yet difficult question. How does one go about trying to answering it?…. and what does this all have to do with “Mr” and/or “Mrs” Potato Head?

A generation ago, the thought of “a woman being trapped in a man’s body” was commonly rejected as unthinkable silly talk. Such a thought was judged to be simply incoherent.

Today, the idea that anyone can simply define their own gender, as an expression of one’s self, is quite normal, in many social, political, business, and educational institutions. Three examples come to mind to illustrate this:.

  • Among ordinary Americans: A 2020 Gallup poll shows that 1 in 6 Americans, between the ages of 18 and 23, consider themselves to be somewhere in the “LGBTQ” category, as opposed to 1 in 50 Americans, ages 56 and older.
  • In politics: In the month that I am writing this post (March, 2021), the U.S. Senate is considering a bill, already passed in the House of Representatives, called “The Equality Act,” that would enable sweeping changes in current law, regarding how schools, employers, religious-affiliated institutions, and even parents of children handle such questions of self-identity.
  • In business: A book that features testimonies from trans-persons who later regretted pursuing gender reassignment surgeries, or other medical procedures, Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally, was delisted from the world’s largest book seller, Amazon.com, as Amazon says that the book violates their company policy, which prohibits them from selling books that “frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.

That first example alone blows my mind every time I think about it. So, how did this radical perception of the self change so rapidly within such a short period of time?

While still keeping the characters of “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Head, in February, 2021, Hasbro announced that they will remove the “Mr” from the overall brand name, which is now simply, “Potato Head.” Now “kids [can] create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads,” presumably with interchangeable parts, where dads can become moms, and moms can become dads. How did we get here? Carl Trueman helps us out. (Link to the full Hasbro press release, including the video you have to see to believe)

The Roots of Our Current Crisis Regarding the Self

Before going any further, it is important to say that gender dysphoria; that is, having a sense that one’s personal experience of gender is not congruent with one’s biological sex, is a real phenomenon, involving real people, with real confusions and real consequences. We should never be quick to brush off the difficulties facing by people, particularly youth, who struggle deeply with troubling, and often painful experiences related to gender identity. (See my review and personal reflections on Preston Sprinkle’s marvelously helpful book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church, & What the Bible Has to Say ) But aside from such personal and pastoral issues, as important as they are, there is the broader question of how such fluid understandings of gender have emerged in the larger cultural conversation, in the secular West. Where did this sudden emergence of gender identity questions come from?

If you consider yourself to be a thinking Christian, and the current wave of interest in all things “trans” concerns you, then I know of THE book that you need to read: Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution is a long awaited attempt to frame the historical and philosophical factors that have led to our current, cultural moment. Trueman currently serves as a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, but he has had a distinguished career as a Fellow at Princeton University, and in teaching church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in England, Trueman is what can best be described as a confessional Protestant, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, holding fast to an unabashedly Reformed and Puritan mode of evangelical faith, and a cohost of the Mortification of Spin podcast, an intellectually and spiritually invigorating podcast I listen to from time to time. But as Trueman articulates so well in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he is fully conversant with the best of modern and post-modern philosophy and historical studies. His work is lucid, insightful, and inviting, all at the same time. In fact, you really do not learn of Trueman’s confessional convictions as a Christian, until towards the end of the book, but he does so in a thoughtful and irenic fashion, without shying away from the challenges of today’s controversies.

How Did We Get Here, to This Cultural Moment?

Back to the original question: “Who am I?”  The question of one’s self-identity has undergone a cosmic shift over the past few centuries, argues Trueman. The touchstone on which Trueman places his analysis comes from the thought of the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, author of the highly acclaimed The Secular Age. But for Trueman’s purposes, he zeroes in on Taylor’s work as to how the concept of the self has changed during the modern and post-modern eras. In particular, Taylor argues that the shift in answering the question, “Who am I?,” has increasingly moved towards an inward, introspective direction. In the premodern world, the concept of self-identity was wrapped up in what some external, objectifying source said about you, such as a parent, a feudal lord, or a priest or other spiritual guide expressing a body of church teaching. The quest to understand one’s self-identity is grounded today in a therapeutic mindset, by “looking within.”

Reinforcing this point, Trueman highlights the thought of American sociologist, Philip Reiff, who says that today we have a “plastic” view of the self, whereby we can fashion our own-self conception to be whatever we like it to be. Together with that, Trueman adds Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre as yet a third voice, who suggests that today’s language of self-expression is primarily “emotive,” namely that today’s ethical “values” are essentially the products of “expressive individualism.”

Trueman contends that this bend towards “expressive individualism” is inescapable now. The Christian church is caught in the thick of it all. Diagnosing how we arrived at this “expressive individualism” is the set of historical ideas that Trueman seeks to unpack in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Owing largely to the influence of Sigmund Freud, all of these trends find their biggest impact in the areas of human sexuality and gender: Someone is “gay” because they “feel” that way, and that tells them a lot about “who they are.” Or, as has emerged in recent years, we have the idea that someone can define themselves as being a “man” or a “woman,” simply on the basis of how they “feel.” The language of identity has moved, in small increments, from the objective to the subjective.

Far be it for me to try effectively lay out the full framework of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I can best refer the reader to consult either the summary reviews written by Regent College theologian Paul Helm, at his website, or at MereOrthodoxy.com. Let it suffice to say that Trueman does a masterful job weaving in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Darwin to buttress his thesis, along with some erudite analysis and critique of the Romantics, like William Blake and Percy Shelley, as well as an engagement with other seminal thinkers like Rousseau and Nietzsche. In particular, I once had a particular fascination for William Blake’s view of Christian spirituality, but Carl Trueman has convinced me that such a warm appreciation has been sorely misplaced, due to Blake’s advocacy of “free love” in his early years. Among a host of other insights, Trueman gave me the most succinct analysis of ethicist Peter Singers’ rationale for accepting abortion that I have ever read, due to Singer’s attack on orthodox Christianity (readers interested in pro-life concerns should read The Rise and Triumph for that reason alone!)

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the consequences that have been born out in terms of the legalization of same-sex marriage and widespread public acceptance gender re-imagination, is all the fruit of cultural trends in the past few hundreds of years that Trueman brings to light. While readers may know very little about Rousseau and Nietzsche, in particular, the thought patterns they championed have seeped into all levels of society, from pop-culture to the halls of academia.

Book reviewer Mark Ward calls The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self an “excellent — though long and at times tedious — book.” I would not characterize it as “tedious“, but it does assume at least some familiarity with a number of the world’s greatest thinkers since the 18th century age of Enlightenment, which might be daunting for the uninitiated. But Ward is right to point out that far too often Christians will dismiss the uncomfortable ideas of the Sexual Revolution in a very glib fashion as being “from Satan,” as though that should settle the matter. This is naive.

All ideas, including evil ones, do not spring up from nowhere. They have a history. There is a path that such ideas follow. At first, these ideas appear to be ridiculous. But then slowly over time, they gain more and more traction, until whole societies will adopt them as perfectly acceptable. For Westerners in the 21st century, this is including not simply mainline liberal Protestant churches, but even evangelical churches, to varying degrees. Today, we see the growth of such ideas being slowly cultivated, which eventually bears the fruit that we see all around us. Reviewer Andrew T. Walker likewise has other helpful insights, as well as does this interview with Trueman by Fred Zaspel.

One particular application has to do with how poorly Protestant evangelicalism, in general, does at presenting a truly sacramental expression of distinguishing between male and female, in the life of the church. Far too often, evangelical churches will get sidelined with questions about whether or not women can serve as elders/pastors in a local church, thereby missing the deeper question as to how churches can effectively model what it means to be Fathers and Mothers, in an age where understandings of gender and human sexuality owe more to cultural stereotypes, as opposed to reflecting on the great theological truths of the Christian faith. We live in age when differences between male and female are often reduced to something merely having to do “with the plumbing,” and even that can be altered, with the appropriate medical procedure.

 

Calling All Christians To Think Theologically… and Imaginatively

Trueman admits that diagnosing the problem is one thing. The harder part comes in trying to come up with an adequate solution. The chaos resulting from this therapeutic revolution appears to have no end in sight. Furthermore, this reconceptualization of the self has political consequences. It is not enough to merely tolerate inward expressions of the self. They must all be recognized as morally valid. This explains why the ratcheting up of the culture wars, over the previous few decades, have now reached such a high, fever pitch. The advocacy for the “Equality Act” is no historical accident. It is the culmination of years of culture pressure, building up slowly over time.

Trueman does suggest that the answer for Christians, in how to respond to this movement, lies in the importance of community. As Christians grapple with these issues, they need to do so within the context of a worshipping community, in submission to the study of the Scriptures, as opposed to working out their angst on their Facebook and Instagram social media pages.

Comparatively, the so-called LGBTQ community, though it is hardly a monolithic entity, has enjoyed strong bonds of community, over the past few decades. Such bonds are in many ways as supportive, if not more supportive, than what you find in many Christian churches. But the communal cohesion of the LGBTQ movement has been its primary engine for success, and orthodox-minded Christians have much to learn from this strong sense of community bonding.

As far as the “Potato Head” brand goes, the idea of mixing and matching “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Heads, with presumably interchangeable parts, to produce different varieties of families and gender transitions, is merely one of the many ways Philip Reiff’s concept of the “plastic” self is being integrated into the norms of post-modern society. Critics of those who are concerned about this transformation of the self will surely dismiss such criticism as being hyper-over-reactive. But it is the up-and-coming generation of young people who will be left trying to figure all of this stuff out.

What To Do About It?

Is the answer to try to boycott Hasbro? Probably not, at least not in the long run. Neither is trying to return to some “golden age” of Christendom the answer either, through trying to control and takeover the machinery of civil government. At least, that is my take, and from reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I gather this is Carl Trueman’s perspective as well. Applying such cultural pressure might accomplish something in the short run, but it will surely just enrage proponents of such cultural shifts, causing them to double-down against Christian “intolerance.”

Thankfully, Christians are not alone in their anxiety about all of this. There are also secular liberals, and other thinkers, who are deeply concerned about such fluid understandings of the self. Consider best-selling author Abigail Shrier, from her appearance before Congress arguing against the proposed Equality Act. Her testimony that the Equality Act would encourage great harm against women and girls, in our society. But Christians need to go further than this, with a more transformative outlook upon contemporary Western culture.

What it does take is for Christians to learn how to think about the Bible’s view of the self, and how that is contrast with today’s view of the self. Christians ranging from plumbers and construction workers to soccer moms to college professors need to be able articulate an evangelical theology of the self. This is not a job just to be left with pastors and Christians public intellectuals. It is something that must be cultivated in Christian small groups meeting in living rooms, Bible classes meeting in church buildings, and in one-on-one get togethers for coffee and lunch.

Every Christian believer needs to be a theologian able to articulate a theological anthropology that adequately describes a Scriptural view of the self. Christians can then help their non-believing neighbors understand the beauty of what God intended for humanity, without flaming the passions of the culture wars. Christians need to rediscover the value of natural law, and think creatively to stir the imagination with a genuine picture of what the Kingdom of God really looks like, that our secular neighbors might find attractive. We must recover the art of persuasion. Thinkers like G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis did this in their generations. We need new Christian voices to do the same in ours. Carl Trueman sets out the task before us.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is surely to be one of the most, if not “the” most, important and reasonably accessible intellectual history of the West to date, that bears consequences in the marketplace, the voting booth, and in the world of education, that shapes our children. Christians need to be conversant in these matters, so that we can be better persuaders of the truth of the Gospel, as opposed to automatically going to the “you must be Satan” line of attack, and thus stopping the conversation. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will help the thoughtful Christian to engage these new and revolutionary ideas, that appear to be going mainstream, so that we might be able to have thoughtful and meaningful discussions, even where there are sharp points of disagreement. This is a must-read for Christian pastors and thought leaders, or any Christian committed to thinking deeply about the rise and triumph of the modern self.

A number of excellent interviews with Carl Trueman are available on YouTube, but I found this discussion between Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler and Trueman to be particularly engaging.  You may not agree with every aspect of the discussion, but if you are on the sidelines about whether or not to read this book, I would urge you to listen to an interview like this, and I believe you will agree that the topic is perhaps one of the most timely and important ones Christians, as well as non-Christians, need to have together.


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.


Is Paul Contradicting Genesis, Regarding Gender, in Galatians 3:28?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past twenty years or so, you will know that some elements of Western culture have been chipping away at the classic, historical Scriptural distinction between male and female. Some well-meaning, well-intentioned folks, even in the church, have been encouraging this movement along, in some unfortunately unhelpful ways.

Granted, for the past hundred years, many evangelical egalitarians have sought to restore a sense of balance, by advocating for more women in church leadership, at the local church level, by citing Paul’s “magna carta” passage Galatians 3:28. In general, most Christians support this understanding, at some level:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”

The original context for Paul’s writing in Galatians is to address who can and can not be baptized, in the church. For Paul, gender is no prohibition to baptism, as opposed to something like circumcision, which was just for Jewish males. But many Christians today have appealed to Galatians 3:28, as having a broader application, advancing causes, such has encouraging women to serve as elders in the local church. Such proponents of this interpretation contend that Paul is eliminating the distinction between male and female, when it come to exercising spiritual authority, in the local church.

This is a disputable matter, in much of evangelicalism today (though for some, on either side of the debate, the issue is “indisputable,” favoring their particular reading of the Bible). Many are quite correct to say that there need not be a slippery slope here, away from more difficult matters concerning gender. I would agree.

Yet it is amazing to see how many corners of the church manage to find creative ways of sliding here, anyway. At one level, it is understandable. There is still sexism in the church. Correcting past wrongs is something all Christians need to pursue, and Galatians 3:28 has an appropriate application here. Affirming the gifts of both women and men, for ministry, is essential. But it is also very easy to go too far with Galatians 3:28, and get caught up in extremism.

For example, quite a few in the church now appeal to Galatians 3:28 as sanctioning same-sex marriage, and a growing number are now affirming transgenderism, in such a way, as to go beyond the traditional understanding of gender dysphoria, as a psychological condition. Such a broad range of advocates all agree, in putting forward the thesis, that gender is no big deal to God, though the applications differ. Along with the surrounding culture, such advocates now treat gender as merely being a social construct, even to the point of denying the traditional basics of human biology, which is an attack on modern science.

Just recently, I heard the newest argument, being advanced in at least one mainline Protestant, or what some would call “progressive Christian” circle, that Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:28 is actually CONTRADICTING the teaching in Genesis, regarding humans being created in the image of God: male and female, God created humanity. Underlying this belief is the assumption that because male and female are inherently equal, male and female are therefore inherently interchangeable.

Here is the crucial passage, that Paul is supposedly contradicting:

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 ESV)

Has gender really become irrelevant today?

Regardless of how this question is answered, what it clearly has become, is a free speech matter, in the surrounding culture. Consider the “cancel culture” attempt to silence Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling.  Rowling voiced her concerns that some elements of the transgender movement are harming women, and she paid dearly for making such statements. Yet Rowling is not alone.

Journalists and academics are now finding that their careers are under threat, if they do not bow to the “new orthodoxy” advanced by “critical theory.” Note that it is not specifically conservative evangelicals, who find themselves under threat. These are also liberal, secular minded people, including atheists and agnostics, who nevertheless share the historical Christian claim, and scientific observation, that there is a distinction between male and female. Christians therefore, should be careful not to lump all “liberals” into the same basket. Some of these leftward leaning, secular thinkers recently signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine, urging that all respect the freedom of speech, including statements that claim that gender actually matters, and that gender is not merely a social construct.

Let me be clear: We should not overreact, as some have unfortunately done (The recent debacle that has almost destroyed one of my favorite podcasts, the Mortification of Spin, is a good example of extremism, on the conservative evangelical side).

Instead, we should encourage women to use their gifts for leadership and ministry in the church. We should affirm justice in society (including those areas pertaining to race). We should encourage those who experience same-sex attraction to have a solid network of supportive friendships, as they seek to honor God regarding their sexuality. We should also have compassion on and extend grace towards those who are experiencing gender dysphoria.

But let us also be united in affirming the teaching of Scripture: We were created in the image of God, male and female. This means that while male and female are indeed equal, they are not interchangeable. This is a mystery that reflects the very character of God. It is vital for the church to uphold a means of honoring that distinction, within the structure of corporate worship, and the Christian life.

Affirming the unity of our baptism into Christ’s church does not go against the rest of Scripture. So, let us stop misusing Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 in a misguided effort at supposedly “contradicting” Genesis.

Canadian psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker is now among the latest to have experienced threats from the “cancel culture” mob. While I do not share professor Pinker’s atheism, nor his missteps regarding history, as a Christian I fully support his efforts to protect free speech. As Christians, we should honor those values that encourage open debate and wide ranging discussion, without fear of retribution:

 


Statements: What Does Nashville Have to Do With Chicago?

On August 29, 2017, a group of evangelical leaders announced the signing of the Nashville Statement. If you have not heard of it, you should go and read it for yourself.

The Nashville Statement was crafted by the leadership of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), in response to recent cultural changes regarding the public acceptance of gay marriage and transgender identification. For those Christians who have felt that the evangelical church has not taken a firm enough stand against these cultural trends, this is a boldly direct statement that such Christians should spend some time carefully studying.

CBMW originally had its beginnings, in the 1980s, opposing the acceptance of women as elders and/or pastors, in churches, as well as affirming male-headship in the home. But now, with the Nashville Statementunder the leadership of Bible professor Denny Burk, CBMW has broadened its scope to “equip the church on the meaning of biblical sexuality.”

Why is it called the Nashville Statement? Well, because, like other Christian confessional documents, ranging from the Nicene Creed, to the Augsburg Confession, to the Westminster Confession, it was written in Nashville, Tennessee. It contains a listing of articles, made of various affirmations (“WE AFFIRM”) and denials (“WE DENY”), that seek to address a biblical approach to gender dysphoria and same-sex desire and behavior.

The written style of the Nashville Statement is therefore much like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, drafted in Chicago, in the 1970s. Like the Chicago Statement, the Nashville Statement enjoys some of the same positive characteristics as well as suffering some of the same problems that these type of documents have.

As I have written about before, the Chicago Statement succeeded in defining a view of biblical authority, that many evangelical Christians could rally around and support, rightly affirming the Bible’s truthfulness. On the other hand, the Chicago Statement was unsuccessful in resolving a number of issues surrounding how the Bible is to be interpreted. Much of the challenge that has arisen, since the Chicago Statement’s signing, involves how terms, like inerrancy, that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, are to be defined and applied in Christian hermeneutics.

The Nashville Statement carries much of the same properties, but within a different scope. The Nashville Statement is already gathering an impressive number of Christian leaders, across a wide set of backgrounds, who have publicly signed onto the document. It affirms the beliefs that Christians have held for 2000 years. In our sexually confused world, this is a big deal. I would not be surprised if the Nashville Statement becomes a unifying banner for many, if not most, conservative evangelicals.

Alas, the Nashville Statement has its difficulties. It uses terminology and language that some might find antiquated, offensive, or otherwise, difficult to define, such as “homosexual,” “divinely ordained differences between male and female” (Article 3 & 4), “homosexual or transgender self-conception” (Article 7), and “transgenderism” (Article 10). What does all of this mean?

For example, does the Nashville Statement mean that those who identify as gay and celibate persons can consider themselves as being fully Christian, or does it preclude such self-identification? I honestly do not know. As far as I can tell, many of the signers (and non-signers) of Nashville themselves are deeply divided on this.

There has been a firestorm of criticism from the progressive wing of Christianity, such as this counter-statement, Christians United: In Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church.  However, there have also been a different set of criticisms from other conservative evangelicals.

From my perspective, I would not have written such a document in the same manner. While the Nashville Statement affirms central ideas that I would strongly endorse, like in defending a biblical concept of marriage, I doubt that it successfully casts a vision of how to reach out to an LGBT+ population, that remains either hidden in silence in, or already alienated from, evangelical churches.

This is a pastoral crisis in our churches, and it has been that way for years. A 2009 study shows that teenagers who struggle with same-sex desires, many of whom come from Christian families, who experience rejection from their families, are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide, than other teenagers. I personally know a number of folks who have left evangelical church communities, feeling that evangelical churches are not safe and supportive environments for addressing LGBT+ questions.

I pay close attention to the writings of Mark Yarhouse, professor of clinical psychology at Regent University, in Virginia Beach, who believes that the Nashville Statement lacks the type of nuanced, mature reflection necessary to address extremely difficult and complex questions surrounding gender dysphoria, that many Christians, and often even scientists and psychologists today, do not know that much about. I also agree strongly with the critique offered by theologian Preston Sprinkle, author of People To Be Loved. The Nashville Statement will be a rallying point for many Christians, in that it affirms an approach to biblical sexuality. But it offers very little in terms of how Christians can faithfully love and care for friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members who struggle with sexual and gender identity issues. As Preston Sprinkle puts it, the evangelical conversation in this area typically “has been profoundly impersonal and one-sided (lots of truth and very little grace).”

Will the Nashville Statement have the staying power of a Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, or even a Nicene Creed? I do not know. Either way, I do hope for something better in evangelical churches, a Christian vision that fosters a spiritual posture that enables Christians to be agents of healing, as opposed to having the reputation as being agents of condemnation.


Jen Hatmaker and the Frustrated Evangelical Response to LGBTQ

The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, unloaded a clever piece on Jen Hatmaker today, expressing the type of dismay that many evangelical Christians are thinking. But are we really hearing the message underneath Jen Hatmaker's public pronouncement?

The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, unveiled a clever piece on Jen Hatmaker recently, expressing the type of dismay that many evangelical Christians are thinking. But are we really hearing the message underneath Jen Hatmaker’s public pronouncement?

Over the past week or so, Jen Hatmaker, the funny and vivacious reality TV star of the HGTV show, “My Big Family Renovation,” rocked the social-media world of evangelicalism asunder. Jen Hatmaker, a favorite in MOPS circles (that is, Mothers Of PreSchoolers, a very active group in our church), and popular speaker at various Christian women’s conferences, in an interview, publicly stated her affirmation of gay and lesbian marriages as potentially holy.

Well, this probably had the same effect as setting a stack of Bibles on fire.

Jen Hatmaker is but one in a steady stream of high-profile, evangelical celebrities and leaders to jump ship from supporting a traditional, evangelical view of human sexuality, to supporting gay and lesbian marriage in the church, over the past few years. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, and singer songwriter Jennifer Knapp, too. What was unthinkable ten or twenty years ago, is now becoming more common, as otherwise traditional “Bible-believers” are willing to discard 2,000 years of Christian teaching, particularly in the wake of the June, 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

What makes Jen Hatmaker a bit different is because she is not a pastor, or a theologian, or a super-talented singer. She comes across as a very down-to-earth, spunky, disarmingly honest and homespun happy mother, who has the same type of problems all of us have… and she has 109 thousand Twitter followers. That means that there are probably at least a handful of busy MOPS women in your conservative, evangelical church, who are probably a bit bewildered as to why Jen Hatmaker is making such a public stand on this topic.

These are not folks out there in liberal, mainline churches, who long ago dropped their commitment to biblical authority. Rather, they could be sitting next to you at your Bible-believing fellowship.

There is confusion in our churches.

What are we to make of this trend? How does someone with a high view of Scripture respond?  Continue reading


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