We live in a time of sometimes bewildering cultural change, old norms being taken apart and discarded before our eyes. The writer Paul Kingsnorth puts it like this:
If you’re broadly socially conservative – which in practice means that you hold views which were entirely mainstream until about about five years ago – the questions are currently coming at you in a rolling barrage. Why should a man not marry a man? Why should a man not become a woman? Why should a child not have three fathers, or be born from a female womb transplanted into a man’s body?https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/the-dream-of-the-rood?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cta [emphasis added]
Who will guide us through these times, bringing together sound information, wisdom from above and the compassion of Christ? The best answer I’ve found so far – at least to some of the questions posed by Paul Kingsnorth – comes in a book entitled Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church & What the Bible has to say by American biblical scholar and best-selling author Preston Sprinkle.
Sprinkle writes from an American perspective but he knows the British scene too: he has a PhD in New Testament from Aberdeen University and taught for a time at Nottingham University.
He provides a well-researched and thought-through guide to many of the issues raised by trans people:
He knows – indeed counts as personal friends – many trans people, including trans people who are passionate followers of Jesus of Nazareth. And he tells their stories. One of his favourite sayings is: If you’ve met one trans person… you’ve met one trans person. It is a radical mistake to lump all trans people together as if their experience were in any way uniform.
He knows what gender dysphoria can feel like. (Gender dysphoria is a psychological term for the distress some people feel when their internal sense of self doesn’t match their biological sex.) He explains that for some trans people even being referred to with the “wrong” pronoun can immediately precipitate great psychological distress. I had no idea of this and, in my ignorance, had assumed that insistence by a biological male on being referred to as “she” or “they” was merely being difficult, thumbing your nose at traditional authority. For some, that might be the case. But clearly not all.
He has worked through a large body of medical/scientific literature on trans issues and evaluates it all from a philosophical and theological standpoint. He has two chapters dealing with the issues of “male brain in a female body” and “female soul in a male body”. These alone would make the book worth reading.
He has a whole chapter on “Intersex”. This is a word I hadn’t heard of until a couple of years ago and assumed that it meant people who are neither male nor female. Put that idea alongside the (apparently often-quoted) statistic that 1.7% of people are intersex – roughly the same number of people with red hair – and it would be easy to conclude that the world is full of people who are neither male nor female. In fact, more than sixteen different conditions are classified as “intersex”, and some people go through their entire lives without realising that (technically and medically) they are “intersex”. By some estimates as many as 99% of people with an intersex condition are unambiguously male or female. All this is invaluable information.
The final four chapters of the book shift from theory to practice. He explores:
- Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria: the term coined by an American academic for the sudden rise of dysphoria (some call it an “outbreak”) among teenagers. He is very concerned by the “medicalisation” of young people wrestling with gender identity.
- Transitioning and Christian Discipleship
- Pronouns, Bathrooms (“toilets” to British readers) and Sleeping Places
- Outrageous Love:
Our cultural moment is one of outrage and uncertainty… But outrage doesn’t change the world. Love changes the world.Embodied page 221
Sprinkle believes – and explains in detail why he believes – that:
… one long-term goal of discipleship is for all believers to identify with their biological sex.Embodied page 195
I agree. The task of the church is to pursue that goal with grace and truth. I think he does an exceptionally good job of doing just that. For all who share those foundational gospel values, the book is a great worked example of how grace and truth might be embodied by the church as it encounters trans people and seeks to love them.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, celebrating what is sometimes called the birthday of the church. What kind of church do we want? Better, what kind of church does God want?
Sprinkle tells the story of Lesli, to whom the book is dedicated. As a child and adolescent Lesli wrestled with their (note the pronoun) gender identity. Desperate, they went to their pastor for help. He responded by sending them out of the back door of his office and telling them never to come back. Lesli found love and acceptance among LGBTQ people. In due course they fell in love with a woman named Sue and got married. And then Sue died from burns sustained in a fire where they lived. Desperate again, Lesli looked for a church which would take Sue’s funeral. They phoned the only church they knew, which happened to be one of the most conservative in the area. The pastor picked up the phone and heard this:
Hi, my name is Lesli, and my wife just died. We’re lesbians, but, um… I want to know if you would do my wife’s funeral…Embodied page 26
If you’re a pastor/priest/church leader, how would you respond to that question?
This pastor said: “We would be honoured to”. He went on to express compassion for Lesli’s loss and offered to take care of the whole thing – the arrangements, the cost: anything they needed. This kindness brought Lesli back to faith in Christ.
I think that pastor represents the kind of church God wants.