Calling Her Caitlyn

June 8, 2015 at 5:15 am 7 comments


Caitlyn JennerI first saw the cover early in the morning. I was watching ESPN when there flashed a picture of a striking woman on the cover of Vanity Fair with these instructions: “Call Me Caitlyn.”

Caitlyn Jenner, who we got to know first as Bruce Jenner, the decathlete who wowed the world at the 1976 Summer Olympics, officially came out as a transgender woman last week. And she made quite a splash. The New York Times reports that the online version of Vanity Fair’s article featuring Caitlyn had more than 6 million visitors in a matter of hours. Caitlyn’s Twitter account garnered more than 1.1 million followers in about the same time.[1] This is no doubt a watershed moment for the transgender movement. It is also a source of big questions for many in the Christian community. What are we to think?   How are we to react? The Church of England is considering introducing a transgender naming ceremony into their liturgical rites that parallels the baptismal rite. Is this the way to respond?

A comprehensive discussion about the transgender movement, or even about Caitlyn Jenner, is far beyond the scope of a blog like this. My aims here must be much more modest. What follows, therefore, are simply four pastoral thoughts about how we, as Christians, can appropriately and charitably address what can only be described as a tectonic shift in traditional understandings of gender.

Thought 1: Be compassionate.

Last week, I was listening to the radio in my truck on my way home when I heard a cruel parody song mocking Jenner’s transition. Following the parody, people dutifully called the radio show to add their jeers, saying every hateful thing imaginable about Caitlyn Jenner.

The bottom line is this: disagreeing with someone else’s decision does not give anyone a right to make fun of them – ever. Even if you think morality is decaying and our country is declining, mockery is never an appropriate response. Disagreement must be drenched in compassion.

So before you speak disagreeably, listen attentively. If you have a transgender friend or family member, take the time to listen to their story and to care about their fears, hurts, and hopes. If you don’t have a transgender friend or family member, there are plenty of published accounts out there of transgender journeys that you can read or watch. But while you take them in, make sure you whisper the famed prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:  “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood as to understand.”  Listening leads to understanding. And understanding leads to compassion.  And in a culture that is way too acerbic way too often, Christians ought to be known for their compassion.

Thought 2: Be careful.

If you do disagree with someone over the ethics of their sexual or gender identity, be very careful how you express your disagreement. Because these two topics are so emotionally volatile in our cultural conversation and go to the heart of what our culture considers to be one’s identity, and because those who are first coming out as gay or transgender are acutely sensitive to and deathly afraid of how their friends and family will respond, be painfully measured in how, when, and where you express disagreement, lest you wind up with a heartbreaking story like this. If you have a loved one who has come out and is engaged in some sort of destructive behavior like substance abuse or is demonstrating suicidal tendencies, seek professional help immediately.

Thought 3: Be thoughtful.

Columnist David Brooks recently bemoaned the simplistic state of our societal dialogue, writing:

Settled philosophies are meant to (but obviously don’t always) instill a limiting sense of humility, a deference to the complexity and multifaceted nature of reality. But many of today’s activists are forced to rely on a relatively simple social theory.[2]

Reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out has ranged from the barbarous parody that I heard on the radio to unfettered adulation for Jenner to unrestrained venom for anyone who thinks what has happened here is anything less than “courageous” and “heroic.” All of these responses are sadly simplistic and, if I can be so bold, just plain wrong.

We need to be asking more thoughtful and complex questions about the transgender movement. We need to be paying attention to its medical and psychological effects. Though many transgender people report being happy with their new gender, such a transition is not a psychological “fix all.” We need to be aware of and conversant with this reality.

We also need to be on the lookout for logical inconsistencies in our cultural causes. For instance, how does Caitlyn Jenner’s claim that, as a transgender woman, she has “the soul and brain of a female” square with the feminist contention that so-called “hardwired” differences between male and female brains are merely societal, and in many cases oppressive, constructs? How can Caitlyn, as a transgender woman, have a “female brain” if there is no female brain to begin with? In one way, I fear many of us have become little more than “cause addicts,” jumping from one cutting-edge social cause to the next – in this case, jumping from the cause of feminism to the cause of transgenderism – all the while being oblivious to the logical lacunae between them, thereby trapping ourselves in wildly inconsistent understandings of our humanity and our world.

It is also worth it to consider the assumption behind transgenderism that human desires – especially if these desires manifest themselves at an early age – and, later in life, human decisions are sovereign. If one feels like a woman, one must be a woman. If one decides to be a man, one must be a man. I can’t help but wonder with James Davison Hunter if:

The power of will first becomes nihilistic at the point at which it becomes absolute; when it submits to no authority higher than itself; that is, when impulse and desire become their own moral gauge and when it is guided by no other ends than its own exercise.[3]

A person’s biological sex, though it may not say everything about them, certainly says something about them. Likewise, a person’s desires, though they have something to say about them, certainly do not have everything to say about them. To make a person’s desires and decisions the sum total of their being is to lapse into disastrous nihilism.

Admittedly, none of these issues are simple to confront or sort out. But a society uncommitted to intellectual and philosophical responsibility is a society dangerously close to poisonous inebriation on bread and circuses. As Christians, we must be thoughtful.

Thought 4: Be biblical.

The Bible has a very different conceptual framework than we do when it comes to gender. Indeed, I find it ironic that at the same time our social and moral theories, as David Brooks notes above, are becoming more simplistic and bifurcated, our gender taxonomy has become increasingly and frustratingly complex, now involving everything from assigned biology to inward identity to outward expression to sexual attraction. The Bible is much more matter-of-fact in its opening reference to gender: “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). Importantly, this verse reminds us that there is part of being created as male and female that reflects the very image of God. And though this image may be distorted by sin, it is not destroyed by it. It continues to play a role even after the fall (e.g., Genesis 9:6). Thus, respecting and understanding our biological sex as a part of humanity’s continuing reflection of God’s image is vital. Our biological sex should not be discounted or despised out of hand. Likewise, our biological body build is worthy of our careful stewardship (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and, in many instance, is appropriately unalterable, even as Jesus Himself reminds us when He asks rhetorically, “Can any of you add a cubit to his height by worrying” (Luke 12:25)?

None of this is to say that transgenderism is worthy of some special sort of theological scorn or that transgender people deserve and need anything less than deep compassion and care.  We must never forget that anyone can be a part of God’s Kingdom. Indeed, though transgenderism was not a topic of discussion in the ancient world, people who were eunuchs were an accepted reality. Many men became eunuchs so they could serve in high political positions unencumbered by family concerns (e.g., Esther 1:10-11; Acts 8:27). Others became eunuchs for cultic reasons. God’s law puts parameters on such practices when Moses commands:  “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23:1). Yet, God’s grace extends to those who are eunuchs:

This is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to My covenant – to them I will give within My temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:4-5)

No matter who you are, God has a heritage waiting for you for the sake of Christ through faith in Christ. And this is a message that must never be muted or obscured. Instead, this is a message that must always be fearlessly and forcefully proclaimed by all Christians. For at a time when our attention is riveted on gender dysphoria, this is a message and hope that promises eternal euphoria.

_________________________________________

[1] Ravi Somaiya, “Caitlyn Jenner, Formerly Bruce, Introduces Herself in Vanity Fair,” The New York Times (6.1.2015).

[2] David Brooks, “The Campus Crusaders,” The New York Times (6.2.2015).

[3] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 211

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The Shifting Moral Tide Marriage, Thriving, and Character

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gail Wortz  |  June 8, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Thank you pastor Zach for giving me and others your insight on this current situation. I know it comes from the words I trust and try to live by. I am missing Bible class at Concordia now that I live in Arkansas

    Reply
  • 2. Steve  |  June 8, 2015 at 11:24 am

    When life issues become very complex and emotionally charged, it is good to have a clear and simple path to guide response. Your four thoughts to the issue of the transgender person are very valuable. The St. Francis quote is highly appropriate. But, perhaps most valuable of all is the description of the continuing complexity and desperation of a culture trapped in the narcissism of pursuing identity through the assertion of personal centricity and happiness. Nihilism implies the absence of anything transcendent. It presumes that thought or discussion of anything like “the image of God” has no relevance. A moment like this, which some would rigorously vilify while others commend as courageous, is really a call to press hard into words like “speaking the truth in love.”

    Reply
    • 3. Alice  |  June 9, 2015 at 6:09 pm

      Thoughtful reply to a thoughtful blog. Thank you both for giving your readers much to contemplate.

      In order to speak the truth in love, one must be filled with the Spirit of Him who is Love. Oh, that the people who are called by the name of Christ would humbly seek that filling and refilling daily.

      Reply
  • 4. Bill  |  June 9, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Well done!

    Reply
  • 5. Kristin Wollman  |  June 9, 2015 at 10:33 am

    This perfectly expresses what I think as well. Well written, Zach!

    Reply
  • […] on this blog, I have painstakingly sought to not flippantly dismiss or diminish the desires and struggles people face when it comes to sexuality. I want to be as sensitive and empathetic as possible. […]

    Reply
  • […] weeks have presented me with no shortage of blog-worthy issues to write about. Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. On the heels of a horrific racist […]

    Reply

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