Posts tagged ‘Gay’

Calling Her Caitlyn

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

June 8, 2015 at 5:15 am 7 comments

Must Christianity Change or Die?

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Sometimes, it can feel as though the sky is falling and the bottom is dropping out all at the same time. It seems like I can go barely a day without reading a dire report on church attrition, especially among the younger generation. Between high school and turning 30, 43 percent of once-active young adults stop attending church.[1] As of 2012, almost one-third of young adults were unaffiliated with a religious institution.[2] In one survey, researchers found that nearly one-third of young adults left the Christian faith because of its “negative teachings” related to gays and lesbians.[3]

Such gloomy statistics lead to predictable calls to fix the Church by changing its teachings, lest the next generation, discontent with the Church’s antiquated morals, leave her altogether. Take, for instance, this call from popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans:

Young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people …

Young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness …

The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and … millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt …

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.[4]

Evans’ last line is striking to me. In response to changing cultural norms, Evans maintains that the Church must change the substance of her message. In the words of the famed Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change or die.”[5] How must Christianity change? Evans offers some suggestions:

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Evans’ words here are fascinating – and confusing – to me because, understood one way, they are commendable, orthodox, and necessary. But understood another way, they are deeply troubling. For instance, if a “truce between science and faith” means understanding the respective spheres of each and welcoming scientific discovery while at the same time remaining faithful to Scripture’s narrative, I’m onboard. If, however, it means dumping the historicity of Scripture’s creation account, I’m troubled. If having “our LGBT friends feel truly welcome in our faith communities” means showing love, compassion, and going out of our way to listen and learn from the LGBT community, I’m more than all for it. If it means calling what is sinful, “just,” I’m troubled. Sadly, I can’t help but think that, all too often, it’s the latter understandings of these statements that are insinuated. Otherwise, it is feared, a whole generation of young people will leave the Church.

But is this really the case?

Take Rob Bell. Here is a man who has, at least in part, bought into Spong’s motto, “Christianity must change or die.” In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell asks candidly, “Can God keep up with the modern world?”[6] He fought to build a community – Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids – that would lead the way in this new Christianity. Until he left. In an interview with Oprah, he says his Sunday mornings are now regularly filled with he and his 13-year-old son surfing.[7] Rob Bell was leading a changed church. But even a changed church wasn’t enough to keep Bell around. And he isn’t the only one.

For decades now, churches that have changed the substance of the Christian faith have not been gaining members, but losing members. And now, even as young people are leaving traditional churches, they are not joining these changed churches. They are leaving altogether.[8]

It would seem that if a church is willing to “get with the times,” so to speak, and embrace our culture’s zeitgeist, its pews should be filled to overflowing with the ranks of the enlightened, all breathing a collective sigh of relief that, finally, the offensive, narrow, bigoted Christianity of yesteryear has been relegated to the scrap heap of history. But this has not happened.

The problem with changing the faith of the Church – even the parts of the faith that are not particularly palpable to our modern ears – is that such changes inevitably displace Christianity’s eschatological hope with an evolutionary drum.

What do I mean?

Whether it’s the so-called “war” between science and faith, or the question of gay marriage, or the role of politics in faith, many Christians have simply traded one side of Rachel Held Evans’ despised culture war for the other. They desire to evolve beyond what they perceive as a restrictive, judgmental, intellectually archaic Christian faith. So they laugh at those who take Genesis’ creation account historically, or cry “bigotry” against those who express concern with gay marriage, or look down on those who argue for a more traditionally moral politics. These are old ways that must be done away with, they think.

But what happens is that they become so animated by grievances from the past and trying to right them right now that they forget about – or at least relegate to the background – any sort of ultimate hope for the future. They wind up fighting for a certain kind of culture rather than finding their hope in a different type of Kingdom. They become so obsessed with what’s next that they forget about what’s last.

When you dispel the Christian faith down to nothing more than a fight for this or that cause célèbre, more often than not, you end up with nothing – or at least with nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. And why would anyone go somewhere for something they can get anywhere? This is why changing Christianity’s substance doesn’t gain people; it only loses them.

So what course of action can a Christian take? In a world full of cultural convolution, Christianity’s answer is elegantly simple: “Stand firm in the faith … Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Don’t change the faith. Love others. That’s it. And really, who can improve on that? Some things don’t need to change.

_____________________

[1] Melissa Stefan, “Have 8 Million Millennials Really Given Up on Christianity?Christianity Today (5.17.2013).

[2] Vern L. Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 148.

[3]A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” Public Religion Research Institute (2.26.2014).

[4] Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” cnn.com (7.27.2013).

[5] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999).

[6] Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 8.

[7]Super Soul Sunday: Oprah Goes Soul to Soul with Rob Bell,” Oprah.com.

[8] Rod Dreher, “The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism,” The American Conservative (7.25.2013).

January 19, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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