Posts tagged ‘Transgender’

Same-Sex Marriage, Transgenderism, and Oppression

LGBT Rally

It was the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nazianzus who wrote of God:

The three most ancient conceptions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia … Anarchy is a thing without order; and Polyarchy is like civil war, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly.  For both of these tend toward the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution.  But Monarchy is that which we hold in honor.[1]

Gregory is speaking here of the Trinity and is making the point that the persons of the Godhead are not independent of each other and unconcerned with each other in a kind of divine anarchy, nor are they vying for power against each other as in a polyarchy.  Rather, God is a monarchy – at perfect peace in Himself as three persons and one God.  This is why the apostle Paul can describe the nature of God as “not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33).

Order is essential to the nature and character of God.  And the order of God shows up in that which He creates.  What God creates during the first three days of creation, for instance, are filled in a very orderly fashion by what He creates in the second three days of creation (cf. Genesis 1:1-26).  When God makes human beings, he orders them as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27).  When God assigns humans work, He creates an order that places people as the crown and the stewards of what He has made (cf. Genesis 1:28-30).  And when God creates human relations, He outlines an order by which “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Recently, the transgender movement has been grabbing headline after headline.  A simple search on The New York Times website revealed that, in one 24-hour period, the paper ran 19 stories dealing with transgender concerns.  This comes on the heels of a pitched battle over same-sex marriage last year.  In both cases, these battles have been framed in terms of oppression.  To deprive gay couples of the ability to legally marry was oppressive, same-sex marriage advocates argued.  To ask questions about whether or not a person’s internal gender identification can be unflinchingly determinative of someone’s being as a male or female has also been called oppressive and discriminatory.  In light of such oppression, the argument has gone, what is needed is freedom – freedom to marry whoever you like and freedom to be the gender you perceive yourself as, even if your biological sex does not match your internal orientation.

Because freedom is such an integral part of the American ethos, to argue against freedom – whether that be the freedom to marry or the freedom to transition from a male to a female or a female to a male – seems almost sacrilegious.  But what if our starting category for these debates over same-sex marriage and transgenderism needs shifting?  What if we need to begin by asking questions not about oppression, but about order?  What if the orderliness of God and of His creation really does have a bearing on the way we order our lives – not in an oppressive way, but in a graciously protective way?

If not being able to marry who you want and live as the gender you internally identify as is oppressive, then it makes sense to push toward freedom.  Freedom is, after all, generally a good thing.  But if these strictures are not about oppression, but about order, then to push against them is not to strive for freedom, but to create chaos.  And chaos can be disastrous.

Scripture is clear that true freedom must be guided by Godly order.  In the words of the apostle Paul, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).  It is the orderly Spirit who must be present to give and to guide good freedom.  Freedom without such order degenerates into chaos.  And, as any number of Middle Eastern countries can tell you, chaos makes a society ripe for an oppressor.  To deny a Godly order is to invite an oppressive orderer.

In our current discussions over transgenderism and same-sex marriage, it is perhaps worth it to ask ourselves as Christians:  for what are we striving?  Are we striving to oppress, marginalize, and stigmatize the LGBT community, which has, sadly, admittedly happened in the past, or are we striving to call all people to a helpful order for their lives?  The first goal is clearly self-righteous and sinful.  But the second is Godly and needed – even if many outside the Church don’t see it that way.

_______________________

[1] Gregory of Naziansus, Select Orations 29:2

June 6, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Target, Transgenderism, and Bathroom Brouhahas

Target

Two weeks ago, when Target announced it would continue “to stand for inclusivity” by welcoming “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity,”[1] fuel was added to the fire of what was already a raging debate.  “More than 700,000 pledge to boycott Target over transgender bathroom policy,” a headline in USA Today thundered.  The Daily Beast countered the boycott with its headline: “All the Things You Can No Longer Buy if You’re Really Boycotting Trans-Friendly Businesses.”

It’s a bathroom brouhaha.  So where does this big story leave Christians?

In one way, the fight over bathrooms only serves to mask larger questions about gender and identity.  The transgender movement as a whole seems locked into a form of Platonic dualism.  According to this philosophy, each physical form has a corresponding higher non-corporeal ideal.  So, for instance, a chair here on earth corresponds to a perfect non-corporeal chair in a higher realm.  Key to understanding Plato’s theory of correspondence between the physical and the non-corporeal is that the higher non-corporeal form is always determinative of and better than the lower physical form.  This is why Platonism’s final goal is for a person to escape this realm of lower physical forms and ascend to the realm of higher non-corporeal ideals.  Thus, in Platonism, the non-corporeal is always given preference over the corporeal, even as it pertains to our very bodies.  As Socrates, Plato’s mentor, put it:

The soul is immortal, and ‘tis not possession of thine own, but of Providence; and after the body is wasted away, like a swift horse freed from its traces, it lightly leaps forward and mingles itself with the light air, loathing the spell of harsh and painful servitude which it has endured.[2]

For Socrates, the body is a prison of “harsh and painful servitude” to be loathed.  Why?  Because it is physical.  The soul, however, is non-corporeal.  Therefore, the soul is to be preferred to and determinative of the body.

Many in the transgender movement seem to Platonically privilege non-corporeal inclinations over at least some of the clearer markers of physical biology.  People who come out as transgender are, in essence, declaring, “There is another form of me gender-wise than what my biological sex indicates.  My biological sex has subjected me to a ‘harsh and painful servitude,’ above which I intend to rise.” Jane Clark Scharl, in an article for the National Review, puts it well when she writes:

The … rhetoric used to be about liberating us from the moral and cultural limits on bodies, so that we could do whatever we wanted with them. Presumably that didn’t make us happy, because today, it’s about liberating us from our bodies altogether, by telling us that we can define ourselves however we want regardless of our biology.[3]

Being liberated from the body and its biology is a quintessentially Platonic – and, I would add, theologically problematic – notion.

I do understand that certain biological anomalies – anomalies in the sense that they are statistically rare – can occur in certain individuals.  I am also aware that there are questions over whether there are subtle differences in a transgender person’s brain.  But these questions do not negate the fact that gender dysphoria, the oft-cited trigger of transgenderism, is regularly presented and thought of as a conflict between a person’s physical biology and a person’s non-corporeal gender identity.  To quote the Oxford Dictionary: gender dysphoria is “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex.”  Notice how, according to this definition, gender dysphoria is rooted in “one’s emotional and psychological identity” being in conflict with one’s biological sex.  In other words, barring a worldview that reduces emotions and psychology to nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain, there is a conflict between the non-corporeal part of a person and the physical part of person who experiences gender dysphoria.  To state the matter simply, there is a conflict between what may be referred to as a person’s soul and one’s body. And many people in the transgender movement assume the soul should win this conflict. But the Bible reminds us that even the non-corporeal parts of us are deeply flawed and should not be blindly trusted.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus notes, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mark 7:21).  Is it any wonder that the prophets, when addressing human corruption, say things like, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)?  For us to address any anxiety – whether it be in our gender, in our sexuality, or even in some medical ailment – we can’t just deal in the physical.  We must consider – and yes, even confront and be converted in – the non-corporeal.

It should be pointed out that it’s not just people in the transgender movement who assume a Platonic view of the physical.  Many Christians do too.  Ask the average Christian which part of a person is more important – the body or the soul – and he will more than likely respond, “The soul.”  But this is not the case, at least according to Scripture.  The fact that the bodies of those who are dead will be raised on the Last Day reminds us that both bodies and souls are important.  After all, both are created by God. The goal for the Christian, then, is never to somehow rise above the body or to let the non-corporeal determine the physical.  Rather, the hope of the Christian is to be eschatalogically redeemed in the body by the resurrection of all flesh.

It is important for Christians to defend and promote a telic view of the body – that the body is fundamental to who we are and is created with a purpose and point.  A person can either steward the body according to the purpose and point for which it was created or work against the purpose and point for which the body was created.  Working against the purpose and point of the body, however, comes with consequences.  Just ask those who suffer all sorts of health problems because they abuse their bodies with, let’s say, junk food rather than fueling their bodies with a balanced diet.  We should not despise our bodies.

This takes us back to Target’s restrooms.  One of the difficulties in demanding that a person use the restroom that matches his or her sex biologically is that there may be a person who identifies as and looks very much like a male going into a female restroom and person who identifies as and looks very much like a female going into a male restroom.  This is sure to make patrons uncomfortable.  On the other hand, stories have already surfaced of predators who are using policies like Target’s to take advantage of unknowing victims.  Depending on how common these horrifying incidents become, Target could find itself regularly grappling with basic issues of of customer safety.  In other words, no matter what restroom policy Target adopts and enforces, it will probably land the company in some kind of legal, cultural, and public relations battle.  Indeed, it seems like the only way to address the restroom needs of a culture where gender is increasingly presumed to be fluid may be to build banks of private unisex restrooms, which could prove terribly costly for businesses that currently offer larger public restrooms.

Though the debate over bathrooms is interesting, ultimately, as Christians, we are called to concern ourselves with how to love all our neighbors – including those who are transgender.  This is why our first questions in this bathroom battle should not be, “Is this policy good for me?”  Or, “How do I feel about transgender people being able to choose their bathroom?”  Instead, our first questions should be, “Is transgenderism good for people?”  And, “Is it good to deny a created physical order for the sake of what is perceived to be a higher non-corporeal understanding of one’s self?” If the answer to these questions is, “No,” we have more than just bathrooms to worry about.  We have people to worry about.

No matter what laws are enacted pertaining to who can use which bathrooms, there will be problems.  But if we devote ourselves to making a winsome, gentle, and truthful case for how God has lovingly, tenderly, and wisely created humanity as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) that leads people to rejoice in God’s ordering of sex and gender, that strikes me as a better outcome than any restroom regulations could ever offer.

____________________________

[1]Continuing to Stand for Inclusivity,” A Bullseye View (4.19.2016).

[2] Socrates in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 75.

[3] Jane Clark Scharl, “The New Sexual Ideology Wins Another Skirmish,” National Review (4.22.2016).

May 2, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments

More than “He” and “She”

Gender

What’s in a pronoun?  This is the question Jessica Bennett of The New York Times asked in her article on the rapidly expanding list of gender pronouns from which a person can choose these days:

He, she, hers, his, male, female – there’s not much in between. And so has emerged a new vocabulary, of sorts: an attempt to solve the challenge of talking about someone who identifies as neither male nor female (and, inevitably, the linguistic confusion that comes along with it).

These days, on college campuses, stating a gender pronoun has become practically as routine as listing a major. “So it’s like: ‘Hi, I’m Evie. My pronouns are she/her/hers. My major is X,’” said Evie Zavidow, a junior at Barnard.

“Ze” is a pronoun of choice for the student newspaper at Wesleyan, while “E” is one of the categories offered to new students registering at Harvard.

At American University, there is ”ey,” one of a number of pronoun options published in a guide for students (along with information about how to ask which one to use).

There’s also “hir,” “xe” and “hen,” which has been adopted by Sweden (a joining of the masculine han and the feminine hon); “ve,” and “ne,” and “per,” for person, “thon,” (a blend of “that” and “one”); and the honorific “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) — an alternative to Ms. and Mr. that was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The “x” in Mx. is meant to represent an unknown, similar to the use of x in algebraic equations.)[1]

Wow.  I love language, but honestly, the array of gender pronouns now available is dizzying and a little intimidating to me.  Indeed, one of the points that Ms. (or should it be Mx.?) Bennett makes in her article is:

Facebook now offers 50 different gender identity options for new users, including gender fluid (with a gender identity that is shifting), bigender (a person who identifies as having two distinct genders) and agender (a person without an identifying gender).

Without a degree in gender studies, how is one supposed to keep all these pronouns straight?

Even if they’re hard to keep straight, referring to someone by their preferred pronoun – no matter how many pronouns there may be from which to choose – is important, according to Ms. Bennett, who cites Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post:  “Misgendering ‘isn’t just a style error … It’s a stubborn, longtime hurdle to transgender acceptance and equality, a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity.’”  In other words, misgendering someone is deeply insulting and morally reprehensible because it denies who a person is, or, to put it more pessimistically, would like to be.

This debate over gender pronouns fascinates me.  It fascinates me first of all because of where it most often takes place.  Ms. Bennett, albeit anecdotally, cites two places:  college campuses and the secularly liberal and affluent Sweden.  These are places of power and privilege.  This is not to say that these debates take place only in places of power and privilege, but places of power and privilege are certainly pacesetters in these debates.

Today’s debates over gender pronouns in the halls of power and privilege may be connected to an influential – even if somewhat problematic and not wholly accurate – theory of psychological fulfillment that was first put forth by psychology professor Abraham Maslow in the previous century.  In his 1943 paper, titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Professor Maslow famously identified what he termed a “hierarchy of needs.”  At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy were physiological needs such as air, water, and food.  These were followed by safety needs, which include things like national peace, job security, and a safe home environment free from abuse and neglect.  Next came needs pertaining to love and belonging like the needs for friends and family.  Then came the need for esteem, that is, respect.[2]  Finally, at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, came the need for self-actualization.  In his paper, Maslow describes the need for self-actualization thusly:

We may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.[3]

Professor Maslow sagely puts his finger on the fact that before a person intently pursues self-actualization, he first must have his physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs met.  Maslow’s sequence of needs seems to inform, at least in part, why the debate over gender pronouns is hottest in places of power in privilege.  After all, these are the places, generally speaking, that have the highest potential to be the highest up Maslow’s hierarchy.  The desire to self-actualize one’s gender and the pile of pronouns that comes with such a quest is much less pronounced when you’re wondering where your next meal is going to come from.

For the Christian, of course, the problems with self-actualization run deep. Maslow, understandably, seems unaware of the ways in which his notion of self-actualization could or would be used 73 years later.  “What a man can be,” to use Maslow’s own words, is much greater than Maslow himself could have imagined, for, in the estimation of gender scholars, a man can be a woman, or a whole host of other things on the gender continuum.  Maslow seems to think of self-actualization in terms of vocation rather than in terms of a psychological identity that bends a physical reality.

Ultimately, the very notion of self-actualization, even as Maslow understood it, is problematic.  Christians believe that the road to fulfillment leads not through self-actualization, but self-denial: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).  Maslow himself seemed to intuit this when, in later years, he replaced the self-actualization at the pinnacle of his hierarchy with self-transcendence, arguing that, ultimately, human identity is found not so much in who one can be, but in how one can serve.

Christians know that self-actualization is nearly as old as history itself.  It was a serpent, after all, who first touted the glory of self-actualization when he said to Adam and Eve, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).  But what the serpent said was self-actualization was in reality self-destruction.

Something tells me that all these pronouns, denying and sometimes even downright despising how God has made us “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), isn’t far off from this old, old version of self-actualization.  The line between self-actualization and self-destruction, it turns out, is razor thin.  Let us pray we have not crossed it.

______________________

[1] Jessica Bennett, “She? Ze? They? What’s In a Gender Pronoun?The New York Times (1.30.2016).

[2] I find it troubling that Maslow places the need for esteem just under the need on the pinnacle of his hierarchy.  I see the need for esteem as much more foundational, for as creatures who are crafted in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:27), we are afforded an esteem by our Creator that is foundational because it is rooted in the very order of creation.

[3] Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 382.

February 8, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

2015 In Review

Happy New Year 2016 images download

This past week, I took some time to scroll through my blogs for 2015.  It was, in some ways, an unsettling exercise.  Consider these headlines:

Blogging can be a frustrating discipline because, at times, as my list above intimates, it can become flat-out depressing.  It seems as though I’ve blogged on a never-ending succession of tragedies, controversies, and indignities this past year.  And yet, as tough as these topics might be to tackle, I believe they are vital for us as Christians to understand and address.

A few themes have emerged as I’ve watched the headlines unfold in 2015.  First, it seems as though we are obsessed with sex and oppressed by violence. Between “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Ashley Madison scandal, and same-sex marriage, headlines relating to human sexuality and the sexual ethics have dominated.  But so have headlines relating to violence.  The acronym ISIS is now the stuff of household lore.  Planned Parenthood’s gruesome harvesting of fetal parts sent shivers up the spines of many.  Beatings and shootings with racist tinges dominate the headlines.  As a child, I remember my parents criticizing many movies for having too much “sex and violence.”  Was art imitating life back then or is life imitating art now?

A second theme that has emerged is a search for who we are as humans.  I would be intellectually, emotionally, and relationally naïve if I did not recognize that same-sex marriage is about much more than sex.  It is about the ability of people to define themselves as they see themselves.  This is also the case with the transgender recrudescence.  How internal desires correspond to a person’s biological ordering is key to understanding the existential angst that many people in the LGBT community experience.

Third, issues of race and religion have taken center stage this past year.  From the racist chant by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon to the shooting at the church in Charleston, racism is frustratingly alive and well.  At the same time the LGBT community is trying to figure out who it is and arriving at some spiritually dangerous answers, we seem to have forgotten some of the older spiritually salutary lessons we had to learn about who we are as a nation of immigrants.  And I would contend that this is true across the racial spectrum.  Trumped up charges of racism in the form of the newly minted category of “microaggression” do not help, but neither do denials that racism is real and consequential.  Religiously, we are learning quickly – both from Paris and San Bernardino – that bad theologies have terrible consequences.  The theological drivers of groups like ISIS cannot be minimalized or rationalized.  They must be confronted.

As I reflect on the stories I have covered, I have become convinced more than ever that our world is not just in need of good thinking, but theological thinking on the things that ail us.  The problems we have encountered in 2015 are not just the results of some bad thinking that needs to be tuned up by an enlightened intelligentsia so we can march boldly into a utopian era.  Rather, the problems we have encountered in 2015 are the results of nothing short of a deeply depraved sinfulness that needs to be confronted by the Word of God.  And this is where we, as Christians, have something unique to offer our world.  While the world is trying to solve its problems by political, intellectual, and social gerrymandering, we can be confronting and forgiving the sinners – even when those sinners are us – who create the problems.  In my mind, that’s our greatest hope for a better world.

Human sin, sadly, will probably continue to give me plenty of reasons to write in 2016.  But grace, thankfully, will give me even more reasons to rejoice.  So let’s see where the year takes us.

January 4, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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

Leelah Alcorn: 1997-2014

Credit: NBC News

Credit: NBC News

It’s not easy being 17. I remember. And I’m sure it’s inconceivably harder when you’re a 17-year-old transgender girl whose parents cannot endorse your transgender self-identification because of their theological commitments. This is why Leelah Alcorn stepped out in front of a tractor-trailer on December 28, committing suicide.[1]

As a Christian, it probably comes as no surprise that I cannot in good conscience morally support the transgender lifestyle and movement. Indeed, I call Leelah, born as Joshua, “Leelah” not to endorse her lifestyle, but out of compassion for her as a person.

I find it fascinating that so many in our day and age reflexively use their emotional affections to define the core of their beings. In defining my identity, I define it first redemptively – I am a child of God, bought by Jesus’ blood – second, creationally – I am fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image – and third, vocationally – I am a husband to Melody, a father to Hope, and a pastor in Christ’s church. My emotions and desires simply do not enter into the way I define myself in any primary or particularly formative way.

But for Leelah, they did. And her emotions became a source of deep anguish for her. On her Tumblr page, she chronicled her agonizing journey in a heartbreaking note:

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

Responding to your son or daughter if they come out as transgender the way Leelah’s parents responded to her – if this is, in fact, the way Leelah’s parents responded to her – is not the wisest way to proceed. I would also hope that Christian counselors would offer guidance that is more thoughtful than what Leelah characterizes her therapists’ guidance as being. By the same token, it is hard for Christians to say nothing when, according to Scripture, our created gender is part of our identity as God’s image bearers: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

What, then, can a Christian say?

In Acts 8, Philip is on his way to Gaza when he encounters “an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8:27). In this day and age, it was common to emasculate high-ranking public officials so they could devote themselves completely to their civic duties and be free from the concerns that marriage and family inevitably bring. Thus, this eunuch traded his identity creationally as a male for his identity vocationally as a public official.

Importantly, the very next line says, “This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship.” This man, it seems, was a believer in the God of Israel. But his worship at the temple would have created quite a stir, considering the injunction of Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” My guess is, this man was turned away at the door. And yet, he did not turn away from his faith: “On his way home [he] was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet” (Acts 8:28). This is where Philip enters the picture:

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so He did not open His mouth. In his humiliation He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:30-35)

The passage the eunuch is reading is from Isaiah 53:7-8, a prophecy of the suffering and death of Christ. Interestingly, when Philip explains to the eunuch this passage of Scripture, he does not stop there, he only begins there – at least according to verse 35. Thus, as the two of them continued studying together, they would have eventually come to Isaiah 56:4-5:

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.”

Places in God’s kingdom, the prophet reminds us, are reserved even for those who alter their created gender identity. Because of what Jesus does in Isaiah 53, this eunuch is welcomed into God’s family in Isaiah 56.

Certainly, God created us male and female for His good purposes. And despising how God created us as male and female is sinful. But this does not mean God does not love people who are conflicted in their gender identity. Indeed, this is perhaps the saddest part of Leelah’s story. Leelah grounded her identity on something shifting: how she felt about who she was. When her emotions about her maleness became conflicted, and when she could not find the emotional endorsement she desperately desired from her parents, she sank into despair and took a terrible, irreversible, and heartbreaking course of action. Grounding our identities redemptively, however, can give us hope. For no matter how we may feel about ourselves, a redemptive identity reminds us we are loved by God. Period. God’s love does not shift like our emotions. Which is why His love is a great place – and a safe place – to find who we are.

I wish Leelah would have known this. It may have saved her life.

_________________

[1] Gillain Mohney, “Leelah Alcorn: Transgender Teen’s Reported Suicide Note Makes Dramatic Appeal,” ABC News (12.31.2014).

January 12, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Explaining Our Existence

Creation HandsI recently came across two articles – both dealing with gender concerns – that caught my attention.  The first article is by Lisa Wade of Salon and addresses the deep friendships – or the lack thereof – between men.  Wade opens her article:

Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. Moreover, the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships. When men get together, they’re more likely to do stuff than have a conversation …

When I first began researching this topic I thought, surely this is too stereotypical to be true. Or, if it is true, I wondered, perhaps the research is biased in favor of female-type friendships. In other words, maybe we’re measuring male friendships with a female yardstick. It’s possible that men don’t want as many or the same kinds of friendships as women.

But they do. When asked about what they desire from their friendships, men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy. And, just like women, their satisfaction with their friendships is strongly correlated with the level of self-disclosure.[1]

Men want friends, Wade contends – real friends, with whom they can share real cares, concerns, and fears.  But most do not have these kinds of friends.  Why is this?  Wade chalks it up to society’s assertions concerning what it means to be a “real man.”  She explains:

[Real men] are supposed to be self-interested, competitive, non-emotional, strong (with no insecurities at all), and able to deal with their emotional problems without help. Being a good friend, then, as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being girly.

Real men, our society says, keep their emotions hermetically sealed.  This is why so many men eschew forming deep and abiding friendships.  But as many men seek to be really masculine through sensitivity sequestration, they only wind up being really isolated.

The second article I found interesting is by Sarah Elizabeth Richards of the New York Times. Richards tells the story of Andy Inkster – a woman who underwent surgery and took testosterone to become a man, but has now stopped taking testosterone because she wants to get pregnant.  As it turns out, Andy had trouble getting pregnant and sought fertility treatments from Baystate Reproductive Medicine.  Baystate denied her request.  She received help from another clinic and got pregnant, but sued Baystate for discrimination.

Such a desire of transgendered people to have children is not unique to Andy:

One study published last year in the journal Human Reproduction of 90 transgender men in Belgium found that 54 percent wished to have children … Other research, published in 2002, by Belgian fertility doctors with Western European transgender women found that 40 percent wanted to have children, and 77 percent felt they should have the option to preserve their sperm before hormone treatment. As fertility technology improves and becomes more widely available, transgender people are realizing that they will have more options in the future.[2]

Transgendered people apparently have a strong desire to have children in biologically traditional ways despite their deep reservations with their biologically assigned genders.

At first glance, these two articles seem to address phenomena on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum.  The first has to do with entrenched machismo while the second has to do with blurred gender identity.  But for all their differences, there exists a common theological root:  the divorce of human existence from divine creation.

Foundational to the Christian conception of the cosmos is the belief that everything came from somewhere.  Or, to put it more precisely, Christians believe that everything came from someone.  We do not just exist.  We were created.

It is from the Scriptural story of creation that we learn not just that we are, but who we are.  We are creatures and not the Creator (cf. Genesis 3:5).  We are fashioned in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:27).  We are fearfully and wonderfully made (cf. Psalm 139:14), which is to say that God intentionally and lovingly fashioned us to be a certain kind of person, the corruption of sin notwithstanding.  In the old “nature versus nurture” debate, the story of creation tells us that nature does indeed shape us, but not by naturalistic means.  Rather, we are shaped through nature by the One who made nature.

Both of the articles above exemplify with a convicting candor what happens when people forget this story.  Men who try to play the role of the sturdy and strong lone ranger forget the part of the story where God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  People who undergo surgeries and treatments in an effort to change their gender forget the part of the story where God revels in how He has created us “male and female” (Genesis 1:27).

The apostle Peter warns there will come a time when people will “deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed” (2 Peter 3:5).  They will forget their existence is a product of God’s creative word.  And they will forget their existence is to be guided by God’s sacred Word.  May it never be so of us.  May we always be able to say:  “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…and of me.”


[1] Lisa Wade, “American men’s hidden crisis: They need more friends!Salon (12.7.2013).

[2] Sarah Elizabeth Richards, “The Next Frontier in Fertility Treatment,” New York Times (1.12.2014).

January 27, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

San Antonio’s Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Alamo 1Recently, there has been a lot of debate and discussion concerning a proposed amendment to San Antonio’s anti-discrimination ordinance on which the City Council will soon vote.  You can read about the debate here.  Because this ordinance has certain theological implications, Concordia’s senior pastor, Bill Tucker, has prepared a letter outlining some of the facets and possible effects of this ordinance.  I would encourage you to take a moment to read his letter below.

Dear Concordia Family,

The apostle Paul writes, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2a).  This is a time for us as a congregation to be in prayer for those in authority – specifically, for those in authority on our San Antonio City Council.

San Antonio’s Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Our City Council is currently considering amending its anti-discrimination ordinance to include a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of, among other things, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” The ordinance defines discrimination as demonstrating “a bias, by word or deed, against any person, group of persons, or organization on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, age or disability.”  Many Jews, Muslims, and Christians have long considered homosexual activity, same-sex marriage, and transgender lifestyles to be “sinful.” Such a designation may now be considered discriminatory according to the definition of bias given in this ordinance.  Thus, an ordinance meant to prohibit discrimination may set up a de facto form of discrimination against some people of faith because it may preclude people with certain religious beliefs from serving the City.

How Will This Ordinance Affect You?

  • Bias:  Pastors or other people of faith who discuss whether or not certain behaviors are “sinful” may be considered to be engaging in discrimination according to the definition of “bias” given in this ordinance.  Such accusations of discrimination may affect both our ability to speak God’s truth in love and our freedoms of speech, religion, and association.
  • Public Accommodations:  If you are a business owner who has rental property, restaurants, hotels, or theatres, you may be compelled by this ordinance to violate your conscience and not operate the business according to your religious convictions.
  • Appointments and Contracts with the City:  A person may not be appointed to a position with the City if he or she is perceived to have a bias against those of a homosexual or transgender orientation and can be removed from office even if previously appointed.  A person may also be precluded from contracting with the City if that person is perceived to have a bias against any group named in the ordinance.

Actions to Consider

Finally, I encourage you to remember how Paul concludes his statement to Timothy on praying for those in authority:  “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  Paul’s call to prayer is meant not only to affect our City officials; it is meant to affect us.  It is meant to move us toward peace in times of tribulation and form in us a humble godliness, shaped by love, as a holy witness to a world filled with sin.  It is meant, in a phrase, to lead us to “shine like stars.”  May we, at Concordia, be people who do exactly this.

God bless you,
bill_tucker_bw
Bill Tucker
Senior Pastor
Concordia Lutheran Church

July 31, 2013 at 7:11 am 1 comment


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