Monday, August 21, 2017

How Writing on Transgenderism Changed Me

Article by: Sam Allberry

I’m visiting a new city for the first time, and the day I arrived I spent the afternoon walking. A combination of jetlag and complete lack of familiarity with my surroundings meant I got lost. The direction I thought led to home didn’t, and I ended up comically far from where I intended to be.

It’s an experience many of us relate to as we find ourselves in increasingly unfamiliar cultural territory around issues of gender identity. It’s not easy knowing what to think as Christians, and when we search for understanding it can feel like we’ve only gone farther into confusion and perplexity.

After my hapless wanderings, my hosts provided me with a map. For Christians wanting to know how to navigate issues of transgenderism, help is at hand in Andrew Walker’s excellent new book, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? (The Good Book Co.) I asked Walker, director of policy studies for the ERLC, about his experience writing on this issue.

What prompted you to write on the controversial subject of transgenderism?

Many reasons.

First, I’ve had a prolonged interest in the subject of Christian anthropology, a theological discipline that looks at the nature of man from the perspective of Scripture and Christian theology. I’m convinced that the greatest present challenge to Christianity in the West is the assault on the imago dei, the truth that all people are made in God’s image and granted human dignity, bodily purpose, and inviolable rights. We’re living at a time when the question “What is man?” is central to so much cultural conflict. Does man have a nature? What is man created for? Is our ultimate purpose the realization of our autonomy, or is flourishing achievable only by accepting limits on ourselves?

Second, there are virtually no Christian resources on the subject. Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria is available, but it’s more academic and, more importantly, there are elements I find deeply problematic at the level of biblical interpretation and theological soundness. Since the transgender issue has gone from zero to 100 MPH in about 2.1 seconds, Christians have been caught flat-footed and need resources that balance accessibility with a pastoral and biblical analysis.

Third, it’s tempting to treat transgenderism as yet another culture war battle. To a certain extent that’s inevitable, but we shouldn’t first view the issue in that light. Like any “issue,” there are actual lives at stake—precious souls experiencing real gender identity conflicts who are being told that affirmation and acceptance is the only path toward fulfillment.

You’ve mentioned to me that you underwent a pretty profound spiritual experience when writing God and the Transgender Debate. What happened?

Something extremely personal happened as I wrote. My editor drew my attention to Matthew 12:20, where Jesus describes his ministry as one in which “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory.”

I’ll confess that I somehow glossed over this passage growing up. In all of my education, I’d missed the metaphorical imagery happening in this passage, so I went to some commentaries and was blown away. Using the metaphor of a thin twig-like stick, Jesus is saying his Lordship won’t inflict further stress to the point of breaking people. In powerfully evocative and compassionate terms, Jesus describes his ministry to people who are hurt, dejected, and hopeless. 

The imagery is especially apt when you read about the emotional distress of gender dysphoria. Though it’s unpopular to say this in today’s atmosphere, gender dysphoria is a mental health issue. It’s a pathology to be relieved from, not celebrated. The rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety associated with this affliction are real. I think Jesus’s compassion and gentleness are especially needed when addressing a topic like this, because the testimonies of people who experience these conflicts demonstrate real distress.

This realization deeply affected how I saw this issue. In fact, it has radically affected my interactions and dealings with Christians and non-Christians alike. While I’m not afraid to share a strong opinion, if it can’t be mediated through a tone of compassion, mercy, and gentleness, it may not be an opinion worth sharing.

When you reflect on writing your book, what was the most surprising outcome?

Anyone who knows me knows I tend more toward polemics than compassion. Originally I set out to write a book that was far more “this is wrong, and here’s why.” I don’t shy away from reaching conclusions in the book and drawing lines I think need to be drawn, but after research and talks with my editor, the book came out far more pastoral in nature. In fact, when I read it in its entirety, I was actually amazed at how compassionate and gentle the tone was. If I’m honest, I didn’t set out with that in mind, but I’m so thankful the result upended my own intentions.

What’s one thing you’ve learned that’s helpful for thinking about the transgender issue in our culture?

I think people need to realize first that there’s an immense difference between experiencing bouts of gender dysphoria and wholly identifying as transgender. Not all individuals who experience gender dysphoria accept the label “transgender.” Why? Because transgender is an identity-politics label that’s supposed to define one’s entire personhood, a view I think is unmistakably at odds with biblical revelation. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, Christians should be extremely cautious in how they use the term “transgender.”

What are your hopes for this book?

Several. First, I hope Christians come away with a basic understanding of theological anthropology—that God created humanity in his image, male and female, and that male and female are made exclusively for one another.

Second, Christians are called to both conviction and compassion. As you once reminded me in personal conversation, Sam, grace and truth aren’t in tension when we look at Jesus. I hope this book models the unity Jesus Christ so lovingly and compassionately displays. I want Christians to see that the Christian story provides a framework for understanding this controversy in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. In light of the gospel, there’s hope for those with gender dysphoria and those who identify as transgender.

Third, I hope this book starts conversations inside churches, and that churches get serious about being safe places for those with gender-identity conflicts to talk openly and seek help.

Fourth, I want the transgender community in America to know Christians aren’t their enemy, despite the stereotypes. We are called to neighbor love, and that can’t be be limited to people who agree with us. When transgender persons are bullied, mocked, ridiculed, or physically harmed, Christians must defend their humanity and inviolable dignity—even when we think they’re transgressing sacred boundaries that God wisely and beautifully imposed on humanity.

Sam Allberry is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and a pastor based in Maidenhead, UK. He is the author of a number of books, including Is God Anti-Gay? (Good Book, 2013), James For You, and most recently Why Bother with Church. He is a founding editor of Living Out, a ministry for those struggling with same-sex attraction. You can follow Sam on Twitter.



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