Bruce Jenner and a Gospel Approach to Transgenderism
Barbie was hacked. Her lustrous locks were shorn; she seemed wounded by the experience, though that still smile yet stretched across her plastic face. It was many years ago in my childhood, but for some reason I remember the destructive discovery well. A family member had attacked poor Barbie in a fit of youthful pique. She would never be the same.
I was reminded of that transformative project when I saw the recent news indicating that Bruce Jenner, long associated with the Kardashian entertainment-cycle, had embraced a womanly identity and taken steps to present his body as such. This is the highest-profile instance of attempted transgender transformation in America.
This development has highlighted a deep cultural divide over this issue. The media largely supported Jenner’s decision, with some hailing it as a master-step of identity configuration. The applause by your average orange-skinned news anchor did not surprise many of us; the fetishistic formation of personal identity is the Disneyfied pet project of many a God-deficient Westerner, after all. We are all a Ken or Barbie doll now. Airbrush your indignities; re-sculpt your nose; ingest pills to refigure your very anatomy. It’s up to you, and only you.
Yet a quiet majority of America views this event with visceral distaste. Men are made to be men, and women are made to be women. Not many people outside of the church are willing to speak up and say this, but rest assured, many are thinking it.
This second response is largely right. But as believers, we must not only shake our heads in dismay. We must offer a gospel response to this behavior, with at least three key parts.
1. We must frame this issue in categories of sin and depravity.
Masculinity and femininity are not social constructs, contra that $50,000-a-year collegiate education some might have received. God is the creator of manhood and womanhood (Gen. 1:26-27). We receive our God-given sex as a gift, not an obligation, nor a suggestion. To be a man is to have a man’s body; to be a woman is to have a woman’s body.
In terms that might surprise some, the Bible makes this connection clear. Men are not to dress like women or have hair like women (Deut. 22:5; 1 Cor. 11:14-15). Doing so is a sin against God. Acting against his design signals not only that we are disordered, but at enmity with the designer.
Transgenderism is not an isolated phenomenon, then. It is one outworking of a worldview that views rebellion as the very essence of life, and conformity or duty as the killer of joy. The reverse is true (Psalm 16:11).
2. We must present the call to manhood or womanhood as a consequence of conversion.
If it seems like we live in strange times, this is because we do. But the fact that the Bible warns against transgenderism tells us that our time, while strange, is not unique. We live in an age of decadence. Behavioral luxuries like transgenderism accrue to wealthy and “sophisticated” cultures like ours. The more hedonistic our society has grown, the more it has embraced a be-your-own-designer lifestyle.
To people caught in such sin, there is hope — Christ crucified and resurrected for our salvation. Jesus takes our sin, our disorder, on himself. This good news of grace promises to save our souls, but in saving our souls, it also reorders our depraved understanding of the body. This is true for all of us, whatever perversity we crave — for we all are made perverse in some way after the fall of Adam.
This salvation is not a salvation from pleasure into moral drudgery, but salvation from spiritual death to life, since in being reborn we awaken to the reality that the body is not a mere instrument of pleasure; not a collection of atoms without value; not a canvas on which to carve our fantasies. The body, we realize, is a vessel of glory (1 Cor. 6:19-20). It is intimately bound up with the work of redemption.
3. We must approach the transgendered with conviction and compassion.
We shouldn’t shake our fingers at the transgendered and tell them, “Make yourself right!” We may not know what all led a person to adopt this behavior, what mix of psychological, biological and environmental factors played a role. We do know this is the result of the brokenness of sin, a brokenness we have all experienced in different ways. That’s why we should approach them with both conviction and compassion.
We do not want people to suffer. We have seen the statistics about the awful dysphoria, the profound state of unease, that the transgendered experience (see this piercing Wall Street Journal piece, for example). We speak truth to them, and we do so with genuine warmth and love, because we are them and they are us — sinners in need of grace.
We aren’t interested in a culture war in itself. We will work in the public square to oppose the spread of transgender ideology out of love for our neighbor, seeking the conversion of those who are lost (Matt. 22:37). Hope never runs out. It is always available for those who repent, believe and embrace all the costly entailments of the cross.
Not Radical Enough
The poor Barbie of my childhood home never grew her hair back. She was forever altered. But it is not so with the men and women who now are embracing, out of profound lostness and despair, a transgender identity.
They believe that change will save them. In this sense, we agree with them. But the change that saves will not be a distortion of the body, however deep the scalpel goes, however powerful the hormone therapy. The change that saves is something much, much stronger: it is a transformation of the heart and a promise of a resurrection body in the age to come (1 Cor. 15). It is a summons to submission and the acceptance of God’s good design.
The false gospel of transgenderism is radical. In the end, though, it is like every other counterfeit gospel: not radical enough.