“The world is changing. Fast” (7). The consensus on morality and identity has undergone a seismic shift in the last few generations. One indication of this is the sudden rise of transgender issues. High profile cases like Bruce, now Caitlin, Jenner have brought this issue to the headlines and made it “the next big social, ethical and cultural question” (13). How are we to understand this change? Should we embrace it or challenge it? How can Christians engage with this issue?
In Transgender, Vaughan Roberts provides an insightful introduction to these questions and others surrounding identity and gender. At a mere 80 pages it cannot deal with all the questions, but there is a surprising amount packed into this pocket-sized book.
In the early chapters, Roberts helpfully outlines both the medical and cultural aspects that have led to the current climate. He particularly stresses the impact of our culture’s increasing emphasis on self-expression, where “No one has the right to question or challenge how each individual chooses to define themselves” (28). This view is all pervasive, to the extent that “Not even our bodies should be allowed to restrict us in our self-definition” (29). This debate “goes far deeper than scientific and medical arguments. It involves a clash of worldviews” (33). Christians have often been heard to offer nothing but “a set of laws – ‘do this’ ‘don’t do that!’”. But Roberts sets out to show that the Christian worldview is better, offering “our real identity…true freedom and lasting fulfilment” (34).
Roberts sets out
to show that the Christian worldview is better
The rest of the book explores these issues in the broader biblical framework of “creation, fall, redemption and eternity”(9). As opposed to the current culture, the Bible holds that we are created, we didn’t arise by chance. God made us in his image, and part of that image is that humans are male and female. This means that our bodies are not secondary to our feelings, they “are an essential part of our true selves” (39). But there’s a problem. We are “flawed masterpieces” (37) – we have decided we make the rules and not God. This is the key to the gender identity crisis, but also for “every human affliction” (47). Again and again Roberts reminds us that “all of us are broken…we are all affected by the fall” (47, 50).
It’s in this context that Roberts shines the bright light that Jesus brings. In just a few pages Roberts shows how Jesus dignifies and affirms the human body, in both his incarnation (coming to earth as a real human being) and his bodily resurrection. “[God] is committed to rescuing not just our souls but our bodies too” (57).
What makes this book really shine is the warm pastoral wisdom and love for others that flows throughout. This is particularly seen in the final chapter of the book, which offers brief answers to questions such as ‘What should I do if my child talks about having transgender feelings?’ and “What if a close family member or friend confides in us?”.He consistently argues that “We shouldn’t let our responses be driven by gut reactions” (20), and calls out the Church on two flawed reactions: “an unquestioning ‘yuk!’” and “an unquestioning ‘yes!’” (21).
[Roberts'] warm pastoral wisdom and love for others flows throughout
Instead he calls Christians to let the Bible shape their views – listening to what God says about humans. When we do this “we will never give in to a ‘yuk’ reaction, because they are beautiful and precious creatures made in God’s image” (53). In our interactions with transgender people “love, wisdom and respect are the watchwords” (71).
But Roberts’ warmth doesn’t mean he pulls any punches. The “yes” response is no more acceptable than “yuk”. The Bible doesn’t allow us to “give way to the false notion that ‘they were made that way’ (53–54). And rather than offering freedom, Roberts suggests, the mantra of “be who you want to be” actually leaves us chasing the wind: “our actual identity…is completely invented, and therefore fluid, and therefore profoundly unstable” (37). We are left with a culture that is deeply unhappy, driven to anxiety and insecurity by the burden this self-invention brings.
Roberts is clear that the identity offered by Christ is better, more secure and more beautiful than any we create for ourselves. But this doesn’t mean life will be easy. There is a cost: “Those who experience gender dysphoria should resist feelings that encourage them to see themselves as anything other than the sex of their birth” (61). Again, this is helpfully placed in the wider context of human brokenness, and God's plan for salvation: “We are all summoned to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ” (61). We are all “broken sinners in need of God’s love and forgiveness” (71).
The biblical worldview he argues for has massive implications for how we view our bodies, and Roberts helpfully teases these out, at the same time as acknowledging the struggles and turmoil this will raise, especially for transgender believers. But at the same time he affirms “[God] is with us every step of the way” (61). Being aware of Roberts’ personal experience of same-sex attraction, which raises many of the same challenges, helps much of this to ring true in a way that it otherwise might not. He makes passing reference to this in a footnote, pointing to an article detailing his experience for an interested reader to pursue independently. But the fact that Roberts can be seen to practise what he preaches, albeit in a different area, significantly boosts the plausibility of the life he calls transgender people to lead.
an essential read for getting to grips with this important issue
Transgender is an essential read for anyone wanting to get to grips with this important issue. Accessible enough to be read by a youth group; deep enough to provide a helpful starting point to church leaders, parents, teachers and others struggling to understand these issues. But in its warmth, compassion and obvious love for others, it could also be read by anyone for whom these issues are immediate and personal. It’s not the last word on the matter, but it’s a great place to start.
Book Title: Transgender
Author: Vaughan Roberts
Publisher: The Good Book Company
Publication Date: 2016
Price: Paperback £2.54 / ebook £2.49
Available to buy from The Good Book Company
© 2016 Tom Roberts