What Should the Church Say to Bruce Jenner?

I sat down to write a post about the Bruce Jenner interview and the heightening cultural conversation about transgenderism. And then I found that Russell Moore had already written something better than I could have, so in lieu of a post this week I will repost his thoughts below.

In addition to that, for those interested I think this post is a helpful contribution to the conversation, though I’m sure it would inflame some readers.

My takeaway from all this is that a) there are a lot of deeply hurting, deeply confused people in our culture when it comes to these issues and b) we need to desperately pray for wisdom and guidance in how to graciously approach them.


“In the 1970s Bruce Jenner seemed to have it all—fame, wealth, admiration. He was an Olympic star, so popular in American culture that he was reputedly considered for both the roles of Superman and James Bond. That’s changed. Now, Jenner is best known as the step-father on reality television’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Jenner is now ready for one more change. He says he knows what he’s been missing: his identity as a woman.

Jenner has reportedly undergone surgery to make himself appear more like a woman and has been photographed wearing dresses. Now, in a highly publicized interview with with Diane Sawyer, he says that his “whole life has been leading up to this.”

Bruce Jenner, of course, is a symbol, a celebrity spokesperson for an entire mentality that sees gender as separate from biological identity. So is there a word from God to the transgender community? How should the church address the Bruce Jenner in your neighborhood, who doesn’t have the star power or the Malibu mansions but who has the same alienation of self?

First of all, we should avoid the temptation to laugh at these suffering souls. We do not see our transgendered neighbors as freaks to be despised. They feel alienated from their identities as men or women and are seeking a solution to that in self-display or in surgery or in pumping their bodies with the other sex’s hormones. In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people.

But neither should we fall for the cultural narrative behind the transgender turn. This narrative is rooted in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, with the idea that the “real” self is separate from who one is as an embodied, material being. Body parts and chromosomal patterns are dispensable since the self is radically disconnected from the body, the psychic from the material.

The old Gnostic heresy is joined with contemporary expressive individualism—the idea that I must be true to whomever I perceive my “real me” to be on the inside in order to be “authentic.” This is what leads, in other news of the week, some parents to “transition” the gender identity of their child at ages as early as four years old.

It is somewhat ironic that Jenner’s interview comes in the same week as Earth Day. Earth Day, of course, reminds us that human desires and human technologies ought to have limits. Just because a corporation has the technological power to raze a forest or level a mountain or to dump toxins into a water system is no sign that one should do so. The common good means human beings learning to live in balance and harmony with nature, not with a rapacious domination of it.

What is true of natural ecology is true of human ecology as well. Techno-utopian scientism tells us that we can transcend our limits, to become as gods. For some, that manifests itself in believing that humanity can pollute its own ecosystem with impunity. For others it manifests itself in believing that they can transcend the boundaries of the male/female polarity. A biblical view of our place in the universe is quite different. We are not machines, to be reprogrammed at will; we are creatures.

That vision includes a respect for God’s natural, creative order that reflects His wisdom and Lordship over the world. Our maleness and femaleness is very much part of that wisdom and Lordship. We are born not out of self-effort but in the pure providence of our creator. Our given gender points us to an even deeper reality—to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church. A rejection of the goodness of those creational realities then is a revolt against God’s lordship, and against the picture of the gospel that God has embedded in the creation.

The hope for Bruce Jenner, and for others like him, is not to alter the body with surgery or to flood their system with hormones. The answer is to realize that all of us are born alienated from what we were created to be. We don’t need to fix what happened in our first birth; we need a new birth altogether.

For the church, this is going to mean both conviction and wisdom. Our transgender neighbors experience real suffering, and we should suffer with them. The answers the culture and the Sexual Revolution-Industrial Complex offer can’t relieve that suffering. We should stand for God’s good design, including around what Jesus says has been true “from the beginning”—that we are created male and female, not as self-willed designations but as part of God’s creative act (Mk. 10:6).

In so doing, what every previous civilization would have seen as obvious, that maleness and femaleness are part of our biological design, will be seen as out-of-kilter with the culture. So be it. We will stand with conviction, even as we offer mercy. We’ve been called to keep in step with the Spirit, even if we can’t always keep up with the Kardashians.”

Author, Russell Moore (emphasis mine)

Reposted from here.


Add yours →

  1. Dear Brandon,

    While I rarely comment or engage in Christian blogs/websites of this particular tradition of Christianity (because in my experience comment sections on controversial topics become more angry bickering and less constructive conversation), I felt compelled to respond to this because I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful nature of your previous posts, and hope that, while you may disagree with my position, you may at least consider why someone might have a valid and different point of view.

    I think celebrity culture has made it so that we often engage the latest topic du jour from a completely disengaged perspective. When we support the cause, we celebrate; when we don’t, we condemn. What often happens with this is that we respond to an idea and not to individuals. This is unfortunate.

    That said, I’m glad there are people like Bruce Jenner telling their stories. I’m grateful for the bravery of the Laverne Coxs and Jazz Jennings of the world. For many of us, hearing their stories may be the first time we ever understand transgender individuals not as categories or stereotypes, but as actual human beings. But we don’t get to talk to them personally. Many people have never interacted with an openly trans individual, let alone have a relationship with them. And I suspect it’s easier to dismiss Bruce Jenner than it is to dismiss a friend or loved one who is struggling, being bullied, desperate, and in need of love and understanding.

    I don’t really feel like using Bruce Jenner as the starting point for any argument, partly for the very shallow reason that I just have Kardashian family fatigue, but since this is the example Mr. Moore uses, I’ll start there. In his argument, he very quickly goes to refer to Bruce as a man who has “undergone surgery to appear more like a woman.” But Bruce Jenner isn’t trying to appear like a woman. Bruce Jenner is a woman, a trans woman in transition. Now, it’s completely fair to refer to Bruce as a “he” because he himself asked for that pronoun to be used -for now-. But this kind of attitude where we don’t meet trans people where they are and as they are is deeply problematic in the real world. It’s hard to truly love and listen to a person when you are dismissive of their experiences. I suspect not very many trans people feel comfortable engaging in true relationship with others who right off the bat refuse to address them with the proper pronouns and the proper language and names. They get that all the time. They don’t need it from people who are supposed to be loving them well.

    Mr. Moore writes of what he terms “contemporary expressive individualism” as what leads people to think it’s okay to transition, and he seems to imply that transitioning is merely an outlet to express authenticity. This whole notion is problematic in two big ways: it fails to address the mounting scientific evidence that gender identity is very much a product of biology (see more of that here — http://www.meduniwien.ac.at/homepage/1/news-and-topstories/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=5379&cHash=37835742aa84acd6b6b2505337c854dd), and it implies that transitioning is a feel-good process to just express yourself (it’s not—it’s daunting, it’s scary, and it’s brave—see more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/fashion/for-some-in-transgender-community-its-never-too-late-to-make-a-change.html?_r=0).

    And a quick note about parents who allow their trans children to express their gender identity — when we as a culture are so dismissive of children’s gender expression that we enable tragic and unnecessary deaths like that of Leelah Alcorn’s because to instead affirm who they are is somehow wrong, we really have our priorities in the wrong place. As a parent, I’d rather have a trans child than a dead child.

    I’m glad both you and Mr. Moore seem to be aware of the immense suffering trans people go through. And I realize that we might never agree on what the best or right way to respond to and love trans individuals is. But as important as it is to recognize the suffering of others, it’s most important to do our best to alleviate the suffering of others. I appreciate that you both seem sincere in your convictions to do this. But when our religious worldview and convictions enable a culture of dismissal, bullying, and death, we truly need to examine how much good our convictions truly bring to the world.

    I can’t know if you have any relationships with openly trans individuals, but if and when you do, I encourage you to listen to their pain and their story before explaining your own convictions and what you think is best for them. And if you truly don’t understand where they’re coming from, let them know that, and ask them for help. It may be they have more to teach us than we have to teach them.

    Lastly, thank you for your blog. I come from a different tradition, but I try to educate myself on the position of others and purposely seek out blogs that challenge me. I usually get frustrated in the evangelical corners of the blogosphere, but I find that your sincerity and thoughtfulness is refreshing, even when I disagree.

    Oh, and I apologize for any grammatical mistakes. And for how long this is! English is not my first language, and while I try my best, sometimes I don’t see my mistakes.



    • Carlos, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I appreciate your voice.
      I’d love to have a conversation about all this in person one day should we ever get the chance. Let me know if you’re ever in the Columbia area and are interested.

      I do want so say that I do not espouse a religious viewpoint that would dismiss, bully, and certainly not encourage suicide. My heart breaks for anyone going through this.

      I think a lot of this comes down to how much control an individual has to define reality, verses something outside of the individual determining reality (biology, genetics, God, etc.). Our culture is swinging increasingly towards the individual defining reality, to the point of a 4 year old being allowed (or even encouraged) to make a life-altering decision to have a sex reassignment surgery. To be honest, that scares me a ton.

      I think most would still agree that in areas such as mental illness when someone genuinely believes something about themselves that definitively is not true (such as an anorexic person believing they are obese or someone with dissociative identity disorder believing they are multiple people), the most loving and helpful thing to do is to graciously, kindly speak the truth of reality to them over time and surround them with the proper resources for support. I imagine that there are issues that, should a friend go through or believe about themselves, you would go to them in love and encourage them that what they think is actually not reality. (Obviously you don’t believe gender dysphoria falls into that category and that’s where we disagree.) And in doing so, you would not be dismissing their suffering or bullying them–even if they believed so–you’d be trying to do the opposite. (To be sure, this assumes you’d do so in an understanding and compassionate way, and I know that has not always been the case for Christians with this issue).

      I believe that if there is such a thing as reality that exists outside of me, the healthiest thing I can do is learn to accept it as reality, along with the limitations it brings. For me this is a theological belief that acknowledging our createdness, with the corresponding inability to determine reality, is central to becoming a healthy human. I believe gender falls squarely in that category of createdness with height, eye color, skin tone, and other unchangeable aspects of our being.

      I agree that I would rather have a trans child than a dead child. But I don’t think those are the only two options, especially with the statistics I’ve read about the suicide rates of people after gender reassignment surgery. The story of Leelah Alcorn is tragic indeed, but I think it’s unfair to turn it into a fear-inducing story to advance an argument, mainly because it is silent about a lot of other stories of those who have committed suicide after gender reassignment therapy/surgeries. I think this issue is so much more complicated than that narrative to play off the deepest fears of parents.

      Did you read the other article I linked to in the post? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      All this to say–please don’t hear this in an angry or combative voice, because that is not the tone I intend. I think this is an important discussion that should be covered in a lot of grace, and also happen face to face when possible to avoid the most miscommunication possible. Thanks for the healthy discourse and for your grace. It is appreciated.

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