In my day job, I read quite a few books, and outside of my day job, I read a few more. I’m lucky enough to get sent several books a month to review – and occasionally ask for a few more! This book, Gender Ideology: What do Christians Need to Know? was kindly sent to me by the publisher for review.
This little book aims to be a short primer on an important controversial set of subjects. The endorsements on the back are from people I really respect – and so it is with some trepidation that I should be clear: I don’t recommend this book, and this review will attempt to explain why.
Firstly, the positive. There is a good amount of good stuff here – in terms of a basic orientation to the cultural change and an introduction to some of the relevant terms and voices in the debates that rage. I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s ending of the book to a “ten-fold call to respect”:
- Respect human dignity
- Respect the ‘ecology’ of humanity’
- Respect the vocationof doctors to ‘do no harm’
- Respect the vulnerability of children
- Respect the rights of parents
- Respect the privacy and safety of women and girls
- Respect free speech
- Respect the testimony of those who regret their transition
- Respect truth
- Respect our Creator God.
I would like to think that every Christian would agree with all of those – and that many who aren’t would agree with the drive for respect that Sharon James offers here.
It is worth saying that I broadly agree with Sharon’s ‘gender-critical’ approach – but just as I found mathematics at school difficult because you had to ‘show your working’, so too do I find this book difficult. It is one thing to be right on an issue – and I believe that Sharon’s ‘side’ is true – but it is another to be open and transparent about how we get there. Two examples really stuck out. Firstly, as is often the case in discussions of the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’, Sharon addresses issues of intersex. Sadly, she does this with reference to ‘The Intersex Society of North America’. Why is that problematic? Bluntly, because ‘ISNA’ is defunct, and the website linked to is maintained as an archive. Claiming the support of an organisation that no longer functionally exists, based on an archived website, is not a good way to demonstrate engagement with the issues. Secondly, the recommendation of a somewhat discredited article as the sole further reading recommendation for one chapter demonstrates at best an incomplete awareness of the resources available, and at worst a choosing of sources that agree with the point being made over sources that are good and true! As a friend (who has radically different views than me!) wrote in this article, “In conclusion, people who take a “conservative” position on questions relating to the gender identities of transgender persons need to stop citing the writing of Dr. Paul McHugh. He is not representative of the contemporary medical or psychological/psychiatric consensus and the support he provides for his argumentation ranges from misrepresentation, to disingenuous, to outright misinformation. In citing him you will only convince those who are not willing to research his claim and those who already agree with you and are merely looking for an “authority” to support what they have already decided to believe. This undermines your own credibility and, to the extent that you speak/write “as a Christian” harms your witness. Please take the time to build your arguments on well researched data, presented with appropriate caveats, limiting the degree of certainty you express to the quality and quantity of the data.” Just because something/someone agrees with us does not make it right.
Having said all that, there are two other helpful aspects to this book. Firstly, Sharonroots her writing in the ever-important doctrine of the Imago Dei, being made in the Image of God: “Knowing we are created by God as male or female is good news. It liberates us from the pressure of trying to construct our own gender identity“. This moves on to a second helpful section, which is some practical advice for parents in explaining some of these issues. Please hear me when I say that this book is not all bad!
So how can Christians find out what they need to know? Well, reading this book might be part of the solution, but I would suggest that some other books do what this book does better. I’d also suggest reading what trans activists and their supporters write – in order to understand something, it is best to hear it firsthand, not secondhand. So, for the reasons above, this is one book that whilst having read and reviewed, I can’t in good conscience recommend.
- Vaughan Roberts’ Transgender is a superb little intro.
- Andrew T Walker’s God and the Transgender Debate goes a little deeper, but still very readable.
- Mike Bird has a long and excellent blog post summarising a major recent study in this area.
- The edited volume The Christian Doctrine of Humanity is a great briefing on the state of play theologically about understanding what it means to be human.
- For parents, Gender: A Conversation Guide is a great ‘way in’ to talking graciously with children about these issues.
- For wider cultural context and stuff about sexuality, Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story, Sam Allberry’s Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With? and Todd Wilson’s Mere Sexuality are three great books.