As part of my ongoing attempt to think theologically and helpfully about the way that the Church and LGBT*(1) folk can better talk and relate, I’ve been starting to read beyond the L and G, and into the B and T (And even the *). Today I’m tentatively reviewing a book, This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians, which offers a range of reflection and personal story to those wanting to listen. Published by DLT, This is my body is very affirming of Trans* identities – and so for someone coming from a more traditional perspective, it is important to read and reflect on why this is.
This book is very much a game of two halves. The first half (actually Part’s 1 and 2) is the more ‘cerebral’ (for fans of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, like my friend Luke Geraty in his excellent post/paper about ‘Quadrilateralling’, this end would be the Scripture/Reason/Tradition section), whilst the second half (Part 3) collects together 12 stories from people made in the image of God – shedding some experiential light on the ‘theory’ from the first section. There are also some helpful appendices, which explain the way terminology and more niche words are/can be deployed, an outline of a workshop, and another story/reflection. The various chapters also have their own bibliographies, which makes it easy to chase up references. The bulk of this review will engage with the first half.
The ‘theoretical’ chapters in This is my body (this reader wonders if the intentional allusions to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are actually challenged and subverted by the obvious emphasis on ‘my’, but I digress) are a bit of a mixed bag, in my opinion. I felt that Christina Beardsely’s chapter ‘Acting like a man – playing the woman: gender in performance’ was fascinating, delving into gender roles in the drama of Shakespeare and others. This helps to explain a number of features common to some Trans* experience. Michelle O’Brien’s chapter ‘Intersex, Medicine, Diversity, Identity and Spirituality’ was likewise a helpful overview (from one perspective, as I say, this book is challenging the received Christian tradition) of questions and issues around intersex people, which I will likely return to at different times when thinking about the ‘I’ of the extended acronym. Another helpful chapter, challenging stereotypes in a constructive way for the most part was Chris Dowd’s ‘Five things cis folks don’t know about trans folk because it isn’t on trashy TV – my right of reply’, which is a useful engagement with the portrayal of trans people and an invitation to think and listen graciously and carefully.
From my perspective, a key weakness of these ‘theoretical’ chapters is their usage and treatment of the Bible. There are quite a few examples of this, particularly regarding the Creation texts of Genesis 1-2. As ever, I wonder what the authors of this book would make of two key things: firstly, the challenge of Karl Barth regarding the importance of sexual difference in the Imago Dei, and secondly the complexity of thinking theologically about the Fall, as recorded in Genesis 3. This is not to say that this entire book (This is my body, not Genesis!) can or should be dismissed out of hand because of this, but that I think this is a missing pair of thought-strands in much discussion in this area. I’ve attempted to sketch some of these things in an academic paper, though this is just the start of that process. Simply put, though, I would encourage folk thinking and praying about ‘T’ and the church/theology to read the ‘theoretical’ chapters of this book, but to do so with open eyes, aware of the biases and weaknesses of some of the biblical work, at least.
The ‘story’ chapters in this book are perhaps the most valuable to folk like myself who on the one hand recognise and have empathy for the pain of Trans* people, and at the same time don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of the Christian tradition and a biblical understanding of what it means to be human in a fallen world that God is in the process of redeeming. Whilst I was reading this book, I went to a shop with it in my hand. A shop attendant commented that ‘transgender Christians’ was an oxymoron – that they weren’t ‘proper’ Christians. Given that this persons dress indicated quite firmly their religious commitments, I found that fascinating. I’d been reading these stories, and whilst they haven’t changed my mind, they do resonate with my experience of God. I found the story ‘My Journey of Faith as an Evangelical Trans Woman’ particularly powerful – as the author relates their experience of marriage, ministry, bereavement and so on, whilst wrestling with questions of identity. You would, I honestly think, need a heart of stone not to hear the pain and the purpose of these stories.
So, how to conclude this review? This is, I think, a book of two halves. Clearly, the stories are meant to inform and cement the argument being made in the first half of the book. On one hand, they do this very well – demonstrating the issues and putting people in place of ideas. On the other hand, this represents the weaponisation of a story, the use of a testimony to persuade, rather than relying on the arguments and data that are being appealed to implicitly or explicitly. With that in mind, this is a difficult book to recommend. If you are convinced that Trans* folk represent another identity group that all must adapt to and embrace, this book will reinforce your belief. If you believe that Trans* identities are a threat to everything ever, this book will not persuade you. If, like me (And, I suspect, most people) you think the truth of the matter (And the pastoral practice) lies somewhere in the middle. This book represents, then, an important resource, but absolutely not the final word.
Whatever you’ve made of my review, and from whatever perspective you are coming, I always welcome recommendations and comments. I’d be particularly interested in more book recommendations on this and related topics.
(1) I use the acronym ‘LGBT*’ not because I am ignorant of (at least) LGBTIQAA* identities, but for brevity.
For more books on Christianity and sexuality, why not check out my living list of resources: A Bibliography: Sex and Gender. I’d recommend at the ‘theoretical’ level Peter Sanlon’s Plastic People: How Queer Theory is Changing Us, and at a more relational and pastoral level Vaughan Roberts’ excellent Transgender.