Book Review: Transforming the Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians

The June 9, 2014 cover story of Time magazine proclaimed, “The Transgender Tipping Point” with a photo of actor Laverne Cox, a prominent, successful transgender woman. Since this issue, there have been and there are presently ongoing actions at various levels of government that seek to deny transgender people civil rights. At the forefront of this push, in large part, are evangelical and fundamentalist churches, and leaders within these movements. Starting in 2015 and continuing to this day, there have been numerous bills and referendums at the state level offered for consideration, passed by state legislatures and some even signed into law by governors. The efforts don’t stop at the state level, but include local ordinances and school system policies. Since January 2017, the efforts have expanded to include both U.S. federal law and U.S. administrative law and policy across a wide array of U.S. federal agencies.

Looking back over the past four years it feels like the Time magazine declaration was premature. At that time, it seemed transgender rights were going to advance nicely on the heels of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in late 2010 and with the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Obergefell v. Hedges in June of 2015. The feeling that the tipping point was past seemed logical. The optimism was short lived, however, as the battle over Houston’s Proposition 1 quickly heated up, with the Evangelical Christian community leading the charge in an effort to overturn a Houston Civil Rights ordinance that provided protection to minority members of the Houston community, including transgender people. The Proposition was resoundingly defeated, overturning the ordinance and eliminating broad protections for a wide range of minorities including transgender people. The “Christian Right,” feeling empowered from the Houston success, proceeded to pass North Carolina’s House Bill 2 in the spring of 2016, again actively taking a hostile position toward transgender civil rights and civil rights in general.

It is with this backdrop that Austen Hartke has put out his timely book, Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians. Hartke is an ideal voice for the task at hand. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies from Luther Seminary, and he is a transman.

The book is a resounding success and it is a must-read for the thoughtful Christian or person of faith seeking to engage in conversations about gender and sexuality, or who just seeks greater understanding of the questions surrounding these topics. The book is written in two major sections. In the first section, Hartke creates the knowledge base that provides sufficient understanding of the forces and various perspectives within the Christian community. Many at present are very hostile; others range from ambivalent to affirming. The topics in this first section look at the varied perspectives within the Christian community, specifically at the predominate and dominate voices within the evangelical Christian movement that are hostile to transgender people, at some of the organizations actively funded that advocate within the Christian world, and at governments attempting to marginalize LGBTIQ people and deny the very existence of transgender people.

The first section goes on to provide a concise Gender 101 course for those who may need it, providing definitions used commonly when discussing gender, transgender, gender dysphoria, and non-binary individuals. There is coverage of the broader cultural history of gender, gender roles, and how they are encountered across culture and time. This section also provides an excellent, although brief, overview of the current knowledge and understanding of science, medicine, and psychological and sociological communities relating to transgender people and caring for them.

The first section concludes with an in-depth critique of Christian psychologist Mark Yarhouse’s 2015 book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. The critique is insightful, and clearly identifies the problems that arise when either the “integrity” or “disability” frames, which Yarhouse proposes, are employed. Hartke then shows how Yarhouse’s third frame, “diversity,” presents a model that provides a positive frame for the embrace of diversity, both based in the science we can observe, but also through the scriptures. Moving forward, Transforming builds on the idea that diversity within the creation was intended by the Creator, and that when scripture is rightly understood it calls the church to be affirming of gender diverse people.

Section two of the book is largely engaged in apologetics relating to the topic of gender diverse and transgender people. In this section, the stories and experiences of several Christian transgender people are woven together providing context to the apologetics and introducing the very personal and profound experiences of transgender Christians. The author delivers thoughtful, well-reasoned discussions of key scriptures and passages that are areas of conversation and contention within the Christian world. Hartke’s knowledge and understanding of scripture and his expertise in Jewish and Old Testament studies provides insightful perspectives and a sound position for faithful understanding of scripture that supports an affirming position of trans and gender diverse people, and their full inclusion in the fellowship of believers.

The coverage of scripture starts with the creation story, looks at the gender roles as understood at various times in Jewish history, carrying through to Paul’s writings, and our current perspectives on gender roles within the church and society more broadly.

For many, particularly family members and close friends of transgender people, the use of the trans-person’s new name and pronouns provides a significant challenge and a point of tension. An entire chapter is devoted to this topic and it provides a beautiful, balanced, and thoughtful perspective, incorporating a scriptural model for the practice of renaming of individuals at key times in a person’s spiritual journey. This chapter creates a possible approach to a beautiful affirming sacrament that could help the church community embrace and support trans congregants and their families.

The topics of “basic” inclusion within the community of faith along with “priestly” roles in the community are covered with a graceful touch. Drawing from his knowledge of scripture, Jewish writings, culture, and history, Hartke makes a compelling case that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals should be considered in the same light as eunuchs set out by Isaiah, opening the sanctuary to eunuchs, and as those to be included in the faithful. He then extends the case forward using Christ’s admonition and extension of Isaiah’s writings to include venerating eunuchs and by extension transgender people, in the Kingdom of Heaven. Finally, Philip’s encounter with the eunuch nicely supports this position.

Although the current statement issued by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists acknowledges the existence of trans identifying individuals, and even calls for kind treatment, it stops well short of true compassion and understanding. The statement stops its support at the point where science, medicine, and psychology recommend we go: treating gender dysphoria and transgender people by social and/or physical gender transition. Transforming effectively addresses this topic to include holding space for transgender individuals in the “priesthood” or clergy.

The last few chapters of the book move away from apologetics and Hartke turns his attention to how the church might “do it right” in its search for an affirming stance with trans and gender non-conforming people. Church leaders, be they lay leaders, clergy, or administrators, will serve themselves well to take to heart the advice shared in the later chapters.

This book is carefully referenced and annotated for those who want to dig further into the research and materials used. There is also a section with many excellent resources.

Transforming captures the lives, experiences, and truths of scripture and the Christian journey of transgender people better than any book I have read to date. As a point of reference, I have read all but a couple of the books listed in the section of the book titled “Further Reading,” along with many titles not listed. Further, the book reflects the lives and thoughts of the many transgender and gender non-conforming people of faith that I personally know.

Randi Robertson writes from her home on the Florida Space Coast. She is a retired United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and Command Pilot. Currently she stays busy as a simulator and academic instructor for an international aviation training company, teaching pilots to fly the Cessna Citation 560XL. She also spends time working as an advocate, speaker, and consultant seeking to create a more inclusive and understanding world for transgender people. She and her spouse of 34 years have two wonderful, twenty-something children, who choose to live at home. Randi is a life-long Seventh-day Adventist, and is active in her local congregation.

Image courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8970
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Thanks for this review. I’ve already learned a lot from Austen Hartke from Following him on Twitter. This looks like a great introduction for anyone – especially in the church – who has an opinion or wants to be more informed about the journeys of our transgender children, friends, and potluck tablemates.

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The bigotry of evangelicals has surfaced More strongly. Under this Administration. Only to be responded to by in your face attitude of the transgender society. Neither the church nor the government has a handle on the resolution of the issue. This book is a noble attempt to help us understand the many issues such orientation brings to church and government. It seems we can’t change them, but can we at least understand them. Even as Christians we sin daily Seems we also return to the same failures of Christian ethos. I have held a hymnal with a Gay teacher and I sat in his classroom. but I firmly rejected his advances. He finally left church employment. I don ‘t know the nature of his departure. He became a voice teacher to the entertainment society. It seems the problem and it’s resolution is in God’s hands not ours. Let us all behave as brands plucked from the burning. This book seems to suggest at least a tolerant understanding if not a solution.

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I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Austen Hartke, and he is a kind and thoughtful person as well as a serious scholar of scripture, particularly the Old Testament. I think it would be great if Adventists started reading these kinds of books and learning that there are ideas and theology they are entirely ignorant, not to mention the science and understanding of transgender people. I’ve read everything I can find that prominent Adventists, scholars, and official church bodies have said about transgender people, and no one even seems to be aware of Austen’s take on the creation story. I appreciate deeply his contribution.

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Once again SPECTRUM does a huge service to the Adventist community
in highlighting issues of compassion and understanding,
that most of us in the normal,course of our lives, would be unaware of.

Hindu, Mahatma Ghandi so eloquently opined:

I LIKE YOUR CHRIST BUT NOT YOUR CHRISTIANS. YOUR CHRISTIANS ARE SO UNLIKE YOUR CHRIST.

The shabby, shameful treatment of these highly marginalized transgender individuals, by Christian Evangelicals, has been contemptible.

Christ was always the champion of the marginalized, oppressed. and under trodden.

Transgenderism is highly complex, with hormonal, embryonic, genetic, medical, psychological, psychiatric and sociological implications. It should have ZERO theological underpinnings, except to elicit compassion for these unfortunates.

Theologians and churchmen who have ZERO medical training, show temerity, audacity and effrontery when they pontificate on this complex issue.

Even Adventist theologians, have had the CHUTZPAH to issue a highly unscientific statement on this matter, which only made them look ridiculous.

Why did they not defer to LOMA LINDA DEPARTMENT OF ADOLESCENT MEDICINE to make a more appropriate comment ??

Christians crossed the RELIGIOUS LIBERTY line when, claiming Biblical authority, they coerced legislatures to enact actions that made the lives of these unfortunates even more miserable.

A religious liberty primer for Evangelicals and Adventists alike:
Never use politics,or legal means to enforce your religious dogmas on others.

The tainted handling of this delicate and complex issue has sullied and besmirched Evangelicals. They should hang their heads in shame.

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Growing up in the church such issues and people were not discussed, the general culture was that this was taboo. It was generally thought that such individuals were abnormal, criminal, and by nature predators who sought out to convert heterosexuals into being gay. Now that their is a general societal acknowledgement of who are transgender or have these tendencies are not non-criminals in nature such topics can be discussed openly.

As Robin mentions the Adventist church recognizes these individuals as deserving of humans rights but has really not spent time and energy to understanding this better. I am not blaming the church of course, but as an organization we have very significant resources and some of the best minds in the world available that could contribute to greater understanding. This vacuum over the years has left theologians, clergy and members without any real anchors to address this in their own minds or how to treat others on an individual basis (just like the secular world). So many families torn apart, abuses towards individuals, and public shaming, etc. with confusion over this very real issue yet unaddressed. As servants of God and standard bearers of Present Truth we should be on the front of this ahead of the Christian world at large. The Pope recently even addressed this with ‘who am I to judge’. So I am wondering why we as a church are so shy to explore, understand and communicate a Godly and well reasoned thought leadership to address this.

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We HAVE great minds in our universities here in the US who do study and who do contribute to understanding of transgender and other gender issues but understandably they are not yelling, and what they do say is not being “heard” by either leadership or in most cases the membership at large. On the part of leadership, from all appearances there is an agenda (recall the one sided, GC sponsored conference in South Africa from a couple years back). On the part of much of the membership, they listen to leadership.

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So we have a leadership and membership who desire judgement based on bias as an alternative to increasing our understanding and by extension mercy to those who have been misunderstood.

To some degree. I hate to paint with too broad of a brush. It seems to me there are many within membership, at least that I know, who desire increased understanding but I’m not sure that it’s anywhere near a majority of members. I tend to drift in more progressive circles than a lot of Adventists. I’ve spoken with and know a few educators within our Adventist system who study these things and are open to promoting this understanding and mercy you speak of. The NAD has taken some steps that promote understanding but to me, a cisgender church member, those steps still seem to fall somewhat short of a true understanding, in that church policy leaves someone who is not cisgender in a spiritual no man’s land as far as the church is concerned.

Agreed, that is a prudent statement.

Here in Japan for example has never had a culture of vitrol and hatred of transgenderr that we see in the Christian west.

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Great review, Randi - thoughtful and thorough. Thank you!

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