In Monday's post, I wrote about the trans narrative to which many young people today are regularly exposed. It’s a narrative helpfully articulated in Juno Dawson’s What’s the T?, with the themes of identity, opposition, education and rights being prominent throughout.
Reflecting on what young people today are hearing led me to lay down this challenge:
‘This perspective on trans experience resonates with young people who want to know who they are, who care about justice and fairness, who have seen good reasons to distrust traditional authorities, and who want a sense of belonging. This perspective connects so easily with young people because it meets them where they’re at. The question we therefore need to wrestle with is, how do we make the biblical perspective connect with where young people are at today?’
How do we bring the Bible’s teaching to meet young people where they are at? I think we can make a good start by thinking about the big questions young people are asking and how the biblical perspective offers better answers.
Who am I?
For many teenagers, this is the question. The popular trans narrative tells young people that they are what they feel inside. Nothing else matters and no one else can tell you who you are. It’s your responsibility to work out who you are, and to embrace that and express it in order to experience your best life.
The one who made you and loves you wants to give you a solid, static, stable, life-giving identity.
This sounds great until you actually stop and think about it. Only I can know who I am? I’ve got to work out who I am from within the mess of mixed and fluctuating feelings inside? If I don’t embrace who I really am, I’ll miss out on my best life? That puts us under a lot of pressure. The stakes are high and it’s down to the individual to get it right. It’s no wonder that the mental health of many young people is struggling; the pressure that this approach to identity puts on young people is bound to be one of the causal factors.
The Bible offers a much more freeing and life-giving approach to identity. You don’t have to work out who you are. You don’t have to try and make the right choice from the mix and mess you find inside. God tells you who you are. The one who made you and loves you wants to give you a solid, static, stable, life-giving identity. He’s given you the identity of being a boy or a girl through your body. You don’t have to act a certain way or feel a certain way, you’ve already been given that identity. And more than that, God wants to give you the identity of being his child – to know his unmeasurable and inexhaustible love, irrespective of what you do or how you feel. That’s good news for those asking the question ‘Who am I?’
How can I make a difference?
Many young people really care about making a difference. This is seen in their interest in rights, including what are seen as trans rights. They want to campaign and work towards a world where all people are treated fairly, and all are granted the freedoms they deserve.
The problem is, the secular world can’t give any foundation to this desire to make a difference. Why spend your life trying to do good for others? Life’s short, ultimately it’s survival of the fittest, so you should be thinking about yourself. And a secular perspective also can’t explain why all people should be treated fairly or granted human rights. Contrary to the words of the Declaration of Independence – and now popularised by Hamilton – it isn’t self-evident that all people are created equal. You only have to take a quick look through history to see that.
But a biblical perspective gives us a basis for our desire to make a difference and for the concept of human rights. We want to make a difference because we’ve been created by God to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28) and we’ve been called to love our neighbour as ourself (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). Human rights make sense because every human has been created in God’s image which gives us inherent worth and dignity and the right to life (Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9-10). The Bible gives us a basis from which to work for the just treatment of people who are questioning their gender or feeling uncomfortable in their bodies.
Who can I trust?
Traditional authorities are often distrusted by young people. Abuses of authority have left young people wary, and this, combined with the prominence of post-modern thinking, means that personal experience is often trusted more than education or position. This is why doctors and academics are not deemed the experts on how to help transgender people; trans people themselves are the experts.
Jesus is the one truly good authority.
But in Jesus we have an authority whom we can trust. When we read the gospels, we see that Jesus is the perfect example of non-abusive authority. Jesus never misuses his authority to get his own way or to harm. He is not self-seeking, but rather lays down his authority in order to seek our good. He is the one truly good authority. And Jesus can be trusted as an authority because as the creator who took on flesh he knows us inside out, literally.
This is so important when it comes to a topic like gender. What is going to bring the best outcomes for a person with gender dysphoria – transitioning or not transitioning? We don’t know. We don’t have conclusive research, and it would be pretty much impossible to conduct research to measure all the aspects of the outcomes anyway. We need an authority who knows better than us, one who can be trusted even when he’s asking us to do things that seem hard and painful. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is exactly that kind of authority.
Where do I belong?
For many young people, trans is about belonging. The sharp division that is made between those who are trans and those who are not, and those who are educated and enlightened about all things gender and those who aren’t cuts trans-identifying teens off from many people but gives them a strong connection with a new community. For many, the online trans world becomes their community.
As Christians, we can offer a better community. The experience of detransitioners shows that the trans community is pretty brutal – if your experience of gender starts to change or you start to question your understanding of it, you’re out. Membership of this community is precarious – you’d better behave.
As churches, we have the opportunity to create communities of deep love and radical welcome. People can come and be loved and welcomed regardless of what they feel, or believe, or do. They can find a community where people care about them, not about an agenda. Closely linked to the question, ‘Where do I belong?’, is the question ‘Am I loved?’. As Christians, we have the ability to say a big, confident ‘yes’ to that question. You’re so loved that the God who made everything sent his son to die in your place so that you might enter into a relationship with him where you will be loved and delighted over for the rest of eternity.
When young people are asking ‘Where do I belong?’, as Christians our answer should be ‘Here, with us and with Jesus’.
Connecting with young people
None of this is easy. And all of this needs to be translated from ideas into action if we’re going to connect with young people. But I am thoroughly convinced that we can make the biblical perspective connect with where young people are at today, even on a complex and controversial topic like gender. Let’s build churches, youth groups, and friendships that allow us to do exactly that.
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