People Not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender ExperienceWritten by Andrew Bunt Reviewed By Robert S. Smith
As evangelicals continue to grapple with the challenge of the transgender movement and, in particular, with how to minister faithfully to those who experience gender incongruence, a range of resources is required. Alongside careful exegetical treatments of key biblical texts and detailed theological critiques of trans ideology, there is a need for shorter and more accessible introductions that can impart a clear biblical perspective and encourage a helpful pastoral posture. Andrew Bunt’s People Not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience is of this latter kind.
Beginning with an account of his own experience of childhood gender dysphoria, Bunt’s booklet provides a helpful primer on transgender questions via a simple, three-part framework—a heart response, a head response, and a hope response. While he is aware of the issues that dominate public discussion, his first concern is that we learn to engage with those for whom these issues are personal. For behind the debates “are real people, people created by God and loved by God, who are wrestling with their sense of self and are often suffering great pain and distress in the process” (p. 5).
To encourage the appropriate heart response (ch. 2), Bunt begins by drawing our attention to the fact that Jesus’s treatment of people reveals that “in the heart of God is a deep love for every person he has created, and a deep desire for them to find fullness of life in him” (p. 8). He also urges readers to listen to those whose “feelings of discomfort with their body are so acute that they contemplate cutting off parts of their body” (p. 9) and asks how Jesus would respond in such circumstances. The answer of the Gospels is clear: “when Jesus encounters suffering, whether physical or psychological, he responds with compassion” (p. 9). Consequently, if our response to trans people is something else, “we must examine why this is, and allow the example of Jesus to challenge us and the Holy Spirit to change us” (p. 8). For, at the very least, “Christians are meant to embody the compassion of Jesus” (p. 10).
In addition, Bunt suggests that believers get to know people who experience gender dysphoria. If this is not possible, he suggests “we can gain some level of insight through reading or watching the stories of transgender people” (p. 10). He is clear, however, that committing ourselves to listening well does not mean that we will agree with how a person sees themselves or how they have sought to address their gender concerns. Nonetheless, it will help us “talk about transgender people in the way we would want others to talk about us or our family or close friends, recognizing their full dignity as those created in the image of God” (p. 11).
To assist with the right head response (chapter 3), Bunt begins by critiquing the idea “that [our] identity is found in [our] experienced gender, in how we feel internally” (p. 13). The fundamental flaw in this approach, as he insightfully discerns, “is that it answers the question ‘Who am I?’ without first asking the important question, ‘How do I find who I am?’” (p. 13). Moreover, Bunt highlights three reasons why one’s “internal identity” cannot answer the second question:
First, it is unstable. An internal identity is based on our feelings and desires, but we all know that these can change. They cannot provide a solid, stable identity. Internal identity is also ambiguous. Our feelings and desires can easily conflict. What if we deeply desire two things which cannot be reconciled. Which do we embrace to find our true self? And ultimately, internal identity is inconsistent. We all agree that there are desires we might experience which we would not embrace as our identity. (p. 14, emphasis original)
In light of this, a further question emerges: “If there is a conflict between the external body and the internal self, why should we prioritize the internal? When experienced gender and sex conflict, why should we prioritize gender?” (p. 14). The answer is we shouldn’t—neither logically nor biblically. For, as Bunt states: “We receive our God-given identity as male or female through our body” (p. 15). It is, therefore, “not possible to be born in the wrong body” (p. 17).
This anthropological insight provides the basis for the Bible’s expectation that the sex of one’s body will determine one’s gender. Bunt explains as follows:
If our identity as either male or female is given to us by God and communicated to us through our bodies, and if embracing our true identity is the route to fullness of life, it makes sense that the Bible consistently expects males to live as men and females to live as women. It also makes sense that any crossing of gender boundaries is viewed negatively in the Bible (eg Deut 22.5; 1 Cor 11.3–16). (p. 16)
As Bunt rightly espies, Scripture’s teaching mean that “transitioning to live in line with [one’s] experienced gender is not the right or the best approach when an individual experiences a strong conflict between sex and gender” (p. 17). Otherwise put, the biblical way to resolve a conflict between one’s gender identity and one’s body is to yield to the body. This may be a hard thing for a gender dysphoric person to hear, especially if they have already transitioned. But Bunt insists that if we know that “what God says about our sex and gender is right and good,” we will also know that “he can be trusted” (p. 18).
As for the necessary hope response (chapter 4), Bunt contends that Christians are “uniquely equipped to handle suffering well, and to help others to do the same” (p. 19). This is not only because the promises of the gospel enable us to endure trial, but because Scripture teaches us that “things are not as they should be” (p. 20). For this reason, the fact that “some people will, in this lifetime, live with pain and suffering in relation to their gender identity should not be a surprise. All of us will live with pain and suffering of many different types in this life” (p. 20).
Rather than leading to resignation, however, Bunt suggests this should lead to lament. For far from denying the “dissonance between what is and what should be,” Scripture encourages us “to express our deep experience of pain, sorrow or loss and, specifically, to express it to God” (p. 20). This is a very potent thing to do. For although lament “does not necessarily change our situation,” through it, “God gives us the strength to keep walking through the pain” (p. 20).
Bunt also provides some timely advice for practically supporting those who suffer, and helpfully reminds Christians that it is not our business to explain other people’s pain, but to point them “forward to the day when all pain and suffering end, when everything that has been broken is put to rights, and when God himself wipes away our tears” (p. 22). He closes with this salutary insight: “Those who seek to follow Jesus faithfully while living out their sex in the midst of experiencing gender dysphoria are a beautiful example of the sort of costly self-sacrifice to which Jesus calls us all” (p. 23).
Despite its brevity and the many matters it leaves unaddressed, People Not Pronouns is a much needed resource that will help to equip the church for the challenge ahead. I commend it warmly and pray it will be used widely.
Robert S. Smith
Rob Smith is lecturer in theology, ethics & music ministry at Sydney Missionary Bible College in Sydney, Australia, and serves as Ethics and Pastoralia book reviews editor for Themelios.
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