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Seeking graceful hospitality

Review of Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church & What the Bible Has to Say by Preston Sprinkle.

Preston Sprinkle is a New Testament scholar, author and speaker, and in Embodied he combines story, science and scripture to explore the intersection of sexuality, gender and faith. With a comfortable cadence, Sprinkle explores the complex relationship between the theology and science of gender with a particular focus on transgender identities. Both the conservative and liberal reader will find aspects of Sprinkle’s conclusions challenging to their views on this topic.

Embodied is divided into two sections with a short but significant interlude. Sprinkle roots his work in an emphasis on how we are all image bearers of a creative God. By starting with people and stories, he is able to remind the reader that the topic of transgender identities is not first and foremost an intellectual problem to be wrestled with, but rather a lived experience of many Christians within our communities. Once the reader is grappling with how their approach to this conversation might indeed impact “the least of these,” Sprinkle explains some key concepts that all Christians need to understand as they take the necessary responsibility of educating themselves in preparation for living well with the sexual minority population in their church and life.

Once the reader is introduced to an appropriate posture for entering into conversations focused on gender and sexuality, Sprinkle takes the reader on a scientific exploration of relevant concepts which influence how to view sexual minorities. He clearly explains the difference between sex and gender, the concept of gender identity, as well as the many facets of someone living a transgender reality. There is a call for all Christian communities and families to look at the destructive power of unhealthy stereotypes that are negatively impacting many Christian youth, not just those who are sexual minorities.

IN THE IMAGE OF GOD

The strength of Embodied lives in the conversational approach that moves seamlessly between science and scripture. Sprinkle uses both science and scripture to support a theological approach to being created in the image of God, a male/female binary, a response to persons who are intersex, the possibility of a man’s brain in a woman’s body, or a female soul in a male body. Each concept is carefully explored. It is Sprinkle’s willingness to present his opinion carefully, yet confidently, at the end of each chapter that encourages readers to reflect, review scripture, and consider carefully and prayerfully (preferably within community) the conclusions each chapter draws.

Yet the reader is never too far away from the invitation to root this conversation in humanity. Repeatedly, Sprinkle challenges the reader to “sit down to listen and love a person before waxing eloquent on the nature of their experience.” With an emphasis on the patterns of Christ’s life as the guide, the reader is reminded that each transgender person’s experience is unique and should not be addressed through assumptions or preconceived notions. Without knowledge of the unique experience of a specific individual, readers are encouraged to park their perspective and invest in listening, love, and relationship.

STATS AND STORIES

The second half of Embodied focuses on the practical realities facing Christian individuals, families, and institutions. There is a focus on newly developing realities present in society because of the changing views on sexuality and gender. His focus on the role of discipleship in charting a path for this journey allows theology and practice to be intertwined. Sprinkle examines hot topics like “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and the concerns many people have with what is perceived to be an “eager medicalization of kids.” He analyzes recent statistics, stories of people living this experience, and summarizes his Christian response to individuals and families who are walking this journey.

The book does not shy away from the potential areas of conflict for every Christian community as they intentionally step toward supporting the sexual minority community both within and outside their circles. A faithful approach is given for how to support and care for those who are considering transitioning as well as questions that need to be answered when supporting those who have transitioned already. Taking both an ethical and practical lens, Sprinkle challenges the reader and those who are seeking a transition to “think long and hard – and do quite a bit of listening from a diverse array of informed voices – before they make an irreversible lifelong decision.”

PRONOUNS AND BATHROOMS

As the book draws to a close, Sprinkle looks at three areas that Christian institutions will need to explore as they continue to live out their mission and vision in the world. Though seemingly insignificant, the use of pronouns, bathrooms, and sleeping spaces are the most prominent area where institutional decisions will have a lasting impact on sexual minority individuals and their view of faith and Christianity.

Arguing that Christians ought to be slow to speak and quick to listen, Sprinkle encourages the use of the an individual’s preferred pronouns. After reviewing the positives and negatives of each approach to pronoun use, readers are invited to see pronoun use as an act of hospitality. By refusing to use preferred pronouns, Christians are no longer meeting people where they are as they are and walking with them in their complexity.

In another act of hospitality, Sprinkle suggests eliminating as many barriers as possible regarding bathrooms and sleeping spaces on retreats. These are difficult situations for transgender individuals. For many Christian institutions, renovating a bathroom to be a family or single use bathroom is a positive and practical step toward hospitality. Choosing a posture of listening, Christian institutions are encouraged to treat these situations as unique and ask the individual to share their needs and desires, working together to bring a resolution to any challenges that arise from the use of bathrooms or the planning of retreats. Sexual minorities in our communities face many unique challenges, challenges that put them at a greater risk of self harm and suicide. This reality should not be ignored, and helpful, compassionate practices are outlined in the book’s appendix.

OUTRAGEOUS LOVE

Connecting the commitment to both radical hospitality and an orthodox view of sexuality, gender, and marriage, Sprinkle calls all Christians to their own commitment, that of outrageous love. “Love changes the world. Getting furious at our cultural moment doesn’t convince people of the truth. Our truth will not be heard until our grace is felt, because the greatest apologetic for truth is love.” Sprinkle challenges all Christian readers to develop a new narrative in supporting transgender people.

Sprinkle concludes “The Bible challenged the stereotypes perpetuated by its own cultures. And it challenges ours. We’re not being biblical Christians when we adopt cultural stereotypes and then attempt to stuff our teenagers unceremoniously into them… Our cultural moment is an outrageous one. What we need is a different way. A fresh posture. A radically biblical community. One that affirms bodies, rejects stereotypes, pursues truth with humility, and lavishes grace on everyone who fails.”

Embodied challenges the reader, giving them a glimpse into the complexity of walking a communal journey of faith which courageously includes those with a transgender identity.

  • Darren is the Director of Learning for the Society of Christian Schools in BC. He supports Christian schools as they work to create a community where sexual minority youth are seen and heard. You can find Darren on Twitter using @DSpyksma

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