Should pastors grease the Kardashian celebrity machine by mentioning Bruce Jenner from the pulpit? There are good arguments for ignoring the whole thing, but I think that’s a pastoral mistake. So much of our cultural trajectory converges on Bruce: our rampant Gnosticism, our confidence in technology, our moral libertarianism and determined flight from biblical standards, our cult of fame, our sexual self-contradictions. Bruce Jenner will be forgotten soon enough, but what he represents isn’t going away, because transgressiveness is one of the few cultural imperatives that we are not permitted to transgress.
If we preach about Bruce, what should we say? When I asked the Jewish theologian David Novak how a synagogue would respond, his answer was stunning in its simplicity: First, “Jews would not recognize Jenner as a woman”; then, “Torah forbids castration.” Castration doesn’t turn a man into a woman. It only leaves him a damaged man.
Novak was referring to Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one who is emasculated, or has his male organ cut off, shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” As long as we’re looking for proof texts, we might add Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear a man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” It doesn’t matter that the cross-dressing is surgical rather than sartorial. If men are forbidden to wear bras, we are presumably also forbidden to wear breasts.
Many Christians don’t think Jesus said anything relevant to questions like this, but he did: “He who created them at the beginning made them male and female” (Matthew 19:4). Jesus was answering a question about divorce, but, as John Paul II showed, Jesus appeals to the “beginning” as a revelation about the created pattern of sexuality. Jesus didn’t mean, God made everything, therefore he must have made both male and female. He meant, God made a male and then made a female. God created each individually, and he created the distinction between them. The creation account makes this clear, distinguishing the origin of Adam (from the ground) from the origin of Eve (from Adam).
It takes some dexterity to get this right. On the one hand, sexuality isn’t simply biology. If male and female differ only by a few body parts plus or minus, then transitioning seems as innocuous as a kidney transplant or an amputation. Sexuality is much more fundamental. God didn’t make generic human stuff poured out into two kinds of bodies; he made two kinds of persons. Our maleness and femaleness is integral to the creatures we are made to be. We are created, to use John Paul II’s terms, with “spousal” bodies designed for reciprocal self-giving, some for masculine self-giving, others for feminine self-giving.
On the other hand, if sexual identity isn’t reducible to biology, it’s also not detachable from the body. You are your body, and if that body is male then so are you. As soon as theorists started suggesting that sexual identity was socially constructed, the transgender movement was inevitable. Perhaps the chicken-egg goes in the opposite direction: Theories of social construction are massive, impenetrable rationalizations for sexual liberation. In any case, Bruce is wrong to identify the real Bruce with his female soul that has, he says, always existed inside his man’s body. Only a Cartesian or a cultural theorist (pardon the redundancy) could say that.
Bruce admitted to Diane Sawyer that he’s a confused, lonely man. He was crying tears of relief and pain even before the interview began. It’s impossible not to sympathize with the pain he’s experienced, even as we suspect we may not be getting quite the whole story even now. But if we are created male and female, then the divergence of his soul and body must be some kind of derangement. That’s not an insult. We Christians believe that everyone is deranged. But it’s important to be clear about what sort of derangement Bruce and other transgenders are suffering.
In a Weekly Standard piece in March, Charlotte Allen summarized the research of Ray Blanchard, once head of clinical sexology at the University of Toronto’s Clarke Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. From interviews with nearly two hundred transgenders, mostly males transitioning to female, Blanchard concluded that there are two types. One is the “homosexual” transgender, typically an effeminate boy who begins to identify with girls early in life. The other, more dominant today, is bi- or heterosexual; most transition later in life, often after living hyper-masculine lives. Blanchard doesn’t believe transgenders in this second category are honest when they say they have always been trapped in a man’s body. They are “autogynephiliacs,” men who (in Allen’s words) “fall in love with the idea of contemplating themselves as women.” Autogynephilia is “essentially an erotic response to the trappings of genetic womanhood.” Transgenders in this category act out of sexual fixation rather than out of an innate identity. They don’t take up crochet. They pose for Vanity Fair in slinky teddies.
Bruce is an autogynephiliac rather than a homosexual. In his interview, he insisted, somewhat aggressively, that he is not gay (and he laughed off the question of whether his transitioned self will be a lesbian). He’s not interested in becoming just any kind of woman. He’s interested in being the kind of woman that he, as a man, has found seductive. Bizarre as its manifestation may be, his derangement is not all that different from the derangement of a supercharged porn addict.
Preachers who preach on Bruce should assume that they are preaching to one or two possible future Bruces. For them, it’s important to acknowledge how perfectly Bruce exemplifies the acedia of our age. Paul Griffiths has recently written that acedia “finds only sadness in the good things of the LORD,” and R.J. Snell speaks of acedia as disgust at being. Bruce has achieved and enjoyed more than most, but to him it’s nothing but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. Surrounded with honors, having fulfilled many of his ambitions, his life is dominated by one set of unfulfilled desires.
When all the theorizing is done, we come back to Rabbi Novak, with a friendly amendment: Torah forbids, not to frustrate human desire, but to direct us toward the abundant life, a life of joyful gratitude for the gift of being created male or female.