Monday, October 26, 2015

Transgender: The New Frontier of a Changing Culture

‘Back to the Future' day has passed with lots of discussion not just about how well the film predicted 2015, but also about the changes we can look forward to in another 25 years’ time. While much was made of the technological changes the biggest surprises for Marty, fast forwarding from the 1980’s, would surely have been the social ones. For without doubt the biggest single cultural change has been the new (First) world order regarding sexuality. In just two decades homosexuality has moved from the margins of society to having mainstream cultural recognition and indeed celebration. The move to legal civil partnerships and then to same-sex marriage has been remarkable – for it to have happened in such a small space of time is really quite astonishing.

It is a reminder that culturally anything really is possible and that the societal norms of 2040 may be staggeringly removed from those we assume at the present time. So are there any clues as to where we might be heading next? I suspect that one good indicator of forthcoming cultural change would be to see what movie and television projects are currently being pitched to media companies. After all the current slew of programmes and films generating debate and shaping popular thinking must have started life, in some cases, several years ago.

Transgender the new frontier
What is clear is that with homosexuality firmly established in the mainstream the new frontier for culture re-shapers is now gender itself. Recent months have seen a succession of stories and programmes in the media concerning transgender. BBC 5-Live interviewed an 11 year old girl starting high school as a boy, Louis Theroux has been looking at transgender kids, Channel 4 have a series of documentaries running on the subject, a new transgender sitcom ‘Boy meets Girl’ has been commissioned by BBC2, transgender is now an ‘East Enders’ storyline, and Hollywood A-lister Eddie Redmayne starred in this year’s release ‘The Danish Girl’, the story of an early pioneer of transgender surgery.

The approach to the issue is the same in all these presentations – to be supportive, to show the bravery of those involved (which many of them undoubtedly are), to render churlish and ignorant any voices of opposition, to win the sympathy of the viewer and to make it mainstream. It is no surprise then that ‘transphobia’ is becoming the latest addition to popular vocabulary or that, as Germaine Greer has shown, it’s the latest flashpoint in the debate over free speech.

The New Me
Transgender feelings aren’t a new phenomenon but the advance of modern surgery and hormone treatments have made it possible to turn such desires into a reality (of sorts). However, lying behind the medical issue is a much deeper philosophical issue concerning the nature of humanness itself. It is the notion that sexuality and in this case physicality are ‘plastic’ aspects of personhood. That is, ‘I’ am not to be defined by my gender when it comes either to relationships or who ‘I’ actually am. So my physicality is arbitrary – just a random imposition of biology which may or may not suit me and, like a set of clothes that I may find hideous, ought to be changeable.

So on current trends it is entirely feasible that by 2040 many children will routinely dress and attend school in a gender different from their biology. Gender based language and pronouns may be phased out in public life. Names may increasingly be unisex as giving a child a ‘gender specific’ name will be frowned upon or seen as constraining them. Switching gender identity between certain situations or phases of life might become commonplace.

Responding to a Cultural Tsunami
For Bible-believing Christians this is another wave of the tsunami of cultural change experienced over recent decades. More and more churches are having to adjust to and work out how to interact with transgender situations. But how should we respond? A question that might, understandably, fill us with a sense of dread and/or weariness. After all we look back at the campaigns against Civil Partnerships and Same Sex Marriage and see how they were swept aside. Like the boy crying ‘wolf’ we feel our protestations have worn thin in the ears of those around us – especially as, for the time being at least, society has not collapsed into chaos despite having ignored us.

Well there are various ways we could go. One would be to demand legislation to prohibit people from making transgender changes, at the very least to lobby against any moves to accommodate transgender people in mainstream society. The two-fold problem with this approach is in trying to impose a Christian worldview on a non-Christian society. Secondly, and precisely because of the first reason, it just won’t ‘wash’ with a fragmented neo-pagan society of competing interests.

We could of course do nothing, say nothing and just resign ourselves to further inexorable moral confusion. That, however, would be an abdication of our responsibility to be ‘salt and light’ in the world, to seek the lost, and to hold out the 'word of life' in a floundering and confused generation. So how do we stand for Biblical truth without presenting ourselves as being oppressive towards transgender people or anyone else? 

Let me suggest we firstly have to recognise that there are those around us who genuinely struggle with their gender. For such their gender is an issue of confusion and sometimes real pain and unhappiness. We have to accept that science and the government have given such people the option to radically alter their physicality and to live in an outwardly changed gender. However, that people have those options should not be our first point of concern.

There is an alternative
Rather than a ‘slam it and ban it’ approach we need to lovingly but also boldly make the case that there is another way someone can go in such situations. As Christians we want to say that there is an alternative to fear and self-loathing, to injections in the stomach, drastic surgery, relationship trauma, family distress, ongoing physical and mental health problems and many of the other not untypical consequences of pursuing gender change.

That alternative, of course, is the Gospel. The Gospel that reveals the God who made each person – who made them male and who made them female. The God who didn’t make a mistake when He did that. The Gospel that explains that we live in a fallen world and because of that there is no aspect of our humanness that isn’t messed up to a greater or lesser degree. The Gospel that shows that God is nonetheless committed to recovering this world and restoring men and women to being what He intended them to be – good and glorious, happy in their own skins and able to enjoy Him for ever. The Gospel that doesn’t oppress anyone, but offers men and women a way to find their true and most satisfying identity in Jesus Christ whether in 1989, 2015 or 2040.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Against Martha-ism

‘Pastors, don’t be a Martha’, was the call to pastors at the first Scottish FIEC Pastoral Retreat held in August this year.

Recognising that so often in ministry the first casualty of busyness is the pastor’s own quality time with the Lord, this new venture was a chance for pastors and ministry workers to take some time out for spiritual refreshment. For pastors constantly ‘giving out’ there is an ever present danger of becoming dry and professional in ministry. So taking time to focus on their own soul and be ‘recharged’ in their love for the Lord is not a luxury for pastors, but crucial if they are to be spiritually fruitful.

In all nine pastors gathered along with Richard Underwood (FIEC Pastoral Ministries Director) and myself for 24 hours of fellowship, Biblical encouragement and private devotional time.

After each meal the group gathered together for some devotional thoughts from Richard and me. Richard unpacked some of the lessons from the story of Mary and Martha, and encouraged the group with Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts’. I reflected on Psalm 32 and the importance of confession and blessings of forgiveness. Each of these times included discussion and group prayer.

Otherwise the Retreat was unprogrammed in order to give the majority of the time for private prayer, reading and personal reflection. Held in the Faith Mission College in Edinburgh those attending were able to use the college facilities including the library, study rooms, the adjacent bookshop and cafĂ©, along with the student lounge and private bedrooms. A nearby park also offered somewhere to go a walk and ‘smell the roses’.

Having a group together also gave the chance for pastors to chat, share wisdom and pray for each other. The opportunity to be able to share and speak privately with fellow pastors is one way ‘group Retreats’ can be a particular blessing.   

The benefit of FIEC organising a Retreat like this is in helping pastors to do something they want to do but often struggle to schedule or keep to. The reality for many pastors is that dates marked off as ‘Quiet Days’ often aren’t taken because other workload feels more pressing at the time. Further because the pastor is often the only one involved in such diary commitments it’s all too easy to cancel or postpone them. It can also be a struggle to find somewhere suitable for such times (home or church office are rarely ‘distraction free’). Hence the value of being able to book something in advance with others that is set-up especially for that purpose.

All attending have been hugely positive about the Retreat and have expressed their hope that it could be become a regular event in the Scottish FIEC calendar.  

So please give thanks for the blessing and encouragement experienced by all those attending. Pray that its positive effects will be ongoing in the lives of the pastors and their churches. Pray that personal devotional time will be a regular and kept part of pastor’s schedules in all our fellowships.