Understanding emerging gender identities

Mark Yarhouse is well known as a psychologist offering a Christian perspective on the complex questions around transgenderism and gender dysphoria, and I have previously reviewed his book Understanding Gender DysphoriaHe has teamed up with Julia Sadusky, a clinical psychologist and youth and ministry educator, and an advisor to Preston Sprinkle’s Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, in their new book Emerging Gender Identities: understanding the diverse experiences of today’s youth. I wrote the following review for Christianity Today magazine.


Book Review: Emerging Gender Identities: understanding the diverse experiences of today’s youth by Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky (Grand Rapids: Brazos/Baker, 2020)


There is perhaps no more contentious issue in contemporary culture than the issue of transgenderism and the questions around gender identity. As a result, there are few issues which also divide Christians in their response; the culture wars in society cast their shadow across different Christian responses, not only in relation to theology and biblical interpretation, but also in relation to credible pastoral responses.

Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky are well placed to help us navigate this complex set of issues. Yarhouse is best known for his 2015 volume Understanding Gender Dysphoria, and both are part of the collaborative team of the Centre for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, led by Preston Sprinkle.

Readers will need to be aware from the outset that this book is not offering a critique of transgenderism ‘from the outside’, as it were, or offering a philosophical and theological critique of the movement or the social phenomenon as others have done—the major way that Christians have responded. Instead, they are offering an exploration ‘from the inside’, reflecting the fact that they are both deeply committed to the therapeutic and pastoral engagement with individuals and situations in pastoral and psychiatric practice. This gives the book a rootedness in the reality of experience, and doesn’t allow us to be satisfied with simplistic pastoral responses.

Although this will inevitably mean that readers looking for clear-cut, easy-to-apply solutions or critiques might be frustrated, Yarhouse and Sadusky are clear from the outset that ‘we will offer distinctively Christian principles that are in keeping with historic Christian anthropology’ (p 11). One of the enriching features of the book is that, along with patient and serious engagement with professional and pastoral issues, the authors don’t skimp on rooting their reflection in some serious theological engagement.


The book is in two halves, with the first half offering a careful delineation of the issues and language of the current debate, and the second focussing on informed practical strategies for dealing with actual cases.

The first chapter outlines the rapid changes that have taken place in both public perception and professional understandings. From the outset, the authors are clear that the dramatic cultural shifts pose a serious challenge to the church on all fronts. They acknowledge that the causes of this shift are complex, and are in no doubt how profound a change is involved in diverse gender identities moving from stigmatisation to normalisation in society. Their account is careful and patient, and they argue that ‘thoughtful Christians need to critically engage these claims and their underlying logic rather than accepting them at face value or rejecting them out of hand’ (p 29). They note the importance of the move to separate gender from biological sex, in part driven by feminist concerns; I think I would have been interesting to hear reflection on the importance of the internet, which both invites the possibility of disembodied relationships whilst at the same time reinforcing visual sex stereotypes.

The second chapter explores the connection between changes in language and the understanding of gender identities. They authors reject the gender identity ‘essentialism’ of campaigners on the one hand, and ‘contagion’ theories on the other, and note the double role of feminist critiques of gender stereotypes and reactionary reinforcement of them. One of the most interesting ideas in the book is that of ‘looping’ (p 40)—the way that changes in language, attitudes, institutional assumptions and expert opinion often intertwine and are mutually reinforcing. This leads to some non-polemical but deeply critical assessments of the way psychiatry has responded to the issue of gender identity, and the disingenuous claims that ‘we should listen to the children’ when they are in fact repeating back what adults have fed them (p 52).

The third chapter then looks at some typical cases and the three main kinds of response—to reinforce biological sex identity, ‘watchful waiting’, or facilitating expressed gender identity. Again, there are some trenchant criticisms of contemporary treatment, and the lack of research evidence for many current approaches. I think I was surprised that there wasn’t more information on the potential damage done by medical intervention—but this might be a reflection of aim of the book to help those involved, rather than being campaigning. One of the strengths of the critiques that are presented is that they draw from a wide range of voices, including within the trans community.


The second part of the book then focuses on strategies and options for pastoral care. This revisits Yarhouse’s description of the three ‘lenses’ through which people ‘see’ transgender, the ‘integrity/sacred’ lens, the ‘disability/difference’ lens, and the ‘diversity’ lens. The authors advocate drawing on all three to some extent, though majoring on the first and second, and offer helpful theological perspectives on each. They also revisit Yarhouse’s previous use of the distinctions between position, posture and gesture, and emphasise the importance of theology translating in effective pastoral care. They include a fascinating exploration of what it means to express Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly ministry in this context, exemplified in Jesus response to the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

The final sections of the book cash all this out, reflecting on a range of practical situations, and the options for pastoral response. Apart from being rooted in practice, these examples are also interleaved with theological reflection on the importance of the body, prayer, suffering, serving, and hope. They note the complexity of reasons why teens might question their gender identity, and explore the different dynamics of appropriate response.

I felt at times that, though the issue is complex, there might be even more to be said. For example, when a male member of a youth group wants to be addressed using female pronouns, apart from the pastoral implications for that individual, what are the consequences for girls who find boys claiming their identity—and how might that also shape our response? This parallels wider feminist responses to trans ideology, which is experience more ‘push back’ in recent months than the authors acknowledge.

That said, this is a fascinating and nuanced exploration, which offers both profound insights and much practical advice for parents, friends, and ministry leaders engaging with this issue. It includes some real gems, and the book deserves to be read widely.


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23 thoughts on “Understanding emerging gender identities”

  1. Excellent. I have definitely had my value from the first book and could not recommend it more highly, so this would seem to be an essential purchase.

    Has it been released at time of this article, or is it still due to be? I see the date is 2020, but you don’t comment on availability (unless I’ve missed it).

    Mat

    Reply
    • So is it sinful to have a genuine sense of deep confusion? And why is this book disgraceful? How would you respond to a young person struggling with these issues? Telling them ‘it is sinful’ isn’t going to help much.

      Reply
      • In Hebrews we are told that Jesus was tempted just as every human being is tempted – yet without sin. So we can be reassured (and comforted?) that experiencing temptation is not of itself sinful. On the other hand the title to your review, ‘Understanding emerging gender identities’, does seem to imply some Christian accommodation a) with the idea of separation of gender from biological sex, b) with a way of life which may indeed be inherently sinful.

        I think a lot of us may agree that ‘gender’ has become a weasel word, and that to use it in the sense that certain campaigning groups want us to use it is to capitulate to some pretty serious anti Christian (and anti science) ways of thinking. I guess non progressive Christians would view the essential problem here to be mental ill health (for which there’s no condemnation); but that’s something the campaigners’ narrative about ‘identities’ cannot accept without losing their argument. Surely Christians should be looking at Jesus’ approach to ill health (of all kinds) and saying that his wish was, and is, always for people to be restored to full health rather than told to accommodate to their sickness.

        I’m not trying to argue from some fundamentalist position that there are easy answers to all this. I’m sure you have to be confronted personally with the clinical or pastoral task of helping someone with gender confusion before you can speak with any authority on the issue. But I’m equally sure Christians in this field must try and be careful not lose sight of their Christian principles as they navigate a field where some rather serious opposing ideas are at work.

        Reply
    • Better take my trousers off then. Especially since cross dressing is the only one mentioned in the bible. No sign of ‘homosexuality’ or ‘transgenderism’.

      Reply
  2. I have not read any of these books nor have I looked in depth at this issue. I do acknowledge how acute and sensitive the whole question is and the importance of getting pastoral responses appropriate.

    However I still think that the fundamental doctrinal question is whether (as I believe) the sexuality/gender of all of us has been adversely affected by the Fall, and this fact (as I see it) is a factor to be considered in an appropriate pastoral response.

    Phil Almond

    Reply
  3. Very useful review thanks. Certainly an issue I have to grapple more with so this looks like being a useful book for me.

    It struck me the other day that for those who deny the soul, gender is probably the deepest level on which to find identity. However, God’s intent was for each of us to go deeper and find our true identity in Christ; this is where our longing to be loved is satisfied. Is there no mention that gender dysphoria may be a symptom of the soul’s search for this fundamental identity?

    Reply
    • That’s an interesting idea. But a. I am not convinced that Scripture talks of ‘soul’ is something different from ‘body’; the Greek term psyche is often translates as ‘life’. And b. does it change our approach at all?

      Reply
      • I think it does change our approach for a number of reasons. Firstly, it allows us to raise awareness within those we counsel that there is a deeper level than gender on which to find who we truly are. This is both a comfort and a caution: a comfort because finding that deeper satisfaction may (this side of the grave) actually provide solutions to the searching that those with dysmorphia suffer from; a caution because to pursue solutions that simply address the flesh are not going to provide lasting fulfilment. Secondly, it allows us as Christians to maintain a focus on the eternal and transcendent in a debate which focusses so very firmly on that which is fading away.

        As others have pointed out elsewhere in the comments, the need for identity has always been with us but gender dysmporphia is disproportionately problematic in our generation. In other words, while the war for our eternal selves has always raged, gender dysmorphia is just our generation’s field of battle.

        Reply
      • I know other commentators believe the same but Im not convinced. For example, if ‘something’ beyond the physical body does not exist, how do you explain Jesus’ assurance that man can only kill/destroy the physical body but only God can kill/destroy the body AND soul/spirit?

        Surely the whole point of his words is contrasting what man can do and what God can do. Without a distinction between body and something else, no such contrast could be made.

        Peter

        Reply
    • Gender dysphoria is extremely disproportionate in our day and age. It is far above what it would normally be or ever needs to be. There is much ‘putting ideas in vulnerable people’s minds’ included. (One big example of how utterly disastrous it is to abandon Christian culture. I sense a raft of courtcases down the line, brought by this generation of children.) Whereas the need/search for identity is not necessarily greater than normal in our own age.

      I would see the present gender situation as the endgame of the feminist desire not to tell the truth about male-female differences. We can be as good as men (i.e. as bad as men). It has come back to bite the feminists, as things always will if people refuse to speak the truth. After one irrational/illogical step, the reductio ad absurdum is always only a certain distance down the road.

      A good example of the maxim ‘Be careful what you ask for: you may get it.’.

      Reply
      • I agree. And I think Christians who enter this area need to be very careful to distinguish between what may be genuine ill health (as you say, a very low number of people) and what is really a case of joining in with the latest ideologically driven trend. If we in any way give legitimacy to the trend setters by accepting their misuse of language in order to deceive, we would be culpable of doing a lot of harm to people whose need is to be steered back to biological facts and rational thinking.

        Unfortunately things have now gone so far, and become so established in so many minds, that a head on, no nonsense, approach may be counter productive. But, whatever the skill needed in a softly-softly approach, the Christian’s goal must never be allowed to shift from that which is true and that which makes broken people whole again.

        Reply
      • Feminism isn’t about being as good as men, or as bad. It is about receiving equal treatment and having equal rights regardless of sex/gender. Equal pay for equal work etc. Feminism won women the right to take out a mortgage or a hire purchase agreement, not to be raped by her husband and have access to her children if she left him. Very few feminists, especially radical feminists, claim that men and women are the same.

        Reply
  4. Following on from my August 29 post. What do you all think – that the Fall has nothing to do with this sensitive and important issue? Or is it that none of you believe in the Fall as a historical event with physical consequences?
    Phil Almond

    Reply
    • No matter what is at issue in Christian discussion, I think the fall is an ever present elephant in the room. Just imagine how life might be – what it might be – if it were not for that chasm it placed between us and God. So, whether the fall is specifically mentioned or not, it fundamentally affects everything about human life, including the topic here. St Paul spoke unequivocally about the whole of creation’s ‘bondage to decay’: I’ve not come across any Christians who would care to dismiss him as wrong on that point!

      Reply
  5. I had the chance once to become a medical illustrator (4 decades ago). I was shown illustrations/photographs of a sex realignment case. I was brought up short when I realised that behind many emotional and mental issues lay the real problem of having a dysfunctional body. Every case is different. The ability to fix physical problems has, over the decades, become more of an issue. Dysmorphia has always been with us but only recently have we had the ability to attempt to fix any of it. In the OT the only difficulty was to ban such a one from Temple service. In the NT Jesus just said ‘some can accept what I say’. I think the problem we face is not a moral one, as if the world has retreated from some golden age of Christendom; rather as science has improved it also throws up more problems to fix.

    Reply

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