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 Dysphoria. He 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.