Austen Hartke’s Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians is a book by a self-identified transgender Christian man attempting to make a biblical and theological case for the inclusion of transgender persons in the church. “Inclusion” is one of the underlying themes of the book and is a concept that drives Christian discourse around transgenderism. But often it’s not fully defined. Everyone—liberal or conservative—agrees that inclusion is a laudable and essential ethic for the church to embrace. Jesus Christ ministered to the despised and rejected, insisting that his kingdom is meant exactly for those the world despises.
At the same time, everyone acknowledges there are some criteria for evaluating what ought to be praised and affirmed under the banner of inclusion. All professing Christians would agree there are some ways of living that are deeply incompatible with God’s kingdom. The church doesn’t sanction every identity, perception, or desire simply by inclusive fiat. After all, the Bible posits ethical criteria for evaluating whether someone’s identity, perception, or desire is appropriate, moral, and conforms to God’s revelation.
The question isn’t whether transgender-identified persons possess dignity and worth. Up for debate is whether a transgender identity is biblically permissible or edifying based on what Scripture says about God making us male and female in his image. Christians should declare the image-bearing dignity of all persons as a general category, since every human being is a unique, precious creation bearing God’s image and deserving respect and kindness. This includes those who identify as transgender.
But this isn’t the type of inclusion Hartke argues for in Transforming. Hartke argues that anything less than full affirmation of transgender identities fails to be inclusive and robs transgender persons of both dignity and identity. The discussion about what inclusive does and doesn’t mean is crucial. Unfortunately, Hartke tries to justify transgender identities with arguments foreign to the Bible’s teaching about male and female.
Hartke’s book is a combination of personal memoir, biblical exegesis, theological interpretation, and narratives of self-identified transgender persons. The main argument is that transgender identities are compatible with the Christian faith—when the Bible is rescued from cultural bias and from inflexible biblical interpretations that rely on simplistic binaries.
In chapter 1, readers are confronted with the hardships that transgender individuals encounter in America at the hands of religious conservatives. Affirming transgender identities, Hartke argues, would alleviate stress and the disproportionate suicide rate in the transgender community. The book insists there is nothing wrong with a transgender identity, and that problems encountered by transgender individuals are the result of internalized shame flowing from minority stress. Removing any hint of stigma or disapproval is one of the book’s chief aims.
In chapter 2, readers learn about the ever-expanding list of definitions that accommodate the worldview of gender fluidity. Transforming goes so far as to argue that sex—not just gender—is socially constructed because XX or XY chromosomes are meaningless to determine identity. “It’s humans who make that distinction and who decide what is within the range of normal for a particular category,” Hartke writes. In Hartke’s view, a human is a blank canvas awaiting self-creation.
Hartke relies on “Brain Sex Theory” to prove the existence of transgender identities, comparing the brain scans of transgender men (biological females) to cisgender men, and transgender women (biological males) to cisgender women. Hartke concludes:
Parts of the brains of transgender people seem to match their true gender, rather than their assigned sex, though we don’t yet know if this difference is something that exists when the person is born or something that develops over time.
Hartke claims that brain similarities explain transgender identities, though on the next page Hartke acknowledges there’s no known cause for why people experience gender-identity conflicts. This seems to be a contradiction. Chapter 3 looks at a framework for understanding transgender identities—is it a sin, sickness, or specialty? Hartke is convinced that the biodiversity of creation allows for a broader conceptualization of human existence other than just male or female and that a transgender identity reflects the diversity of creation.
In chapter 4, Hartke begins to construct an exegetical case for transgender identities. To demonstrate the book’s hermeneutical approach, it’s worth looking at Hartke’s interpretation of Genesis 1, the chapter that biblical scholars would point to as the basis for the immutable differences between the male and female sexes. According to Hartke, the dualities of Genesis 1 (light/dark, earth/sky, land/water, male/female)
Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians
Westminster John Knox Press (2018). 225 pp. $16.00.
Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians provides access into an underrepresented and misunderstood community and aims to change the way readers think about transgender people, faith, and the future of Christianity. By introducing transgender issues and language and providing stories of both biblical characters and real-life narratives from transgender Christians living today, Hartke aims to change both the church and the world.
aren’t meant to speak to all of reality—they invite us into thinking about everything between and beyond . . . the author of Genesis 1 is merely using the same dualistic poetic device to corral the infinite diversity of creation into categories we can easily understand.
The diversity of creation eclipses simple binaries. Thus, transgender identities exist, metaphorically speaking, as the in-between space of water and land, what Hartke refers to as a marsh. As Hartke says regarding Genesis 1:27, “This verse does not discredit other sexes or genders, any more than the verse about separation of day from night rejects the existence of dawn and dusk.”
Chapter 5 is the book’s argument that Scripture’s understanding of gender roles isn’t nearly as categorically distinct as complementarity argues. Joseph’s cloak and Jael’s aggression are biblical examples of acting outside expected gender norms. Chapter 6 legitimizes transgender renaming by appealing to God’s renaming of Jacob to Israel. Chapter 7 is biographical. Hartke sees the eunuch reference in Isaiah 56:3–8 as evidence that God invites people who exist in “in-between spaces” into the community of faith. In chapters 8 and 9, Hartke looks at the references to eunuchs in Matthew 19 and Acts 8 as evidence that God’s community is open to people “who fell outside the boundaries of sex and gender, and that [Jesus] did not see them as broken or as morally corrupt.” Here Hartke engages in a simple category error, since voluntary or involuntary physical deformity or ambiguity is not the same as the gender-identity conflict that underwrites transgender ideology.
Chapter 10 offers a theology of the body and the body’s alteration by arguing that transgender embodiment participates in God’s will for humanity to live dynamically within creation. In chapter 11, Hartke insists that transgender Christians should stop defending their existence and instead look to Jesus’s promise for abundant life, where endorsement and affirmation of transgender identities lead to self-fulfillment, self-worth, and self-discovery. Chapter 12 concludes with Hartke’s view of Galatians 3:28, which is reinterpreted to underscore how gender, ethnicity, and social status aren’t barriers to a relationship with God.
There is so much scriptural misuse in this book that space constraints simply preclude the ability to address all its errors.
How can the book’s approach be summarized? Transforming relies on theological interpretations extrapolated from poor exegesis. Hartke routinely ignores or distorts the context of a passage and imputes meanings the authors clearly didn’t intend. Seen in this light, Transforming is a classic example of reader-response hermeneutics. This school of thought focuses on a text’s effect on the reader or audience, not on what the inspired authors intended to communicate. For example, Hartke suggests that the physicality of Jesus’s resurrected body legitimizes sex-change surgeries. Further, Hartke argues that the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) is a gender-nonconforming individual whose existence upset the spaces of gender, race, class, and religion. These interpretations owe more to Hartke’s imagination than anything the biblical authors intended.
Hartke routinely ignores or distorts the context of a passage and imputes meanings that the authors clearly didn’t intend.
All through the work, Hartke relies on higher-critical interpretations that run roughshod over the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy. This approach misappropriates the biblical text and constructs a theology foreign to the text itself—a theology that defies the entire 2,000-year consensus of the Christian church. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Matthew Vines (author of God and the Gay Christian) pens the foreword to this book. Hartke and Vines have embarked on the same mission to replace Scripture’s teaching with their own heterodox views on gender and sexuality. Transforming is helpful in that it further unmasks the radical interpretive methods at play in LGBT hermeneutics.
Hartke’s destructive revision begins with interpreting Genesis 1. It’s well outside the mainstream of historical interpretation. The reader should at least consider whether extra-textual motives are driving the interpretation. Hartke’s error is to use geographic, lunar, and spatial spectrums to justify gender spectrums that defy objective biological reality. Genesis 1 deals in binaries—light/dark, heavens/earth, day/night, land/sea, male/female, and so on. Yet Hartke ignores the binaries in the text and focuses instead on the “spectrums” observed in nature. Whereas the text speaks of day and evening (a binary), Transforming speaks of “dusk” (a non-binary spectrum). In doing so, Hartke does violence to the text—a text that unambiguously deals in binaries, not spectrumized beings.
The Genesis text, when speaking of male and female, offers no justification for seeing male and female as interchangeable. It betrays textual integrity to conclude that the existence of dusk (a non-biological reality) somehow justifies the sort of gender fluidity or gender nonconformity that Hartke posits. This is also an argument from silence, since it assumes the author of Genesis was leaving room for non-binary paradigms, of which the text makes no direct mention. Hartke is surely correct that there’s greater breadth to creation than what is mentioned in Genesis 1–2, but the broadness of the Genesis 1 creation account doesn’t, prima facie, endorse gender fluidity.
In fact, the binary descriptions of Genesis 1 give weight to the overwhelming confirmation of a creational order that is objective and immutable. Just because water, for example, can take the form of liquid, ice, and steam doesn’t change its underlying molecular composition. The same is true of man and woman. To rebut Hartke’s own metaphor, that dusk is a transitional state from day to night doesn’t give hermeneutical license for understanding chromosomes and male and female embodiment as interchangeable realities. Dusk serves a designed purpose of turning one day to the next. It’s more biblically accurate to suggest that humanity consists of male and female in the same way that a day consists of night and day; and therefore, the picture Genesis 1 paints is one of telos and objective design. But Hartke makes the silence of Genesis 1 so ambiguous and capacious that it makes Scripture’s picture of intentional ordering moot.
Hartke’s exaltation of personal identity at the expense of biblical argument is relentless and exhausting. Experience seems to replace sound exegesis at every turn. And these experiences constantly blame orthodox Christian teaching for the distress experienced by transgender people. Hartke won’t even entertain the possibility that there is something unhealthy and harmful in assuming a transgender identity.
Transforming is an identity politics manifesto in search of theological justification. It’s a book mimicking the spirit of our age, where attention to secular identity theory holds argument and sound biblical exegesis hostage to personal narrative. Absent are discussions of God’s holiness, or human sin, or personal repentance, or Jesus’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. Transforming preaches a gospel of intersectionality in which salvation from hetero-supremacy, cisgender privilege, and patriarchy are elevated above any focus on personal holiness, repentance, and the holy wrath of a just God.
Transforming is an identity politics manifesto in search of theological justification.
The biggest indictment on the book is its failure to offer a convincing argument that someone is truly a member of the sex opposite to their biological sex. And because Hartke takes issue with biological sex being at all determinative, the book ends up nullifying the concept of male and female altogether. The subjectivity of transgenderism eviscerates objective male and female embodiment—an ethos forecasted in the The Abolition of Man (1943). Though not mentioning gender specifically, C. S. Lewis prophesied the underlying ethic of transgenderism decades ago: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, [only] what says ‘I want’ remains.”
Since gender identity is, in Hartke’s view, a product of the psychological self, the reader walks away unsure of whether Hartke believes that male and female exist at all, or whether they’re simply a product of the mind. And that is the biggest claim of the transgender movement—that a man who thinks he’s a woman can really be a woman and vice versa, that humans have a malleable, plastic nature bendable to human wills.
But what is a man if maleness is merely a psychosis? The truth is that XY chromosomes can’t be engineered into XX chromosomes, and altering one’s appearance cosmetically or surgically can’t change the underlying reality of a person’s biological organization. The psychology of the mind can’t override the facts of one’s biological identity. Biology, which is objective and observable, overrides psychology, which is subjective and known only to the person experiencing these perceptions. Epistemologically, it isn’t clear from Hartke how someone can have an innate and immutable gender identity if gender identity is both fluid and socially constructed. These types of contradictions are where the philosophical underpinnings of transgender ideology begin to unravel.
Again, Hartke relies on “Brain Sex Theory” to insist that transgender individuals have brain patterns resembling the gender with which they identify. Brain Sex Theory, however, is just that—a theory. It suffers from small studies and from subjects who were already utilizing cross-sex hormones. Though I have reservations about some of Mark Yarhouse’s conclusions, his analysis of Brain Sex Theory’s shortcomings is helpful. Paul McHugh and Lawrence Mayer have also demonstrated the problems with Brain Sex Theory, and Ryan Anderson’s recent work questions it on the grounds of causality and neuroplasticity.
How can Hartke rely on Brain Sex Theory while also saying no one really knows why gender-identity conflicts happen? Hartke makes a problematic admission on how unsettled the science is behind gender-identity conflicts: “The fact that we don’t yet understand the science behind gender hasn’t stopped us from trying to understand our identities theologically.”
But if science can’t explain the cause of gender-identity conflicts at their deepest level, then why treat gender-identity conflicted individuals with invasive therapies such as sex-reassignment surgery? That is akin to treating a broken leg with a Band-Aid.
Transforming raises a question every Christian must reckon with in our age: Can someone be transgender and Christian? First Corinthians 6:9–11 offers a helpful way to answer. Paul’s words show there are practices and lifestyles that, if not forsaken in repentance, can prevent someone from inheriting the kingdom of God. To live as a Christian is to accept God’s authority over you.
Transgender identities fall into that category—they are, as I’ve argued in my own book, not compatible with following Jesus Christ. That sentence might be a violation of the world’s understanding of inclusion, but it isn’t according to biblical revelation.
To live as a Christian is to accept God’s authority over you.
A person’s gender identity reflects how they define what it means to be a man or woman—though the category of “gender identity” is problematic on its own grounds. That self-definition will either correspond to God’s revelation in his Word, or it will not. He has created human beings in his own image as male and female. As Article VII of the Nashville Statement clarifies, our identity is defined by God in his purposes for his creation and in his new creation in Christ, as witnessed in Scripture. The design of humanity is purposeful and good, and part of our design is that we’re either male or female.
That reality doesn’t deny the pain of gender dysphoria or intersex conditions. It does suggest that to deny or overturn that distinction is to rebel against God’s revelation both in nature and in Scripture. The Bible calls it suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). That doesn’t mean someone who struggles with gender identity conflicts is not a Christian. All Christians wrestle with life in this fallen world in one way or another.
Transforming, tragically, lies so far outside biblical Christianity that basic Christian truths and the very words of Christ become unrecognizable.
But it does mean that a settled rejection of God’s purposes for us as male or female can’t be reconciled with following Christ, who reiterated the binary reality of immutable sex differences in Matthew 19:4–6. Someone can embrace a transgender identity or find their identity in Christ, but not both. But as is true of every believer, how one comes to embrace their identity in Christ is an ongoing pursuit.
Having said that, it’s possible to sin in all kinds of ways in ignorance, rather than willfully and knowingly. A new Christian might not know that they’re called to honor their parents, or that lust is sinful. The key is that when they read in Scripture that obedience to God means changing in these areas, they will work to do so, with God’s help. Likewise, it would be possible to identify as transgender and also be trusting Christ as Lord because one hasn’t yet realized the implications of Christ’s lordship in this area of their life and identity. When they do realize it, a Christian would more and more accept Christ’s lordship over their self-understanding of gender, with God’s help.
Unfortunately, Transforming isn’t a trustworthy guide to help the gender-confused individual understand their gender identity in relationship to the lordship of Christ. In fact, the book scuddles efforts at finding one’s true identity in Christ. Transforming, tragically, lies so far outside biblical Christianity that basic Christian truths and even the very words of Christ become unrecognizable.