“Transgender” refers to identifying with a gender different from one’s biological sex—ordinarily a biological female who identifies as a male or vice versa, although some people now claim there is a spectrum of genders. Many Christians were alarmed by the sudden emergence of transgenderism as a cultural and political cause just a few years ago, but found relatively little literature to help them think about these issues. It’s not surprising that such literature has begun to appear.
Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally and Andrew Walker’s God and the Transgender Debate both reject the views of transgender activists and argue that a person’s gender is the same as that person’s biological sex and cannot truly be changed. Yet these are two very different books. Both have real strengths, but neither is the book that Christians need. Readers of New Horizons may find help from both, but they should not expect everything from either.
Anderson’s volume is philosophical and political in focus, not theological. It is a culture war book, seeking to call and equip people to fight transgender ideology in the public square. In part, it does this by telling stories about the outrageous things radical activists have done and the harm they’ve caused. As such, it’s almost certain to rile up readers and make them angry—either at these activists or at Anderson for opposing the transgender movement so strongly.
Yet When Harry Became Sally is also a sophisticated volume. Anderson writes clearly and engagingly, but at a fairly high intellectual level. It requires readers to reflect seriously about the biology, metaphysics, psychology, politics, and
jurisprudence of the transgender controversies. Anderson has done his homework and is able to synthesize many different strands into a coherent argument. In this sense, When Harry Became Sally isn’t the stereotypical culture war manifesto. I should also note that Anderson means to stir up opposition to activists, not to the people who suffer from gender dysphoria. He expresses warm concern for them, especially for the children, who are increasingly encouraged and enabled to begin “transitioning” at early ages.
Chapter 4 (“What Makes Us a Man or a Woman”) is perhaps the most helpful part of the book. It presents the core of Anderson’s case for why gender matches biological sex and why men cannot really become women or women, men. Although it is not theological, it is likely to resonate with readers who hold a Reformed anthropology, and may help them better understand how a biblical anthropology corresponds to biological facts.
Anderson’s work unfortunately invites the criticism that he has not been as objective or fair to his opponents as he could be. Although at places he claims simply to “report what activists say” and let them “speak for themselves,” Anderson cannot seem to resist inserting his own critical comments even in these “largely descriptive” sections of the book. This is too bad. It is almost always best to describe other people’s views with rigorous objectivity before beginning one’s own polemics.
In contrast to Anderson, Walker seems to go out of his way to tamp down a culture war mind-set. His work addresses how Christians should think and speak truthfully about transgenderism, but repeatedly emphasizes the love they ought to express toward those struggling with their gender identity. He engages in no polemics against transgender activists and makes no forays into politics. If Walker is critical of anyone, it’s of himself, other believers, and the church for often not showing the compassion they should.
While Anderson’s book is philosophical and political, Walker’s is theological and pastoral. While Anderson’s book may make you angry, Walker’s may make you humble and remorseful.
Another difference, however, is that Walker’s contribution is not nearly as wide-ranging or sophisticated as Anderson’s. Walker’s style is simple and homey. He provides a basic introduction to theological themes such as divine authority, creation, human nature, sin, and salvation. Readers with a modest knowledge of Reformed theology will probably find these discussions agreeable but may not learn much that is new.
In addition to its emphasis on love, compassion, truth, and humility, a real strength of God and the Transgender Debate is its wise discussion about the difficulty of the Christian life. Although I doubt his view of “bearing one’s cross” in Matthew 16:24 is correct, Walker helpfully explains that those who trust in Christ and repent of their sins cannot expect to experience perfect wholeness and peace in this present age. That awaits the new creation. People struggling with gender dysphoria may continue to struggle with it after turning to Christ. The Christian walk requires patience and waiting upon the Lord.
In a way, Walker’s book isn’t about transgenderism as much as it is a basic statement and defense of divine and biblical authority, the goodness of creation, the Fall and salvation, and a Christian life marked by love, truth, compassion, and patience—with application to transgender issues. But some of these applications get rather specific. Walker briefly addresses issues such as how the church should respond to a transitioned person who wishes to become a member, how to discuss transgenderism with children, how to deal with a child who claims to be transgender, and how churches might respond to state bathroom laws.
Reformed Christians looking for resources on transgenderism to help them think and act well in all areas of life—including family, church, and the public square—will find helpful material from both Anderson and Walker, although neither is a comprehensive resource. Perhaps it is best to see them as complementary. When Harry Became Sally provides a much more thorough intellectual study of transgender issues, but the pastoral exhortations of God and the Transgender Debate wouldn’t be bad for any Christian to hear.
The author is an OP minister and professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Westminster Seminary California.
When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, by Ryan T. Anderson, is published by Encounter, 2018. Hardcover, 408 pages, $20.75 (Amazon).
God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?, by Andrew T. Walker, is published by The Good Book Company, 2017. Paperback, 174 pages, $11.61 (Amazon).
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