In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Austen Hartke about what the Bible says about transgender people as they explore the following questions:
- What has Austen’s journey been like being a trans person and a Christian?
- Why was the story of Joseph so important for Austen’s relationship with the Bible?
- Where else are the words about Joesph’s coat found in the Bible?
- Why do a lot of transgender Christians identify with Genesis 32?
- Why is talking about God’s gender important?
- What are some Bible passages that people try and use against people of varying genders sexualities?
- Are there any characters in the Bible who went against gender expectations?
- How does Genesis 1 set up false binaries of existence when taken literally?
- What are some examples of people and animals that do not fit into binaries?
- What are some theories about why Deuteronomy prohibits castration?
- What was the understanding of gender in Jesus’ time?
- What are some practical tips for Christians as they welcome transgender people into their churches?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Austen Hartke you can share.
- “The eunuch doesn’t have to change anything about himself in order to be welcomed in.” @AustenLionheart
- “Going to seminary to me, felt like an immersion language program.” @AustenLionheart
- “I always try to emphasize when we’re talking about these biblical stories is that we don’t want to be anachronistic.” @AustenLionheart
- “We’ve got to hold even a text like [Deuteronomy 22:5] that seems very clear cut up against the things that don’t match it in the rest of Hebrew scripture.” @AustenLionheart
- “My favorite way of sort of complicating the text is by holding them up against other texts in the Bible that seem to say something different.” @AustenLionheart
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Transforming
- Website: Gender Spectrum
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Welcome to The Bible for Normal People. This week’s episode is a reissue of Episode 85, “The Bible and the Lives of Transgender People” with our guest, Austen Hartke. Enjoy.[Music begins]
Austen: Suddenly, we’ve got this person who’s gone to the temple to pray, was almost certainly not allowed into the temple being both a foreigner and a eunuch, and yet he is welcomed in entirely, in his entirety into Christian community by Phillip, where, you know, the eunuch says, “is there anything that can prevent me from being baptized, from becoming part of this Christian community?” And Phillip doesn’t even need to answer, he just baptizes him, and the eunuch doesn’t have to change anything about himself in order to be welcomed in.[Music ends]
Pete: Hey Austen, welcome to our podcast!
Austen: Hey, thanks for having me Pete, I’m really glad to be here.
Pete: Yeah, fantastic. Listen, we thought we’d start just by our listeners getting to know you a little bit, telling your story and just who you are and where you’re from and all that sort of stuff.
Austen: Yeah, for sure. Well, my name’s Austen Hartke. I am an educator and well gosh, I’m a lot of things right now, a typical millennial, I have about 8,000,000 jobs. But I work specifically in theology that’s inclusive of transgender and gender diverse identities. And so, part of what I do is work to help parents and family members support their gender diverse kids and try to create community wherever I can with other gender diverse folks who also identify as Christian and want to talk about that faith and to help support them and I wrote a book about all of this stuff that came out about a year ago now. So, since then, I’ve been sort of taking things on the road and working on building up community, because so often LGBTQ+ people in general are sort of told that they can either choose their identity or their faith. They kind of have to pick one or the other, and so, working with other LGBTQ+ Christians at bringing those things together for folks so that it doesn’t feel like, you know, you have to choose one or the other because so often that’s a choice that’s not only sort of a false choice, but it’s also a really difficult choice. So, helping people bring those things together is what I like doing best.
Jared: Yeah, and maybe to dive a little more into your story, would that have been a decision that you would’ve been, a binary decision you would’ve been faced with in your journey? How did your story unfold?
Austen: Yeah, so let’s see. I grew up in nondenominational, evangelical churches until I was about 10. And so, those churches were not, not especially LGBTQ friendly and so I grew up hearing a lot of negative things about people of different genders and sexualities and that was sort of my first introduction to Christianity. There were a wonderful, lovely group of people and they loved me and my family, but there was this undercurrent where you would hear these negative things about, you know, about LGBTQ+ people. And so as a teenager, kind of early on in my teenage years, I started trying to figure out more about my own, you know, myself and my own sexuality and I came out as bisexual when I was 15. And so, having had that experience in sort of the conservative, nondenominational world, and then when I was about, let me think, about 11 or 12, my family moved into a conservative Lutheran church and so it was sort of a different kind of, a different kind of conservatism that really had the same views about LGBTQ+ folks even though a lot of other things were different. And so, I sort of grew up through those early teenage years having this idea that Christianity only existed in places where, you know, that Christianity was also constantly badmouthing people of different sexualities and gender identities.
Jared: Mmm. So, okay, well, I mean, you would identify as a Christian now, yeah?
Austen: Mm hmm, mm hmm.
Jared: So, how did you navigate some of that for yourself, where Christianity was presented as “if you’re a Christian, it means that you are against gender diversity and different sexualities to coming to embrace that for yourself.” Maybe say a little more about that?
Austen: Yeah. So, kind of the way the story unfolded for me was that after I came out as bisexual at about 15 or 16, I kind of, having grown up in that either/or scenario, I decided that the only way I knew how to move forward and sort of live as a full human being was to choose that sort of identity part of myself. I kind of thought, well, if I have to choose, the only way I know how to survive is to choose, you know, to survive and be alive as myself. And so, for a long time, I sort of pushed Christianity away and because I hadn’t had, I didn’t have a good sort of reception to that first coming out and so, I thought, you know, for a while I thought maybe this is not for me. Maybe this isn’t the community that I’m supposed to be in.
And so, I kind of went through a period of searching in my sort of late teens and early twenties, and kind of tried to find another sort of faith community that I would feel at home in and that would sort of accept me as I was, and I learned so much. Like, there is so much I appreciate about other faiths that I learned about during that time because I wanted to go experience those communities and learn more about the way different people practice faith in different communities all over the world, but nothing resonated with me the way that Christianity did. And so, I was kind of at this tough spot where I thought, like, this feels like my spiritual home, Christianity is my spiritual home, but I’ve been sort of like shut out of that home and I don’t know what to do about that. And so, it wasn’t until my early 20’s when I started finding LGBTQ+ affirming Christian communities, and that was the first time that I was like, oh, wait a second, you mean you don’t have to choose? Like, it’s possible to be part of both of these communities? And that was really my way back into Christianity, was finding those communities and realizing that was possible and realizing not only is it possible, there are a lot of LGBTQ+ people doing really cool things in Christian communities. So, that was sort of my way back in. The strange thing about bring transgender is that I had to come out twice in a way, because I came out as bisexual at 15, and then I came out as transgender at 26.[Light laughter]
So, I went through two different coming out processes and they both sort of dealt with the wrestling that I had to do with Christianity and how Christian communities responded to issues of sexuality and gender identity.
Pete: Well Austen, you mention, you know, wrestling, is it fair to assume you might’ve had some post-traumatic stress associated with this, because you found this new community where you see, well, Christianity seems to be like, compatible. You can actually honor both sides of who you are, but was that like an easy transition to make for you? Because, I mean, what you’ve been hearing your whole life is something very different, right?
Austen: Mm hmm, yeah. It wasn’t, it wasn’t easy. It was, I think something, how would I categorize it? I’m not sure I would categorize it under the sort of post-traumatic stress bubble, but I would say that there was a lot, a lot, a lot of sort of toxic theology that I had just sort of taken in and I had to deconstruct. So, for me what that looked like was I graduated from college at 22, and at that point made sort of a firm commitment to Christianity because I chose to get baptized. I had never been baptized before growing up in an evangelical church that didn’t do infant baptism, it was always sort of assumed, like, at some point you’ll grow up and you’ll decide to get baptized, but by the time I would’ve been making that decision, I was already in a period where I was pushing away from Christianity. So, I didn’t get baptized until I was 22, and at that point I started deeply looking into the sort of theology that I had grown up with and trying to figure out what parts of it, I mean, you know, everybody kind of I think maybe has to tease out like, what is the culture and what is the sort of spiritual origin of different parts of my faith because, you know, throughout Christian history we’ve always had to do that. Like, what is Greek culture versus what is the spirituality that we see in Paul in the New Testament? You know, we had to kind of tease those things apart and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it today.
Pete: And some don’t even do it because, if you’re part of the dominant culture, you know?
Austen: Exactly, exactly.
Pete: You don’t have to, you have the luxury of not having to do that, but most others do, and you certainly did.
Austen: Yeah, it’s true. And so, I decided what I was going to do to try to pull all of this apart was that I was going to go to seminary because I thought that the people at seminary would surely have all of the answers about faith.[Laughter]
Jared: Ha. Ha ha ha.[Laughter]
Austen: Which of course, I realize now that was kind of a naïve way of going into it, but I had grown up with such a sort of veneration for faith leaders that I, you know, I was sort of taught as a young person that like, the person leading your church, they know it. They have all the answers. They figured it out. And so, how to become that person? Well, you go to seminary. So, I ended up going to Luther Seminary about a year after I graduated from college and tried to sort of start unraveling this stuff, unraveling this faith and trying to figure out what it was all about. But, at the same time that I was doing that, I think for a lot of folks that I know at least, seminary is a time in which you’re not only deconstructing ideas about like, theology that you’ve picked up, but you’re also having to bring down a lot of walls around yourself that you’ve built up because you’re trying to relate, you know, authentically with your community and with God in a way, in a sort of like immersion way. It’s almost like going to seminary to me, felt like an immersion language program.
Austen: Like, you’re really getting put into this community that is focused on, you know, relationship with each other and with God and how we’re going to do that in the world. And so, it involved me kind of taking a step back and looking at myself and going, like, okay…I thought I had this figured out. I thought I’d figured out the faith part, I thought I’d figured out the sexuality part, but there’s one part left that I haven’t dealt with, and that’s the gender part. And so, it was during my time in seminary that I started coming out as transgender because it just seemed like something that I couldn’t really ignore any more if I wanted to be real in these communities.
Jared: So, maybe to bring the Bible into this a little bit, and you know, as you’re doing this through seminary, how did your view of the Bible begin to shift throughout, I mean, I guess from the time you were 15 and you started to integrate, well, I guess during that time you said you weren’t really interested in the church or in Christianity for a while. So, when you did come back how did the Bible play into that? What was your relationship with the Bible at that point and how did it change?
Austen: You know, I came into seminary with a idea that I wanted to be a youth minister and that was because I had been doing that sort of as a layperson in my churches that I was involved with and I kind of thought like, this is a good way to sort of make this more of a career. And I came in and within the first semester that I was at school, people were coming to me, you know, friends were coming to me and saying like, I think you’re in the wrong program. And I was like, why? What’s, what gives you that impression? And they said, well, you’re taking Hebrew for fun. You realize you don’t have to take Hebrew, right?
Austen: And I said, oh, yeah, you’re right. All I wanted to do was sit around and read the Hebrew Bible and read these sorts of foundational stories and foundational texts of our, you know, our faith tradition and many other faith traditions as well. And it was mostly because those were the texts that had been used against people in LGBTQ communities for so long. I kind of had this feeling like, there’s something more going on here than, you know, Old Testament angry God, New Testament loving God. Like, there’s gotta be something more to it than that and I really wanted to dig in and figure it out. And so, my first sort of falling in love with the Bible came when I was in that first year of seminary where I started reading some of the Old Testament stories and especially learning more about how Hebrew, the language, worked and how our translation matters.
Pete: Well, what was one of those stories that really maybe gave you an aha moment that you started seeing things differently? Does any one come to mind immediately?
Austen: Um, I remember being totally bowled over by the theology, both Christian theology and Jewish theology actually, around the stories about Joseph in Genesis and especially Joseph’s coat in Genesis 37. That was sort of the first time that I was like, wait… hold on… what’s going on here? There’s more here than I thought. So, I remember, you know, as a kid in Sunday school learning about Joseph and his coat of many colors. And, you know, hearing that story and kind of going, oh, that’s cool. But then when you start reading it in the Hebrew and you start looking into more of the cultural mores surrounding that story, you learn a lot about who Joseph was. So, for instance, in the story of Joseph’s coat, when he gets that coat, we’ve translated it as a lot of different things, that coat. We’ve translated it as coat of many colors, as coat with long sleeves, as coat with fringes, we’re not totally sure how to translate the words for Joseph’s coat.
Pete: But also, the amazing technicolored dream coat.
Austen: Exactly! Also a very important translation.
Pete: That’s my favorite.
Jared: That’s probably the most academic translation.
Exactly. So, the reason we’ve got all these different translations is because we don’t know what that word means. In Hebrew, it’s ketonet passīm, and we don’t know what those words mean. The reason we don’t know is because, you know, as you’re probably familiar, when we look at translating other languages, we have to find some context so we look at other places where those words or phrases show up. And the thing about that phrase for Joseph’s coat is that it only shows up one other place in the whole Hebrew Bible, and that’s in 2 Samuel in the story of Tamar, which is a really sad and horrifying story, but it’s used to describe what Tamar was wearing. She was wearing the same thing, a ketonet passīm, and we get this sort of aside to the reader in 2 Samuel that says, “this garment was a dress worn by the virgin daughters of the king.” And so, given the fact that there’s, that only those two places in the whole Bible where that particular garment is mentioned, and it is specifically given a use and a context in that 2 Samuel text, both Christian and Jewish scholars for centuries have talked about how Joseph’s dress, how the way that he dressed was very, sort of gender non-conforming. And of course, people will often pair that with, you know, Joseph being bullied and beaten up by his brothers and you know, attempted, his attempted murder by his brothers, and also Joseph’s reaction to Potiphar’s wife later on in the story, where he seems to have, you know, no interest in Potiphar’s wife and people have asked whether that has something to do with his gender or his sexuality. And so, that was sort of my first introduction to like, oh my gosh, maybe there are people that are outside of the bounds of gender and sexuality in the Bible and we’ve just never really, I’ve never really heard about them or talked about them.
Pete: You know, what I find interesting about that example is that, I mean, I can see people disagreeing strongly.
Austen: Mm hmm.
Pete: You can’t just take a word from there and help it explain how that word is used elsewhere. But, they argued that way all the time about other stuff.
Austen: Mm hmm.
Pete: You know, when you start seeing connections like that, it’s like, this proves that and that, and you’re, I mean, you’re doing something similar. We’re reaching for context to try to understand, and like, isn’t it interesting in the Tamar story, the only place, and this is sort of described in a certain way, and how might that help us understand this other story over there. That’s a perfectly legitimate way of reasoning because everybody does that. People build dissertations on that stuff.
Austen: Exactly. There are actually, I read a really interesting dissertation recently about the connections between those two stories, because in both stories the garments, the garment that Joseph wears and then the garment that Tamar wears are both used as evidence of their physical harm. You know, the coat’s smeared in blood and brought back to Joseph’s father, and in Tamar’s story the coat is brought back to her family to prove that she was sexually assaulted. And so, in both cases you’ve got similar things going on not just with the words, but with the context of the story.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Interesting. Are there, would there be other biblical texts as you’ve kind of gone along in this journey that you’ve found have similar, maybe significance to you as a transgender Christian?
Austen: Mm hmm, yeah. Like I said, I’m such a big nerd about especially the stories in Genesis and Exodus, but –
Pete: Yeah, we’re picking up on that Austen, by the way. You’re a total nerd. Go ahead.
Pete: Hey, this is Nerdfest 2000 here.
Jared: Yeah, I was gonna say. Yeah.[Continued laughter]
Pete: We’re into that. We’re totally into this. Go right ahead.
Jared: You had me at, “I was reading a dissertation the other day.”
I mean, it is stuff I do for work. It’s not that I sit around reading it for fun so much, even though I probably would if I wasn’t doing it for work.[Laughter]
Austen: But no, I think, you know, one of the other stories in Genesis that I especially appreciate is Jacob wrestling with the angel or possibly wrestling with God in Genesis 32. That story is such a powerful one for so many transgender folks that are taking on new names. Because of course, that’s a story in which you’ve got this person with this one identity, coming into contact with God, and attempting to take a blessing from a God that had never, you know, to your knowledge hadn’t blessed you before. Like, even though we see through the story of Jacob and Laban, like, you know, clearly God is blessing him. But like, the idea that he is in a relationship with God as himself for the first time and in that moment, he refuses to let God go unless he receives a blessing and then also receives a new name and then walks out of that relationship and that moment in relationship forever physically changed by that with walking away with a limp is something that I know a lot of transgender folks really connect to when we read that story in Bible studies. Like, that’s a story that people kind of say like, that’s my relationship with Christianity, with God, with faith; I wrestle and I wrestle and I wrestle and I can’t come out of it until I’ve received that blessing and I’ve received that recognition of my identity and then I’m forever changed after that. And so, it’s a really powerful one in a lot of these communities.
Pete: Well, let me, this is, I think that is, I think that’s a great reading of the text of its potentiality, let’s say, for how it can affect people different times and places. Let’s talk about maybe, a hermeneutic, a way of, because here’s the thing. I’m hearing voices in my head where people will say, “yeah, that’s really nice Austen. That’s got nothing to do with this story at all in its original context.”
Pete: So, but the thing is, there is a hermeneutic that you’re employing in approach to interpretation, right? I mean, flesh that out a little bit. Help people understand how, like, how you’re appropriating this story, because it might help them understand a little bit more about just what’s going on here.
Austen: Yeah, well, I mean, I think the first thing that I always try to emphasize when we’re talking about these biblical stories is that we don’t want to be anachronistic. We don’t want to go look at a text from 2000 years ago and say, look, there’s a transgender person, because that’s not a thing. Like, well this is, the concepts that we have around gender now are completely different in many ways from the context from, you know, in which the Bible was written in many different times and places. And so, we don’t want to try to be anachronistic and say, look, there’s a person who’s exactly like me. But what we can look at is experiences that are similar. And we do that all the time in the Bible, right, when people are going through hard times, we talk about Job. And when people are dealing with like, really tough issues, like around fertility and things like that, we talk about Abraham and Sarah.
Like, we’re not saying these people are one-to-one the same as us, we are saying that they dealt with similar issues and they reacted in similar ways. And so, that’s kind of one of the ways that I find helpful to look at how was this person treated, how did they react, what was the world around them, what was the reaction that the world around them had, and you can find similarities in those actions and those responses rather than the identities that are not going to be the same.
Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.[Music begins] [Producer’s group endorsement] [Music ends]
Jared: Well, I appreciate that because I feel like some people who read the Bible, it’s like whenever it’s not their community or it’s a different group of people who have different challenges or different identities, then it’s all of a sudden an inappropriate way to handle the text. And I think you were getting at this, Pete, but whenever kind of the dominant culture does it, “oh, well that’s just reading the Bible.” And so, ya know, we can be saying, “oh, it’s perfectly legitimate to say ‘be still and know that I am God’” and have a whole sermon on how that means to put your cell phone down, you know, at dinner.
Jared: But for a transgender Christian to appropriate Genesis 32 is inappropriate. And it’s like, being able to see that this is the hermeneutic of what it means to make meaning from the Bible today because we’re not ancient Jews and we’re not first century Romans. And if it’s going to be significant to us, we have to be able to bring it into our current context in the challenges we face and who we are. There’s something really important to hearing how other people besides kind of the dominant culture and dominant narrative do it, because sometimes we can just say, “oh, that’s just what you do,” and not see that that’s a decision that we’re making and that we have to make to make the Bible relevant.
Austen: I think that’s especially noticeable around the conversations that we have about sort of the nature or you could even say gender of God. We realized this, I guess, relatively historically recently, but, in the grand scheme of things, but the idea that like, for so long we read God almost entirely as male all of the time and sort of just went with that and said, like, that’s just the way it is. And people didn’t seem to like, the people that were in charge tended to be male, and so that was, like, it just was sort of the way it went. And it wasn’t until we realized, like, wait a second. If we talk about God only as male always, always, always, and with only male descriptors and we never talk about the female representation of God in the Bible, then, you know, people who are female, people who are outside of the gender binary even if you want to take it that far, don’t get to experience the text as being relevant to their lives and don’t, maybe, don’t even get to experience God as being relevant to their lives because we’ve only talked about God in one specific way for so long.
Pete: And we do that with so many other things too, with respect to how God is described in the Bible because, I mean, if I have to think of God as a potter, I’m in a lot of trouble. I’ve never, I never pottered a thing in my life! You know? It’s just, I mean, we think, I mean, God’s a CEO. You know, God’s a family man. You know, that kind of thing. We tend to use our values to talk about God and that’s quite natural, I think, you know. So, in a way, why is it good for some people to be able to, they can do that, but other people can’t do that, which is sort of the point Jared was making too.
Jared: Yeah, being able to privilege, it’s whenever we sort of take our narrative and our perspective and privilege that as though it’s the real thing and everything else is an alternative to, my favorite story with that is, I think I’ve shared before on the podcast is I was in a class on metaphor and the professor at an unnamed school kind of was tying himself in knots because the students were wondering why God as Father isn’t metaphor, but God as mother is a metaphor. So, he was trying to make the case that, well, yeah, God is a mother in a metaphoric sense, but in a very essentialist sense, God is a father.
Austen: Mm hmm.
Jared: Like, God is essentially male and takes on the metaphor of female. And just like, to see him kind of tie himself in knots and all of us just kind of look at him in wonder, it was just that. Like, we want to privilege our own experience and the essential thing is when God is more like me, it’s kind of at the center of who God essentially is and whenever God is really not like me, that’s a metaphor and yeah, it’s okay, I guess.
Austen: [Quiet laughter]
Jared: And so, yeah, it’s an indictment of our own privileging, I think.
Austen: Yeah. It’s something you run up against all the time when you’re, for instance, looking for theology books because a theology book means a theology book written by a straight, cisgender white guy, whereas then you have to get feminist theology and queer theology and womanist theology and Black theology and all these other things that have, you know, descriptors in front of them. But when you just talk about theology, you mean white straight cis guy theology.
Jared: That’s what we should put on every theology now that doesn’t have an adjective.
Jared: Straight white cis theology has to be the new adjective.
Pete: Well, you know, this is as good a time as any for a little commercial here, Jared, because we have t-shirts in our merchandise that says “all theology has an adjective.”
Jared: Yes! Right, so go there.
Pete: Listen to the commercials.
Pete: Thanks Austen, thanks for making that work.
Austen: Of course, glad to do it. I meant to do that all along.
Yeah. So, Austen, let me ask you if there are, like what are some passages that you get attacked with. Like, what are the clobber passages and like, you know, to help people be more sensitive to maybe how some of these things might affect people. Like, are there others that you hear a lot, like the go to passages or something just to tell you you’re wrong.
Austen: Yeah, I mean, we’ve got, there are sort of the seven-ish or so passages that people use against people of different sexualities, and I think we’re all kind of familiar with those at this point. But the ones around gender that people tend to use around trans folks, I find super interesting because it’s sort of an evolving thing as people have been looking for more ammunition, especially in the last ten years because now that transgender folks are more visible in society, I think folks that are not happy with that are kind of going, like, “oh, we gotta scramble to find some reason…”
Pete: No, no, no. Austen, you don’t understand! All they’re doing is rightly dividing the word of God and being discerning.
Austen: Of course! And we shouldn’t ask questions about who is rightly dividing and why it’s them doing that dividing.[Laughter]
Pete: Well, we’ll let you know when you’re rightly dividing, it’s when you agree with us, right? Isn’t that –
Austen: Yeah, exactly.
Pete: Anyway, I interrupted you. Go ahead.
Austen: No, it’s totally okay. No, so, for the last, you know, few, I shouldn’t say ten, it’s probably been more than ten, it’s gotta be fifteen or twenty. But people have pointed to three specific passages when they’re trying to make a point about trans folks. One of them, I would say, like, the most, the most clear cut one, sort of, is Deuteronomy 22:5, which is the one that says, you know, “men shall not dress in women’s clothing.” And that’s the one that seems to be the most relevant, I would say, and might be the one that would make the most sense as an argument based on the context around that verse though, we have questions about what that actually means. And so, it’s a question when we look at that verse, it’s a question of how deep do you want to go on the text study because if you’re going to say, read it in the King James English, it says what it says, then sure, it does say what it says. But we still, even in that point, have to hold it up against stories of people in the Bible who did seem to dress in ways that were unseemly for their gender. And another person we often hold up is Deborah, of course, the only female judge, who, ya know, did things like going into battle, which she was specifically not supposed to do based on women not being able to pick up weapons of war or be in battle scenarios. And so, we’ve got to hold even a text like that that seems very clear cut up against the things that don’t match it in the rest of Hebrew scripture. So, that’s the one, I guess, that would be most clear cut. The other two, one is Genesis 1, of course, where God creates people male and female, and so people kind of go, all right, there, it says it, male and female! That’s it! So, what do we do with people that don’t, you know, identify as the sex that they were assigned at birth? And the interesting thing about Genesis 1, well, two interesting things. One, I think, if we’re speaking from a point where we recognize that not everything in Genesis 1 is 100% literal. So, like, we have to be already at that point in the conversation before we can really move forward.
Jared: Well, let’s wrap it up, we gotta shut it down.
Austen: Stop there…
Pete: We’re disappointed in your exegetical skills. I’m sorry.
Austen: I know.[Laughter]
Pete: All right, carry on.
Austen: But when we look at things that exist in an actual world and don’t exist in Genesis 1, we can see some patterns. So, the pattern of the poetry in Genesis 1 is very obvious, right? God makes this thing and that thing, or separates this thing and that thing, and then it was good. And that repeats over and over throughout Genesis 1. So, you end up with all of these pairs and binaries: sun/moon, land/sea, day/night, all these binaries that exist. And yet, we know that in the natural world there are places in between those binaries. There is dawn and dusk in between day and night. There is coral reefs and estuaries and marshes that exist in between land and sea, and so, we know that things exist that aren’t listed there in Genesis 1. And so, we might –
Austen: Amphibians, exactly! The platypus is my favorite example, just completely uncategorizable, even today.[Laughter]
And so, we’ve got all these things that exist outside these binaries, and so, what some scholars have said is, let’s take these not as two binary options, two boxes, but instead let’s see them as a list of spectrums that exist, and we might include male and female as a spectrum, because it’s not surprising when God creates humans, God separates them into two the way everything else is separated into two. And knowing that in the natural world, intersex people exist, kind of complicates that. So, if you’re not familiar, intersex people are people that are born with differences in sex development that may be noticeable right when they’re born, but it might not be until later in life and it might mean that they have chromosomes or hormone levels or internal or external reproductive organs that don’t all match up all down the line as male or female 100%. And so, since we know those people exist, we kind of have the same idea like we do with amphibians and the platypus that like, might, we might be naming a larger schema here rather than trying to divide the world into two boxes.
Pete: Or, I mean, how about this explanation? How do you feel about the, “it’s just weird, priestly theology?”
Pete: No, I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, but it’s just, it’s a way that priests might have thought at a particular time in human history, and they’re sort of imagining everything along those categories, because, you know, you’ve got that whole pure and impure thing that works in that as well, that’s a binary, right?
Pete: So, you know, it’s rather, it gets even more complicated, you know, when you keep thinking through this stuff, it’s like, where does it end? I don’t know, but I do know that there’s more going on here than a surface level reading of these stories in the Bible. There’s a lot more going on.
Austen: Exactly. And I think, you know, my favorite way of sort of complicating the text is by holding them up against other texts in the Bible that seem to say something different. And that’s, so, the third text that’s, of the three, that’s sort of used against trans folks, is Deuteronomy 23:1, which is specifically a prohibition against castration. And we’re not totally sure why that prohibition is there, we have some ideas that it might’ve been because so many people living around the territory that the Hebrew people were living in at the time did practice castration as a form of corporal punishment and so, it was something that, you know, the people of Israel kind of said this is not going to be part of our culture. But, so, you’ve got this prohibition against castration in Deuteronomy, but the problem is when the Hebrew people and the Israelite people are taken into captivity in Babylon and Persia where castration is super common, a bunch of people experience castration. We know some people were castrated as part of being taken into slavery. We also have some evidence that some people might have chosen castration as a means of sort of moving through the cultural world at the time, because if you’re going to choose between being a brick making slave or the person who keeps the kings harem and gets to eat and have a place to sleep, sometimes that was worth it for some folks. So, we’ve got this, you know, change in culture that happens between Deuteronomy and Isaiah for instance. And so, when the people of Israel are coming back and they’re trying to rebuild after the Babylonian and Persian captivity, they’re kind of trying to figure out do we still need to pay attention to this verse in Deuteronomy? What do we do with all these people now who are eunuchs and are living outside of the bounds of gender and sexuality in a way that was not, you know, formally something we’d allow?
Pete: Right, so, because changes happen, like, culture changes.
Pete: I know that’s a, that’s a dirty word for people, like, well, you should never let culture affect how you think of your theology, but I’m not sure that’s even possible. But as culture changes, what you have to, questions are raised that would not have been raised at an earlier point in time.
Austen: Exactly. And that’s why it’s so fascinating when you get to Isaiah 56, which is my favorite, you know, that was my dissertation was Isaiah 56.
Austen: It’s, there’s this point in Isaiah 56 where there’s a welcome given to eunuchs, people who are castrated, welcoming them in and specifically saying, you’re going to have a place in the community, you’re going to be able to be allowed into the temple to worship, you are now going to be part of this community. And so, there’s this fascinating move where it seems like God is changing the rules in response to a cultural change that the people were going through. And so, you get this incredible change in Isaiah.
Now of course, the problem is some of the other folks that were trying to rebuild were not a big fan of this change, this idea of letting people in, eunuchs and foreigners who were not supposed to be there, right? And so, we have this idea that this change never actually occurred, because we get sort of a conflicting account in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. So, skip all the way ahead to Acts 8, right, where we get the Ethiopian eunuch. Suddenly we get this person who’s gone to the temple to pray, was almost certainly not allowed into the temple being both a foreigner and a eunuch, and yet he is welcomed in entirely, in his entirety, into Christian community by Phillip, where you know, the eunuch says “is there anything that can prevent me from being baptized, from becoming part of this Christian community?” And Phillip doesn’t even have to answer, he just baptizes him.
Austen: The eunuch doesn’t have to change anything about himself in order to be welcomed in.
Pete: Is it also in Matthew where Jesus talks about eunuchs and some are voluntarily, and some –
Austen: Mm hmm.
Pete: Some are eunuchs for the kingdom, I forgot the exact phrasing.
Austen: That’s exactly it, yeah. It’s Matthew 19, and it’s –
Pete: Megan DeFranza pointed that out to me a few years ago, and –
Pete: I’m like, okay, I never really noticed that before.[Laughter]
Austen: Yeah, no, it’s fascinating!
Pete: But it sort of changes things.
Austen: It does. Because there’s this point where Jesus recognizes three different kinds of eunuchs, right, and for a long time, because that passage where Jesus is talking about eunuchs comes in the context of him talking about marriage, you know, people have read it as Jesus talking about celibacy for a really long time. But when we look at it and think about the fact that eunuchs actually did exist at the time that Jesus was alive, and at that time, we also know because in the Talmud, in the Jewish collection of oral law, they recognize intersex people. And so, they knew that intersex people existed at the time that Jesus was living, and so, when Jesus says that there are some people born eunuchs, you know, people doing intersex theology have said like, hey, that’s us! Like, people are born with different bodies and that’s okay.
Pete: Right, and that’s, that seems to skip the Sunday school lessons.
Austen: It really does. You know, nobody really likes to bring up castration too much.
Pete: No, that’s not like the VBS flannelgraph thing that happens there.
Austen: No. And in fact, that’s one of the things that Megan DeFranza points out is that we changed it from actual eunuchs and actual castration into celibacy because we realize as Christians that we couldn’t get any more converts if we kept asking people to castrate themselves.
Pete: Oh gosh. Yeah, well, you know, another thing you’re pointing out here, Austen, is something that just, this is relevant for any attempt at sort of bridging the ancient world with the present moment, and that is you’re pointing out the diversity of the Bible itself, where that has to be taken into account, otherwise we’re simply privileging certain verses that happen to rest easy with us as opposed to some others.
Austen: Mm hmm.
Pete: You know?
Jared: Well, Austen, we’ve been talking about biblical passages and maybe, you know, one practical thing for people is to recognize these contexts, recognize where they’re coming from, and see that there are other ways of reading that don’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that God or the Bible condemns transgender Christians, but I’m wondering, what are some practical things as you’ve, you know, traveled the country and talked to a lot of Christians, what are some practical things that you can advise Christians on as they welcome transgender Christians into fellowship and into the church and as they’re maybe still wrestling with some of these uncomfortable feelings or maybe that we haven’t convinced them fully here on this podcast that the Bible really is okay with all of this. Just, what are some practical things?
Austen: Yeah, I think, honestly it’s hard to try to, you’ll always want to privilege what the individual person in your community needs versus you know, what somebody on a podcast is telling you that they might need because you know them, right? So, I always try to find out like, how can you get to the point where you can have conversations with the people in your community about these issues. And you have to start by figuring out how you can get comfortable with the conversation topic. So, if you’re somebody who’s like, oh my gosh, I’m so afraid to talk about transgender stuff, like, I don’t know anything about it and I’m afraid I’m going to use the wrong words and somebody is going to yell at me. Like, do some reading up and get familiar with some of the language and some of the what to do, what not to do. So, for instance, one of the things we were talking about before the podcast started is how the word transgender works because a lot of people, you know, will use it as sort of a noun and say sort of like, transgenders. And the way that the word works is actually it’s an adjective, and so you would say a transgender person or a transgender Christian or a transgender man, a transgender woman. So, it always is a descriptive word. So, something like that where you pick up more about how the language works, how to talk about it, because once you are more comfortable with the topic and once you kind of have a feeling like, sure I’m going to goof up and it’s going to be, I’m going to be a comfortable community where people aren’t going to be super offended, they’re just going to gently correct me, then you can start actually having conversations with people in your community. So, I always recommend try to do a little bit of digging yourself, get a little bit more familiar with the topic, that’ll also give you some, it’ll spark some more questions for you that you can ask.
And the other thing I always suggest is find ways to be in conversation in your community as a group rather than, I think one-on-one conversations can be tough because a lot of times when I say like, go have a one-on-one conversation about this stuff with somebody, people hear that and they go, okay, I’m going to find the one transgender person in my church and I’m going to go grill them about their life.[Laughter]
Austen: And that’s not what I’m advocating for. What I mean is, if you can have more general community conversations about this, say for instance your church has a coffee hour between services or something and something comes up in the news about gender identity, try to have like a coffee time where you talk about these issues like the news thing that comes up and have people talk about their feelings, their ideas, maybe bring in a book to read together because when you’re in community together like that, there tends to not be as much pressure on one single person to kind of explain things to everybody else. It tends to be a little bit more comfortable because you’re all gonna probably say some goofy stuff, and that’s all right, rather than putting all that pressure on one person to say the right things.
Jared: Excellent. Well, we’re coming to the end of our time here, so you mentioned earlier that you had written a book, so maybe give us the details about that and places where people can maybe learn more about you, the work you do, or have some resources as they go along here.
Austen: For sure, yeah. So, my book is called Transforming: The Bible and the Live of Transgender Christians. It’s available on, you know, everywhere online, Amazon, all that, and you can request it from your local bookstore. It’s available as an audio book, so you can get it on audible and on Amazon as well, which is pretty cool. I narrated it myself, so if you are a fan my voice you’ll hear more. And let’s see, you can find more about me at http://austenhartke.com/ and it’s it’s Austen spelled with an “e” like the author, and that will give you links to my YouTube videos that I make, to a lot of other work I do, the speaking work that I do. And I also, I should give a plug to an organization that I do quite a bit of work for called Gender Spectrum, which is an organization, a nonprofit that works to support gender diverse youth and their families and I am the faith coordinator there. So, if you are the family member of a transgender person and you want to do some more work on bringing your faith and your understanding of gender together, you can reach out to me at Gender Spectrum as well.
Pete: Yeah, sounds great.
Jared: Wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on and I think there’s a lot to think about in terms of the Bible, and I love those different perspectives, which is exactly what we need to be in conversations with people who have different life experiences than we do because it can really open up the Bible to new things. So, thanks for bringing that.
Austen: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Jared: All right!
Pete: Thank you Austen. See ya.
Jared: See ya.[Music begins]
Pete: Thanks for listening folks, but before you go, a quick plug to come visit us at our YouTube channel where we post our podcast episodes, author spotlights, and all sorts of brief videos on things like “Does the Old Testament Even Matter?” or “The Bible and Raising Kids” and all sorts of other videos about the Bible. What is it anyway? What do we do with it? And you know, a lot of that content comes from people like you who drop us questions at https://peteenns.com/ask-pete/, check it out, submit a question, and you might make it onto YouTube. Wake the kids and tell the neighbors. All right folks, that’s it for this week, thanks for listening, and see ya next time.
Narrator: Thanks as always to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire team here at The Bible for Normal People – thanks for listening.[Music ends] [End of recorded material]