Bruce Jenner and All of Us

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I've joined the nation in following, with some degree of fascination, the saga of an Olympic gold medal decathlete announcing on national TV that he is now a woman. This process of becoming a woman has involved, for Jenner, the modern scientific techniques of hormone therapy, breast implants, and Adam's apple reduction. Though Jenner now claims to "be a woman", he certainly appears to be "a man wanting to be a woman." 

While it's easy for some to mock Jenner, and easy for the secular media to hail him as a hero, it's also quite easy to empathize with him, based on his stated reasons for pursuing this radical change. At the deepest level, Jenner is confused about the very things that all human beings, as fallen human beings, are supposed to be confused about, and which impel us to attempt some kind, sometimes any kind, of transformation that might provide relief.

We are all, like Bruce Jenner, uncomfortable with ourselves and burdened by our past actions and relationships. That comes with being a fallen human being. The more we ponder our lives and our pasts, the more uncomfortable and simply 'out of sorts' we feel. We long for some kind of decisive break with our former selves, some decisive point of departure into a new life. We despair of being stuck with the burden of who we are, and as we go through life we grow increasingly confused and frustrated by our track record of failure. Thus we should not be surprised that Jenner, whose athletic success and celebrity could do nothing to address his deeper confusion and personal failure (three failed marriages), longs for some kind of decisive break from his 'self' and his past.

In times past, one's options for such a decisive break were very limited. But with the growth of science and technology, we believe that we have the means for becoming 'new selves' that are, perhaps, capable of fulfilling our heretofore unmet aspirations. The possibility of gender transformation allows one to pursue a decisive break at a very deep level of one's existence - the level of gender. For human beings burdened and frustrated with who they are and who they've been, the specter of beginning anew at this deep level, as a new 'woman' (or a new 'man'), is very alluring.

Christianity affirms the discontentment with one's self at a deep level, and offers an even more penetrating diagnosis (fallen human nature), along with an even more penetrating and promising path to 'newness'--that of being transferred from the 'old man' in Adam to the 'new man' in Christ, with core-level and decisive transformation ensuing. Only the Gospel provides, in Herman Bavinck's programmatic phrase, the way of grace restoring nature. Without the Gospel, the way of modern science offers its own 'grace' through the manipulation of nature. Gender transformation is perhaps the paramount example of this.

lt's a terrible thing to be a fallen human being who does not know of a "way out" through union with the risen Christ. Most people, believing there to be no exit, simply drown out their burdensome reflections with a non-stop drip of digital media, with banal busyness, or with the relentless pursuit of some form of success (for Jenner, Olympic success). Those who don't drown out the condemning voice of conscience, but let it prick and prod them, as Bruce Jenner then allowed in his post-Olympic life, will consider risky and radical means of becoming a new (and "true") person who enjoys some experience, in this life, of rest.

The Western man seeking total transformation has a few options of which he is now aware:
1) Islam, which offers him a new name (e.g. Mohammad Ali) with a new way of going through a day (prayer five times a day) and a new community, new history, new sacred places and rites that combine to form a very radical change;
2) Neopaganism (a.k.a. 'new-ageism'), which teaches him to dismiss the voice of conscience by denying selfhood altogether and merging into the one great consciousness, with its practices of meditation and yoga and its sense of 'belonging' to the one great being of life that includes the sun and stars, animals and amoebas, singing hakuna matata and finding a sense of ethics in environmentalism;
3) Scientism, which teaches him that for every problem there is (or will soon be discovered) an effective technique, from gene therapy to psychotherapy to gender transformation, with its confidence that whatever we cannot fix now will soon be fixed with more investment in research and development, committed to ethical utilitarianism for which whatever advances science must necessarily advance human wellbeing.
All of these share in common a profound discontentment with who we are and the lives we have heretofore lived, which the Christian also deeply senses. But the Christian knows that we are not stuck, but there is in fact a way of transformation that leads to rest. And this transformation is not found through the manipulation of nature, but through its restoration in Jesus Christ, God-become-man for us and for our salvation.

Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer that he now lives with the intrigue of seeing how his story will end. If Jenner continues to reflect honestly on his situation, listening to his conscience instead of listening to the adulation of the media, he will very likely (and tragically) learn that the radical path he has chosen is not radical enough, leaving him burdened, restless, and now physically marred. He will learn that modern science changed him, but not in a way that provides the deeper change, and the sense of rest, that he has sought. But perhaps, by God's grace, his story will not end there. Hopefully, his story will continue and he will discover that the freedom, rest, and transformation for which he, and every human being with him, longs is found through restoration in Jesus Christ.

Rev. Matthew S. Miller is a graduate of Wake Forest University and Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). He serves as the Senior Pastor of Greenville ARP Church
Posted May 1, 2015 @ 1:23 PM by Matthew S. Miller
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