Essay

This Really Isn’t About Caitlyn Jenner

Listen To Article

I remember as a child, my desire to keep my new toys and games in perfect condition. Those first few days after Christmas or a birthday, each piece went back in its proper slot. The cards were ordered precisely. Then, despite my determination, within a day or three, a piece of cheap plastic would snap. I would accidentally step on the box, splitting a corner. A card would become dog-eared. At first I was sad, exasperated with myself. But soon enough, the game would go on.

I was never creative enough to invent a new game in light of the breakdown, or merge two worn-out games into some of new hybrid. Strategopoly, anyone?

We were much better at that outdoors. We never had enough players for true baseball, football, or basketball, so we spent hours playing Pickle, Flyers Up, Interception, and Two-on-Two.

I think about all this as I consider the character of God. Too many of us, especially Reformed sorts (myself included) have tended to see God more like me with my new games and toys, diligently trying to keep them perfect, nothing broken, everything in its place, regretful over what used to be, trying to get back there.

Gratefully, wonderfully, increasingly, I understand God as more like the imaginative kid who develops a great game with a Frisbee, an old wooden tennis racket, a milk jug, and three friends.

What do I mean? And why does this matter?

Probably the most memorable thing I read in the last year was The Resurrection of the Body: On Family, Mental Illness, and Grief, a short essay by Rachel Brownson. Seriously, if you can only read one thing today, click there and ignore the rest of what I have to say. It is good on so many levels, but especially for my purposes are her lines about the premature death of her uncle with schizophrenia.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when “at least he’s free of his illness now” stopped sounding like comfort and started sounding like an erasure of everything that made my uncle who he was in the time I knew him. Would I even recognize a version of Dave without his schizophrenia? How could one possibly begin to tease out the good—his quirky humor, the wildness of his metaphors, his kindness and care for others with mental illness—from the grief the good grew out of?

I hear her longing not for some return to the perfect box set of an uncle, but for a redemption that includes his unique traits, even with their troubled roots. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

About the same time I read Brownson’s essay, two news stories came to my attention. The first was Britain’s decision to allow the creating of children with “three parent IVF.” If that doesn’t lend itself to sensationalistic headlines and great misunderstanding! Nonetheless, it was a non-event compared to the media circus surrounding the debut of Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender woman who originally came to fame as the Olympic decathlete. caitlyn jenner

On issues both of genetics and human sexuality, I am innately cautious and conservative. Yet as I did even casual research on “three parent IVF” it is hardly the monstrosity it sounds like. It is a minor procedure with humanitarian motivations. It seems to open the door much more to over-the-top rhetoric than freaky babies. Yes, there is always the slippery-slope, camel’s nose argument. But I think what I’m telling myself is that this time, on this issue, I’m not going to buy that. I’m looking forward to redemptive healing, rather than backward to everything being “natural” and original.

Then in a conversation about Caitlyn Jenner, someone said, “Come on, in heaven what do you think he’s going to be?” The question carried a pretty derisive tone. But in hindsight I now see two oddly optimistic aspects. The questioner apparently assumes Jenner will be in heaven. And probably more important for this discussion, the introduction of “heaven” seems to point toward the eschatological, a future-oriented outlook, a concern with “where this is going” rather than “where did it come from.” But the heaven of the questioner was much more a place where “everything is back in its place,” where God finally hits the cosmic reset button.

I don’t have a finely-honed theology of three-parent babies or transgender persons. But increasingly I do have hope for a redemption that is less about things “returning to their natural design” or “God’s original intention” and more about God’s creativity including the anomalies, multiplicities, and holes in the cosmos. Less do I understand God as wistfully looking backward, a little regretful, wary and dour, perhaps mumbling, “If only…” Instead I see God humming hopefully, drawing all things forward and together, not erasing or overriding, but truly redeeming it all in a new creation.

 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

5 Comments

Leave a Reply