Book Review | Embodied by Preston Sprinkle
With its first edition published in 2021, this book is an excellent place to start for any Christian seeking a more nuanced understanding of “the trans issue” or any LGBT+ advocate seeking a more nuanced understanding of “the Christian perspective.” Sprinkle’s true friendship and love for his trans* friends and his reverence and care for what the Bible has to say both shine through.
[Note: The term trans* (with an asterisk) is used in Sprinkle’s book as an umbrella term that includes all gender non-conforming people, not limited just to “trans” people who have transitioned officially from one gender to another. I will use it that way here.]
In my view, the main point of the book is to challenge the church to remember that this is not purely an abstract debate, but that real people that God loves are living with the tension that what they think, feel, and do collides with other people, with God, with the church, and with reality. To help us remember this, Sprinkle takes us directly into the lives of his trans* friends Lesli, Kat, and others so that we let compassion into our hearts. After being driven out of the church at 18 by a pastor who kicked her out when she asked for help, Lesli came back to church when a different pastor said he’d be honored to do the funeral of her lesbian partner, who died in a tragic fire. Now she’s on fire for Jesus and discipling others. Which pastor/Christian will you be?
Sprinkle does a good job disentangling the various threads of arguments attendant on these questions. He talks about biology at length, claiming universal agreement that humans are a sexually dimorphic species (meaning there are only two sexes), and then describes all known intersex conditions. These are biological irregularities in which the presence of extra chromosomes or faulty androgen receptors can cause a human body to express, or not express, certain characteristics of both genders. He argues that intersex conditions are very different from the trans conversation, as most intersex people and almost all trans* people have an unambiguous biological sex. He discusses the “brain-sex” theory that perhaps a “male brain” could be stuck in a female body or vice versa, and humbly citing all current studies, explains that scientists have not been able to pinpoint any sex markers in the brain. Human brains have more overlap than difference, and although there are some trends based on gender, they are nowhere near conclusive enough to identify a brain as belonging to a gender just by looking at it, so a purely biological justification for transitioning genders has not been found.
Sprinkle also talks about gender, gender roles, gender stereotypes, and gender identity at length. He details how the idea that gender could be separate from biological sex developed and how problematic it is when people cite gender stereotypes as a basis for affirming a gender identity transition. Just as with height, trends in a certain group cannot and should not define a group. Just because most men are taller than most women, you can’t use that trend to define a short human as female or a tall one as male. Similarly, even if more boys like athletics than singing, it is utterly nonsensical to suggest that a child that likes singing more than athletics is therefore not a boy. However, the more society pushes stereotypes as definitions, the more people who don’t fit the trend will feel like something is wrong with them. Sprinkle encourages churches that confuse femininity with feminine stereotypes and masculinity with masculine stereotypes, and both with what it means to be Christian, to re-examine their messaging around these topics so that the maximum number of people feel welcome at gender-specific events. He reminds us that nowhere does God command us to “be feminine” or “be masculine,” but rather to “be godly.”
However, reading the book drives home the point that atypical preferences are not the totality of what leads someone to be gender non-conforming or trans, but something far deeper and more difficult to reconcile. Sprinkle includes quotes from people that are willing to describe what gender dysphoria feels like in their experience. One person writes that it’s like “an electric current through my body that caused my joints to ache, my stomach [to] turn, my hands [to] shake, and nausea in the most severe moments of dysphoria. Laying in bed at night it almost felt that the electric circuits in my body didn’t quite match up, like cramming two wrong puzzle pieces together.” Often, gender dysphoria manifests as early as three- or four-years-old with children believing that they simply are the other gender. As Sprinkle details, not everyone with gender dysphoria is trans and not everyone that’s trans experiences this kind of intense physical/mental dysphoria, and that is why it’s important to hear someone out before making ignorant statements like: “It’s all in your head,” or “Why did you choose to do this?” He examines suicidality, detransitioning, autogynephilia, comorbidities, Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, and a host of other factors that could be at play in these situations. His conclusion: No matter what led the person to where they are, it is better to listen first, love first, and affirm God’s image in the person regardless of how atypically they are currently expressing their gender until they trust you enough to tell you why.
This book also dives deep into the Bible and what the Bible has to say about sex and gender. Starting with Genesis 1:27 – “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” – he builds a thorough theology of the importance God places on our bodies and on both sexes. He shows why the belief of a soul separate from the body isn’t Christian, but actually Gnostic. Our soul, spirit, psyche, ruach, or whatever you want to call our “true self,” is part and parcel of our body. He goes through mentions of male and female, what it means to be “like the angels,” what Jesus was referring to with eunuchs, Old and New Testament injunctions about dress, and many other passages and concludes that the distinction between male and female is important in Christianity, will not pass away, and that our sexed bodies are part of the image that we bear. For this reason, Sprinkle believes that a discipleship goal for all Christians should be to accept and honor their bodies as created by God, and that learning to integrate our inner sense of self with our physical self is the path of most hope and truth for Christ’s disciples.
Where this book left me—a cisgender female—is humbled. I agree with Sprinkle’s theology completely, but I have not come close to matching his love. I have been more outraged than I have been loving outrageously. When I see trans* people in movies and media, I turn away in fear that my children will be confused about reality. While I will continue to do that for my children with media representations, will I also be tempted to turn away from real people that I meet? I know if Jesus were on earth now, He would be inviting trans* people to dinner and meeting the deep needs of their hearts. How can I lay aside my fear for my children and, instead of focusing on protecting them from evil, focus on equipping them to be agents of healing in a broken world?
Until the church offers the freedom Christ promises, we cannot put a heavy burden of legalism—“just force yourself to act right”—on people who are already fragile, many with co-occurring traumas and mental health conditions. Will our churches be places that these people can come and receive from the Lord before they receive the cold shoulder? Sprinkle briefly touches on pronoun use, bathroom use, and dorm accommodations, always recommending that in conversations with trans* people, we humble ourselves and offer to be a friend before offering our point of view. In logistical difficulties like bathrooms, be creative in offering some kind of option for more privacy, not just for trans* people but for anyone who might wish to take advantage of that (like nursing mothers or single dads with daughters). Install a single-stall bathroom. Offer a third space. And in abstract conversations – such as online ones – remember that a person you love might be struggling with these issues and see your statements. So ask yourself: Can I phrase what I’m saying with so much grace that that person will feel like he or she could come talk to me?
I think that’s right, to a degree, and I will work to change my tone in the public sphere. However, I’d like to add a qualifier. Some may feel that striking the right tone is impossible, and therefore, they shouldn’t participate in public discussions at all. I think this would be the wrong response. If everyone who disagrees with gender ideology is silent on the grounds of “compassion,” the Overton Window of discourse will continue to shift farther and farther away from health and healing.
Wikipedia defines the Overton Window as “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” Another name is “the window of discourse.” This theory posits that there are six levels of public acceptance, and they are: Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, Policy. If something is currently “unthinkable” to the general public, then it certainly won’t be made into policy tomorrow, even if it’s an amazing policy. In a democracy, first the conversation and public feeling must shift to the point that an idea is at least widely acknowledged as “sensible” before it can be put into policy.
It seems the gender ideologues and cultural Marxists have been much savvier in their political discourse over the past decades than people that are more culturally conservative. What was once unthinkable—for instance, that a man should have his penis removed and be featured on magazine covers as a woman—has, in the space of maybe 10 years, become popular. What was once policy—that a parent must consent to major medical procedures for a minor child—has become, in even less time, radical. When it comes to gender questions, the Overton Window has shifted so far away from a Christian perspective in the United States and much of Europe that it’s practically inverted. Suddenly, it’s unthinkable that a child who believes herself to be a boy would be reminded universally by society that she actually is a girl until she learns to accept it, and it’s ever-more-rapidly becoming policy that no one is allowed to contradict her and must provide her with whatever invasive and irreversible medical procedures and pharmaceuticals she demands to continue her delusion. Even saying it’s a delusion is unthinkable to some. However, the majority of studies show that this girl, if she continues her life as a boy and then a man, will have major mental and physical health problems for the rest of her life if no one helps her heal. She needs help. But how can she get it if it is illegal to help her?
Being silent is not a good response and not a compassionate one. As long as the loudest voices are the ones promoting body-mutilating, unstudied, biology-altering ideas, the law of the land will reflect those ideas more and more, and we and our children will be subject to those laws to our harm. As citizens of this country and people of conviction, it is our responsibility to do our part to shift the window of discourse back to reality and back to a place where sensible policy will also be popular. Since we have the opportunity in a democracy to affect the laws of the land, an opportunity that our forebears paid dearly for, let’s not throw it away for fear of not using it perfectly.
We must continue to talk about the image of God, the embodied soul, the path to healing for mental health issues, the beauty and dignity of men, women, and children. We need to tell all the stories of people who have wrestled with gender confusion – where they came from, where they are now, and where they’re going. That includes children who grew out of dysphoria, people who detransitioned, trans* people who are living Christian lives, and many more. We cannot allow the only story that is amplified to be the one where a person transitioned and then had all their problems solved except the continued existence of bigoted haters, inaccurate pronouns, and the lack of testosterone insurance. That keeps the window right where it is.
We need to have public conversations—convincing conversations—about virtue and ideals, stereotypes and individuality, brokenness and healing, and every other topic that relates to these issues. We need to lift up truth and beauty—God's good designs and His redemptive power through Jesus to bring them about—as highly and as loudly and as accurately as we possibly can, so that the thick darkness of unthinkably nonsensical ideas can be dispelled, and lost people can begin finding the true transformation they need.
I think Embodied is a great example of the kinds of conversation that can shift that window. I think the tone of grace, the firsthand witness and care for trans* people, the thoughtful Biblical study, the thorough medical reviews, and the sincere effort to build a better conversation around these issues is exactly the kind of thing we all could seek to model as we each add our voice to this important conversation.