It was amazing
One of the things we have social trends to thank for is that they can illuminate eternal themes that have been in darkness for a long time. Our social gaze, even with semi-free speech and the internet, is a very tight follow-spotlight, and most players on the stage of life carry on their existence in the shadows to the left and right. When the light of trend suddenly allows us vision of an idea like “what if Jesus came back as a trans person?” some may scoff just because the trend apparently took us there, while others would see a potential truth, or at least a truth-directed metaphor, that had always been waiting. In this case, you can see immediately that that idea has something to it. The Nicene Creed, the bedrock statement of most branches of Christianity, calls the divine and human in Jesus “consubstantial,” two concepts coming together in one unitary substance. This is surely something that has resonance for people with gender on one side and genetics on the other, or with non-binary self-awareness, or with a perception of themselves as “two-spirited.” The ancient doctrines of “the paradox of the hypostatic union” and “fully divine and fully human” may seem a little too binary for some trans people who feel themselves perfectly unitary, but the superimposition of an original birth assignment and a later self-awareness reassignment still boggles simple-minded pigeonholing, just as the mysteries of Christology do.
And then there’s the whole problem, if it is one, of Jesus, a man, supposedly representing all humanity. In principle, one supposes anyone who’s also divine would have the needed breadth to do this – but if they were to make a comeback today, wouldn’t a form – an ουσία – that also represented a woman be appropriate? Still, a tantalizing idea doesn’t necessary yield a good book, especially when a topic as overworked and potentially awkward as Christianity is involved. Paul van der Spiegel’s Trans Deus, however, arrives at the topic with a great panache of credibility. This is not because of any famous background attributable to the author: the book makes its own case for itself. We begin with a dystopian, slightly futuristic England ruled by an American governor but beset by hardline nationalistic guerrilla movements. Within it, a series of characters emerges with their own distinctive stories – Jude as an ambivalent guerrilla, brothers Andy and Pete as family men troubled in faith and sexuality, Tom as a bitter, recently laid-off cynic – and before long, when the rest of the names are coming into focus as a familiar list, we meet Jess, the controversial, much-scorned trans woman who absurdly claims to be the daughter of God. God the Mother, no less.
Trying to take on Jesus as a dramatis persona has sunk many an artist – I think of Willem Dafoe’s opaque, seemingly not-very-bright Jesus in the film version of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ – but, surprisingly, van der Spiegel, who doesn’t resort to any pretense of writing a new gospel, is onto something. Jess the trans daughter of God is as scattered and quixotic as the real Yeshua must have seemed, but isn’t inarticulate in her modern lingo, and doesn’t just paraphrase. You have to understand the tone of philosophical discussion in the book, which is earthily and grottily modern, but snags the basic philosophical threads. Whether faith in a God remains viable in modern times is an active topic. “As they drove through litter strewn city streets, Jaz gestured at the world outside their windscreen. ‘This is a savage place. Humankind wears the mask of civilisation, but behind it is the wolf. All of this is a thin veneer on a cold, hard truth.’ ‘Which came first,’ Andy asked, ‘essence or existence?’ ‘Existence, of course. This world is all there is. There is no grace, only process.’ ‘You’re wrong. There is more. But I’m totally fucked because I know this and choose to ignore it.’”
Even in this context of no-holds-barred verisimilitude, in a reality expressed in ‘fucks’ and bodily fluids, Jess, while not extensively quoted, gives out a few elevated philosophical sound bites that summarize van der Spiegel’s views on self-absorbed power vs. love. Here’s a mini-sermon given to a crowd. “‘The Will to Negation destroys hope in our fellow men and women,’ Jess said. ‘Negation begins as the miasmic anxiety of isolation at minus one, it progresses to molten anger at minus two, and then hardens into separation from others at minus three. Negation eats away at connection, it unpicks the thread of community, it lives as the shadow on the sun, it dwells as the thought that no one cares, nothing matters, that the abyss of death defines life.’” As you can see by the ‘miasmic’ in that passage, this book is not aimed at the Grade 10-level reader, and even for the reader on my PhD+35 level, it requires a fair number of look-ups. Of course, my sort of person likes that kind of thing. Start with a passage saying …
“‘Jude, tell them what you saw in Rivington,’ she said. ‘I saw a five-by-five square. I saw Rotas Tenet.’ ‘A Latin word search?’ Johnny asked. ‘Tell me that a Koine crossword isn’t the foundation upon which you’ve built your ministry, Jess.’ ‘Paul left me a Post-it Note carved in stone,’ Jess said.” … which leads to this and correctly connects the ancient mystical device to the town of Rivington, Lancashire, England, as noted. Deep dives into arcana noted by van der Spiegel are never futile.
The basic story takes place in a dystopian world of its own, but has nods to familiar ‘stations’ that we’re all familiar with, if we’re familiar with Christianity, leading to a – well, should there be a spoiler alert? Some sort of a scene involving mortality in the outdoors, let’s say. The wonderful thing about all this from the viewpoint of an LGBT-positive Christian like myself is not just that the story of love’s triumph now includes various appropriately situated characters who could be given these initials. There is literary and hermeneutical splendour in its reflection of how zany the original story must have seemed at the time. Some sort of hillbilly prophet breezes in from the sticks for no particular reason, to be adored by hoi polloi, and interrupts the regular business days of the powers that be, forcing them to Trump up a fake-news “rebel new king” scheme to mobilize the powers of suppression and turn the crowds.
“What the Gehenna was that all about?” would surely have been a common follow-up reaction then, and van der Spiegel gives us an acute insight into this dislocation. One of the deep search-engine dives on terms mentioned in the book leads to the knowledge that this seems to be a rewrite of a previous effort that didn’t quite make the cut. Van der Spiegel says, in his afterword, “it is beholden on all of us to create for ourselves, to tear out the pages of our favourite books, to reconstruct, to become sub-creators, to be a protagonist instead of a spectator, to recontextualise.” In Trans Deus, he has recontextualized in a way that’s finger-smackin’ good. He’s got it right. As the author myself of a book on the philosophy of power, I could have an interesting discussion with him on this topic in Christianity, but I feel that we’re a few verbal scintillas away from complete agreement. His essential point, in any case, is impeccable. Jesus is fully cis and fully trans.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them – and I do mean ‘them’ – hear.
Richard Summerbell, November 29, 2020 on Goodreads
In my ignorance, I sat down with “Trans Deus” ready (and hoping) to read a positive Christian argument on
being trans – a mixture of autobiography, stories and theology. I hadn’t realised that Paul Van Der Spiegel’s
book is a novel. But that isn’t to say that I didn’t get what I’d anticipated.
The novel centres around the life, death and new life of Jessica Arkuss, the incarnation of God. It’s a new
telling of the Jesus story. Interestingly, though, it’s not “what if Jesus was born now,” because Jesus and
Paul exist, the Bible exists. This is an additional incarnation. Jess was formerly Joshua before she
transitioned, the Daughter of the Mother.
I remember hearing the story of two American tourists watching “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The wife wanted
to leave at the interval, the husband argued, “Heck, no, I wanna stay and see what happens in the end.” The
trouble with retelling the Jesus story is that we do know what happened in the end (more than in JC
Superstar, of course). This robs the novel of the narrative tension of denouement, we can only look forward
to how the characters and familiar story is handled.
I’m really glad I read the book, though hard to say if I enjoyed it or not. The concept is really interesting. What
if the Daughter of God was trans, and born in today’s world. There are lots of plays on the familiar
characters – Andy, Pete, Jude, Matt, Tim, Jean (as in the French), and lots of clever dialogical resonances
with the Gospels. There are interesting conjectures – the disciples must have sworn (warning, contains very
strong language and sexual content)- and how exactly were their relationships/friendships outside the eye of
the Gospels? And Paul also explores the modern links between state and church – playing on Pharisees and
Roman authority, and their collusion and tensions. There are some intelligent and engaging ideas here,
especially in the story of the Judas character.
But this leads to the question of audience. I felt both in and out. Because I know the gospels well, I was able
to get many of the references (I’m sure I missed a lot, too) and appreciate their skill. I’m not sure how
someone who doesn’t know the faith so well would be engaged. But I also felt “out” in the trans world that
is presented. It didn’t inhabit the story, but I felt that I was missing out on the subtleties. For example, TERF
is unexplained (sorry, I didn’t know what it meant), however there was a footnote for the meaning of
“tombola.” I wondered, too, if it’s a genre of novel that I’m not familiar with – nothing wrong with that,
There were two things I enjoyed most. In a similar way to “The Shack,” the theology is exciting – generous,
edgy, wonderfully “Greenbelt.” Although sometimes I felt that the way this was put into dialogue seemed a
bit clunky. Also, the exploration of Jess being trans, and the extra political levels this gives to the Familiar
Story. The real-life prejudice about our trans sisters and brothers from within and outside the faith. And
these two elements come together beautifully in the idea that in the process of salvation we are all
transitioning. Jess says, “Every human being is to be reborn of the waters of love, of energy, of spirit. Every
soul needs to transition” and “We all transition on the day we die, we humans are all non-binary.”
Paul Van Der Spiegel writes with great intelligence, and there are many interesting and well-mined ideas
that will stay with me. And the structuring of the book is pacy and filmic. There were some parts of both the
prose and dialogue that jarred with me, but this only means that there was much that didn’t. And I am more
than prepared to accept that this was a matter of taste on my part, and who am I to judge? So overall, do
read this. And congratulations and thanks to Paul. Do write more.
Philip Hawthorn, IC ambassador for Somerset.
Source URL: https://inclusive-church.com/blog/book-review-trans-deus-paul-van-der-spiegel