David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.
(2 Samuel 12:19-20)
Politicians, jurists, administrators, psychology professionals, and the public at large are trying to sort out what it means to be a “transgender person,” and, naturally, the focus falls upon the term “transgender,” its denotations and connotations.[i] But essential insights rest upon the less exotic but richer term, “person,” and David’s response to the death of an infant son is instructive in this connection.
The word “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning “mask” and referring to the role one plays in a drama.[ii] The two notions—“mask” and “personhood”—seem to clash, for, as we hear it, to be a person is a good thing but to don a mask is the stuff of “hypocrisy” (based on the Greek for “speaking from under cover”). Hence expressions like, “Let’s lay aside our masks, get real, and be authentic.” But there is a deeper and admirable sense of persona, one which informs our appreciation for personhood. It concerns the roles, the behaviors, we select as our own, congruent with our character.
In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba, whose husband’s death David had facilitated. Nathan announced God’s judgment that the child would die. In response, “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them” (vv. 16 and 17). He was a broken and humiliated man, and his pleas were sincere. But when God said “No,” the king got back to work. He may have felt like moping or pouting, but he got up, cleaned up, and moved on. Such were the choices he made, the personas he assumed.
The Bible is full of persona shifts: Nebuchadnezzar’s loss and gain of sanity in Daniel 4; Peter’s transitions from defender to coward to apostle in the Gospels; Demas’s forsaking Paul in 1 Timothy 4. In each case, the subject chose to “play a different dramatic role,” to engage the world differently. Everyone does this to some extent, and properly so, whether adopting a pastoral tone at the hospital bedside, cheering wildly at a football game, speaking deferentially to the traffic cop, shushing the kids when mom is trying to field a phone call, or exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on the plane.
This is not phoniness, but rather an outworking of values, commitments, and priorities. Indeed, the “authentic” person who just goes with his moods and tendencies, gushing, whining, or muttering out whatever he feels at the moment, is childishly random, not maturely ordered. In contrast, consider the Greek or Roman actor who, in turn, assumes different personas in the course of the play, all in the service of the story being told. He doesn’t simply grab whatever mask he feels like wearing to “do his own thing.” Similarly, individuals exercise their personhood in service to a narrative. At best, it centers on responsible stewardship of life under the reign of a righteous and loving God. At worst, it ignores God and enthrones unholy, toxic agendas. That is a choice one makes.
Today, it is popular to say that one must play this or that (allegedly) hard-wired sexual role in a particular cultural drama—for instance, a transgender part in the great hedonistic/liberation narrative. But neither roles nor plays are inescapable. Both human reason (as in Xerxes’ discovery that Mordecai rather than Haman was honorable in Esther 6 and 7) and spiritual quickening (as in the case of Lydia, whose heart was “opened” in Acts 16) can effect a revolution in perspective and behavior, and it is the task of the church to commend both of these God-given avenues to human flourishing.
[i] For instance, the American Psychological Association takes pains to delineate the variety of ways in which “transgender persons” identify themselves—for instance, “genderqueer,” “androgynous,” or “two-spirit.” See “Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression,” http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx (accessed September 3, 2016).
[ii] See, for example, these masks used in a modern rendering of Plautus’s Roman comedy, Bacchides, http://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/featured-project/roman-comedy-in-performance (accessed July 29, 2016).