S&P's Editorial and Program Director Julie Davis had an "Off the Page” conversation and Q&A with author Shannon T.L. Kearns on November 8, 2023. Watch the replay below.
When Father Shannon Kearns was born, he “was wrapped in pink blankets and swaddled in evangelical theology.” The blankets and the theology both, he writes, “would one day threaten to suffocate me. I needed to be unbound, just like Lazarus when he came out of the tomb (see John 11:44).”
Through In the Margins: a Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture, Kearns tells the story of how he wriggled free of the pink blankets and the evangelical theology to claim the rightness of his body, to find a new name, and to live out his faith.
Like many queer folks growing up in the 90s evangelical church, Kearns knew he was a threat to his environment well before he knew why he was a threat. His chapters paint a picture of church contexts, including family and school, where being in “lock-step” with certain beliefs and behaviors was required — and was the only thing that kept him safe.
Others sensed his queerness and excluded/included, punished/rewarded him based on how well he conformed to gender norms, how well he denied what felt good in his skin. “As an adolescent,” he reflects, “this was a potent combination: depression, coming to terms with sexuality, starting to question the faith I had been raised in, all while still being completely immersed in a conservative evangelical world. I had no real outlet. I had no friends who weren’t Christian. I didn’t think you could have authentic relationships with people who didn’t believe the way that you did. . . . ”
From this isolation, oppressiveness, and self-abnegation, Kearns was indeed, like Lazarus, resurrected — and he now proclaims the good news that “LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender people, have something vital to teach the church and the world if only the world would listen.”
Kearns’ voice makes it very easy to listen. In each chapter, he gently, sensitively, and convincingly pairs his personal narrative with Biblical narratives. The impacts of this structure are manifold. First and foremost, as he sees himself in scripture, he invites other trans folks to see themselves embraced by a text that religious and political leaders are still weaponizing to dehumanize and disenfranchise them.
Additionally, the weaving of experience and exegesis makes it clear that Kearns transformed the struggle of coming out into the joy of fresh and necessary Biblical interpretations. To say that Kearns brings a “trans lens” to these stories is true, of course (as true as saying Augustine brought a “cis lens”), but what his trans lens really means is that, because he has felt invisible, he sees differently. He reads the text from the margins; he reads as one struggling for life against the suffocation of evangelical literalism and transphobic hatred; and he reads as someone rejected by many but called by God, complete with a prophetic imagination that is compassionate, resolute, and wise.
Kearns allows us to see so much more in stories we might have thought we knew well. We see Jesus acknowledging gender beyond male and female as he refers to those who have “made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven.” Kearns polishes the dust off of some beautiful verses in Isaiah (ones that counter Deuteronomy’s condemnations) that proclaim that eunuchs will be “given a name better than sons and daughters.” He reminds us that no less than Jacob challenged God, demanded blessing, and then lived by a new name.
In one particularly stunning chapter, Kearns interprets the Transfiguration (Jesus’ entire appearance changing on top of a mountain) as the final step in Jesus’ own messy process of accepting his different and complex identity: with the Transfiguration, Jesus finally accepts his full self, shines in all his uniqueness, and then assumes the political and personal risk of changing his public perception.
It really would be difficult to overstate the power of an interpretation that allows queer and trans Christians to see themselves in Jesus! Too many have harmed themselves because they were taught (and treated) otherwise. And yet In the Margins is a gift for anyone who wants to put scripture in conversation with our embodied experiences; we all have a gender and a sexuality, and we may have unwittingly absorbed the notion that the Bible only offers conservative perspectives on these topics. In the Margins can help liberate all of its readers from narrow, binary, and misleading Biblical frameworks.