There is a story from my childhood and from childhoods much further in the past that taught a lesson that seems especially pertinent for today. That story is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that famous account of the swindlers who made invisible clothes, the yes-men who pretended to see them, and the emperor who paraded through the streets of town naked but believing he was dressed in finery beyond compare. Believing, that is, until one little child, still young and naïve enough to believe the reality that his eyes saw rather than the reality that the grownups created, said those magic words: “But he hasn’t got anything on.”
But that was then and this is now, and today there are new stories being told to children. One of those stories, I Am Jazz, recently caused some controversy in a small town in Maine. I Am Jazz is an account of the picture-book variety that tells the story of a child with “a boy’s body but a girl’s brain” and is reportedly based on the life of now 14-year-old Jazz Jennings who was born a boy but claims to have identified as a girl since he was two years old. Little Jazz of the story is misunderstood by his parents for his feminine tendencies, but ultimately a doctor diagnoses Jazz as transgender and affirms him on his journey to womanhood. As might be expected, officials at Horace Mitchell Primary School in Kittery Point, Maine have come under fire for allowing I Am Jazz to be read to students without their parents’ approval. Ally Hutton, superintendant of the local school district, has since issued a statement admitting that parents should have been informed before gender issues were discussed with their K-3rd grade children. An astute, if somewhat tardy, observation to be sure.
There are some marked similarities between I Am Jazz and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Both stories contain main characters who are participants in fabricated realities that stand contrary to all observable evidence. Both main characters are affirmed by others in the story: The emperor has his attendants who compliment his invisible outfit and pretend to hold his mantle; Jazz has his doctor who tells him that he is, in fact, a girl. The only real difference between these two stories is that there is no one simple and naïve enough in I Am Jazz to take the evidence at face value and speak the unvarnished truth: Jazz is a boy and not a girl. As such, then, I Am Jazz lacks the important moral that has allowed “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to stand the test of time. That moral is simply this: Just because we pretend something is true, that doesn’t make it so.
When did reality become something that we are free to define for ourselves, regardless of any and all evidence to the contrary? Do we have the freedom, the right, or even the ability to decide that we are the opposite gender, regardless of what our chromosomes and anatomy indicate is so? Could all of this simply be another symptom of our fallen humanity, further evidence that we abhor the idea of a sovereign God who is in control of everything, including how we were created? The Bible paints a picture of an intentional Creator who acts as He does for a purpose. That Creator asks Moses in Exodus 4 “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” We could probably add to that list “Who makes human beings male or female?” and the answer would be the same – God does. The Creator of the cosmos is the one who built maleness into Jazz’s existence for purposes that only He knows. Ignoring that reality or undergoing physical transformation in rebellion against that reality doesn’t change it. We might, through our actions, obscure and even suppress reality, but rest assured it is still there. And so, what each of us must come to terms with is this: Can we trust our Creator to know best in all things? All things, including our maleness and femaleness? All things, including our physical defects and our imperfections? And can we, instead of affirming those who are currently ignoring reality to their own harm, somehow find the courage to verbalize the simple, unvarnished truth no matter how it may be received? Sometimes, the emperor really doesn’t have anything on, whether anyone is willing to acknowledge it or not.
Kevin Sartin is pastor of First Baptist Church on Main St. in Nashville. Rev. Sartin holds a Master of Divinity Degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and has spent the last decade pastoring churches in Louisiana and Arkansas.