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What J.K. Rowling can teach us about standing firm among the crowds

Social media, the sexual revolution, and the Christian’s faithfulness to Scripture

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June 16, 2020

With everything going on in our world, one could easily be forgiven for missing the latest internet controversy. In the midst of a pandemic and mass cultural upheaval over racial justice in America, there are more than a few things occupying our time and attention right now. But something transpired online recently that Christians should pay attention to. A little more than a week ago, J.K. Rowling, the renowned author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, decided to tweet about the issue of transgenderism. And as it tends to do, the internet exploded.

The backlash against J.K. Rowling

Rowling’s initial tweet was a response to the headline of an article promoting the idea of equality for women as the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a rather inelegant attempt not to use the word “women,” which the progressive edge of sexual revolutionaries finds, to quote Douglas Murray, “increasingly triggering,” the headline instead opted for the designation “people who menstruate.” And for Rowling, an avowed feminist, this was simply a bridge too far. So she fired off a tweet quoting the article headline with this response: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Because for Rowling, only women are women. And she denies there is any insult or indignity in saying so.

For those who don’t follow the ins and outs of current discourse related to gender and sexuality, Rowling’s tweet was deemed out of bounds by supporters of transgender ideology because she dared to recognize that biology is definitional in terms of womanhood. The tweet received more than 30,000 replies ranging from expressions of solidarity and support to criticisms, threats, and calls to “cancel” her forever. But it wasn’t just the faceless mob denouncing Rowling. Not only were multiple articles published in major outlets criticizing her failure to adhere to trans orthodoxy, but several actors who starred in the films based upon the fictional universe Rowling created—including Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Eddie Redmayne—took the opportunity to criticize or rebut her views.

But despite the backlash, Rowling stood her ground. In response to the controversy, she took the opportunity to offer her own extensive reply on her website. In more than 3,000 words, she defended her views and explained her deep concern for issues related to sexuality and gender. And as she details in her reply, as a victim of both sexual assault and domestic abuse herself, among Rowling’s chief concerns with the “consequences of the current trans activism” is its potential to leave biological females, whether grown women or young girls, open to harm. After repeatedly emphasizing throughout the post her support for people identifying as transgender, Rowling offered this appeal at its conclusion: “All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.”

Why Christians should pay attention

Yet for most of her critics, Rowling’s explanation and conciliatory measures were sorely insufficient. And this is why Christians should pay attention. Rowling is a public figure. She acknowledged in her post that criticism is a part of fame and made no appeals for sympathy. But that isn’t really the point. What shouldn’t be missed here is that before Rowling was subjected to ridicule for failing to keep in step with the latest developments in progressive sexual ideology, she was actually a much-lauded ally among those celebrating the cultural acceptance and legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In other words, Rowling was a hero among those at the forefront of the sexual revolution until she wasn’t. As she mentioned in her reply, a few years ago, Rowling publicly drew the line at denying an objective, biological reality. As a result, she has at several points, including this most recent controversy, endured the very worst kind of scorn and vitriol.

This is a lesson for all of us, particularly believers, as we confront issues related to human sexuality. Over the last decade, there has been enormous cultural pressure to abandon the sexual ethics of Scripture. And in the days and years ahead, that pressure is only likely to increase. You may be called a bigot or a hatemonger simply for holding fast to what the church has always believed. You will be called intolerant. You might even be cancelled. But all of that is okay if it means you held fast to Jesus.

If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would one day be defending J.K Rowling, I would have said you were detached from reality. Harry Potter was a huge deal when I was growing up, and it seemed everyone on the planet was reading the books except me. As a youth group kid who took himself too seriously, I used to joke that while my friends were reading about Hogwarts, I was reading Hebrews. And for a while, I was convinced that reading those novels was some kind of gateway to atheism or the occult. 

When it comes to issues of sexuality, Christians must remain faithful to what God has revealed to us in the Scriptures. We can affirm the value and dignity of all people without denying what God has said is true about men and women.

I no longer believe those things, and would timidly acknowledge my own appreciation for her work. But more than being impressed with Rowling’s creative genius that allowed her to produce a mythical world loved by millions of people, I’ve been even more impressed with her resolve in the face of the mob. No one likes being attacked. And it's never easy to stand alone as one is being derided, shamed, and maligned. But so far Rowling has held fast to her convictions. And there is a powerful lesson in this.

For Christians, our moral anchor is ultimately Jesus. Even as we face enormous pressure to shift our positions or alter our core beliefs, we can look to him and remember his example. In his life, Jesus faced pressure from his family, friends, and followers. Not only that, but he was tempted by his adversaries and challenged by his circumstances. Yet at every point Jesus remained faithful. He refused to do anything out of step with the Father’s will. And his people are called to do the same.

When it comes to issues of sexuality, Christians must remain faithful to what God has revealed to us in the Scriptures. We can affirm the value and dignity of all people without denying what God has said is true about men and women. We can love and support people who are hurting without affirming what we know to be false about what it means to be male or female. And we can do so knowing that for some people that will never be enough. Because, as Katie McCoy noted recently, for some, “Expressing anything less than unqualified agreement constitutes a violation—an elimination—of personhood.”

The apostle Paul once said that he aimed to please God rather than men (Gal. 1:10). As we continue to face these issues in the future, embracing the same aim is our only hope. Christians will face pressure to conform to the views of the world. But if J.K. Rowling’s example should teach us anything, it’s that once you do so, you’ll never be permitted to stop. There’s a better way. So remember the example of Jesus, and stand fast.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author