Book Review: Trans Deus by Paul Van Der Spiegel

In my ignorance, I sat down with ‘Transdeus’ 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, naturally.

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 they 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.

* The footnotes seem quite random, and stop half way through …

This review was written by Philip Hawthorn, IC ambassador for Somerset.