Nathan‘s review of Him by Geoff Ryman – a Biblical reimagination in which Jesus is a trans man.
I don’t know where to start with this review because Him has so much going on and even a few days after finishing the book I don’t know how I actually feel about it. There was a lot to love, but there was also a lot that was muddled and brackish to the point where I can say that I’m not sure that Him fully works as a novel or philosophical treatise, but it is definitely engaging and thought-provoking enough that it is worth a read if it at all seems interesting to you.
Him is a multi-versal, AU retelling of the events of the New Testament from the birth of Jesus to his execution. The main difference here is that Jesus (Yeshua here) is assigned female at birth and is a trans man. From there Geoff Ryman examines the role of gender and Jesus’s death in Christian philosophy and morality.
What results is a book that asks some fascinating questions about the role of gender identity, biological sex, marriage, and family in Christianity. Ryman challenges many preconceived notions about the gendered and patriarchal social structures in which Christianity was birthed and continues to persist until today. The questions and issues that Him raises are interesting, and I had a great time reflecting on my upbringing in a conservative Russian Orthodox household, and the discomfort that I often felt surrounding issues of gender and sexuality through my childhood and adolescent years (before, admittedly, eventually leaving religion behind in my past). The biggest issue with Him is that I am not sure I completely understand what Ryman was trying to say in Him regarding Yeshuah’s trans identity. He sets up all of these amazing pieces and then doesn’t quite know what to do with them. After the first few pages there is no real commentary on the intersection between gender identity and theology, and Yeshuah’s transness becomes a simple plot point that is only handled in the most superficial of manners.
(I should also note a trigger warning here: while the book is in no way transphobic, Yeshuah does deal a lot with transphobia throughout the book, including being called “it” by his mother and having his clothes ripped off in public to prove his gender identity).
Ultimately, I’m not sure if Ryman was the correct person to write this particular story. He doesn’t fumble the ball as we’ve seen many authors trying to do while writing minority characters (I believe based on some quick Google searching that Ryman is a cis man), but it is clear he is writing this story from a perspective that is not fully embodied or experienced. The trans elements of Him are not clearly focused and lack perspective because this is a story that really needed to be explored by someone who lived and experienced what it is like to be a trans person.
Thus, the gendered elements to Him come across as a bit provocative for the sake of being provocative. Ryman never crosses a line, and I believe the book is much less sacrilegious than you would think once you start reading, but “Jesus is a trans man!” sometimes reads as more of a way to sell books without having a clear perspective on what that actually means in regards to the story.
However, having said all of that, there is actually a lot to enjoy with Him!
This book is beautifully written in a way that both evokes Biblical prose and poetry while also imbuing these figures with more emotion, humanity, and humanness than you get in Biblical passages. Ryman’s characters are imperfect, sometimes irrational, and feeling people who are more than just placeholders in a parable. No characters exemplify Ryman’s knowledge of the craft more than Yeshuah and his mother Maryam.
Yeshuah is the Messiah, the Son of God and is struggling to grapple with this role. He has a relatively troubled upbringing; his parents are social exiles, his mother does not accept his trans identity, and he is quickly growing in popularity and authority. There is a lot of political weight on his shoulders, and on top of it all he knows that his end is a painful and brutal death at the hand of the Romans. Yeshuah’s journey here reminded me a lot of Jesus’ portrayal in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar – a powerful figure who is intimately human. Yeshuah is imperfect and emotional, and he cannot eliminate those parts of himself just because of his religious powers.
As readers we get to know Yeshuah mostly from the POV of his mother, Maryam. Maryam is the most fascinating character in the book and her arc over the course of the 250ish pages of Him is the number one reason I would recommend this book to someone. Ryman absolutely nails the hardships that Maryam must endure as the mother of the Son of God. As a young woman she relishes the chance to give birth to God’s child; she agrees to marry the village’s religious exile (Joseph) and travel to Nazareth. As she grows, however, she starts to feel the strain of being the mother to what will become the world’s most famous figure. She cannot accept her son’s trans identity and she doesn’t know how to be a mother to someone who is so independent, intelligent, and powerful. She continues to have other children to distract herself, to find children she can be a more “traditional” mother to, and yet her oldest child is still constantly in her orbit. Maryam is a fully realized version of the “Virgin Mary” of the Christian Bible; not always likable but someone you can understand and empathize with (outside of some of her most ardent transphobia).
Maryam’s journey throughout Him is remarkable, and leads to an emotional ending that really explores the nature of the universe, who Jesus was as both a historical and religious figure, and the possible existence of a multiverse.
I’m not sure how big of an audience will be interested in a book like Him, but if you go into it with an open mind and see it as a book that has questions to pose, rather than questions to answer, you’ll definitely find the journey a thought-provoking one. Him works best if you have at least a more-than-passing-knowledge of the New Testament so that you can see where Ryman is twisting and turning the narrative, but otherwise this is a book to promote thinking and discussion.
Concluding Thoughts: The main tagline of Him, “What is Jesus was a trans man”, doesn’t really land because of some muddled ideas and perspectives, but the beautiful prose and character arcs of Ryman’s versions of Jesus and his mother Mary are fascinating. This is a book that is big on asking questions about the nature of Christian theology and worldviews that is sure to promote readers thinking about their own perspectives. So while the gender discussions and sci-fi elements are shallow, the characters and alternative universe Ryman created here are brimming with life. Give it at least a chance if it at all sounds interesting to you.