There are narratives that are so powerful that it might feel, in the middle of one, that you are in the whitewater rapids of a swollen river. The river (narrative) wants you to go here and you don’t want to go there. You see the rocks there and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture what is going to happen to you when the current carries you at this rate into those rocks.
People talk glibly about “changing the narrative,” but people who have to do it are not, ordinarily, that glib about it. If narratives were easy to change, there wouldn’t be so many self-destructive ones.
With that in mind, consider George Fox University, in Newberg, Oregon: just down the valley a little from where I live in Portland. Here is what the New York Times wrote about it this week.
The student, Jaycen, wants to live on campus with a group of male friends. The difficulty is that Jaycen “is” or “lives in the body of” a female. That means that Jaycen has a preferred outcome that the university will not accept. The university has two outcomes that are acceptable. The first is for Jaycen to have the “sex-reassignment surgery” he wants. That means that he feels like a male and looks like a male and lives with other males. No problem. The other is that Jaycen live off campus or in a single-person apartment on campus. Again, no problem
The issue itself is a huge issue in principle and all organizations, public and private, are going to have to find a way to deal with it. At George Fox, it looks like it isn’t going to be that much of an issue and the reasons why it is not are what intrigue me about this account. There are two reasons why this is not going to be, as I see it, a big time issue at George Fox. The first is a rather simple one. The second is a good deal more complex and to deal with it, I am going to have to apply the metaphor I started with—the narrative can feel like going through the rapids in a kayak.
The simple solution is that Jaycen have the surgery that will bring his self-image and his body into alignment. I am sure “sex-reassignment surgery” is enormously complicated from a medical standpoint, but it is pretty simple from a policy standpoint. The treatment costs more money than Jaycen has and he is working on a way to pay for it. When that happens, the issue as an event is over and only the reflections and artifacts of the dispute will remain.
But let’s say that George Fox gets caught up in the narrative rapids. This goes very quickly to a familiar plot—let’s say The Scarlet Letter—to choose one among many. The conflict about Jaycen is now “a witch-hunt.” The college is now a bunch of smug, self-righteous, unfeeling hypocrites. Jaycen himself is a victim, trying only to be true to himself/herself and to live with integrity in a world committed to simple solutions. Jaycen is also “a sinner,” since George Fox is a conservative religious university and, in this narrative, the university expels him for “conduct unbecoming to a student of George Fox.
I am sure that Nathaniel Hawthorn put some thought into writing The Scarlet Letter, but the of the many people who have written that same narrative since then, many have not been so thoughtful. As a result, the Scarlet Letter narrative has acquired a lot of power and small institutions and small students caught up in it are controlled by the narrative and smashed on the rocks. And we don’t notice because we don’t read carefully. We get as far as the conflict and the organizational setting and say, “Oh yeah. I know this story. Let’s move on.” Then we thumb through the rest of the novel and put it down, confident that we know what it said.
That’s not what happened here. Odd as it might seem, George Fox said, “Maybe there is another narrative that is not so destructive.” Rob Felton, the Director of Public Information for the university, has been nearly pitch perfect on this issue, as nearly as I can tell.
I think the fact that Jayce is choosing to stay at George Fox shows the university community has been supportive of him during his whole experience here. We may have a difference of opinion on appropriate housing, but all indications are he has been treated well by his peers, professors, and our student life staff.
Since I know only a little more than what the Times article told me and what a few conversations with friends have offered, I can’t say whether Felton’s view is the whole picture, but I like it very much. I like the categories he moves to. Felton wants to talk about “Jayce’s whole experience here.” Jaycen is not the face of an issue, so that the issue is the important thing and Jaycen is just an instance. I don’t hear that in what Felton says.
Felton wants to talk about the support offered by “the university community.” He is not saying there is no one at George Fox is uncomfortable with this difficulty, but a Quaker school really ought to know something about “supporting the outsider”—having been such outsiders themselves—and they ought to have a rich sense of “the university community,” and it looks like they do.
Felton wants to talk about just who has treated Jaycen well. Again, we’re not talking about everyone at the university, one at a time. They are Quakers; they aren’t saints. He wants to talk about the people Jaycen goes to class with and the people who have the responsibility of providing instruction for him and the people who make the university as an organization, run smoothly. I think Felton was right to leave out the higher offices, like the president, the provost, and the deans. It isn’t because they have a different view than the rest of the university community; it is because Felton built the relevant categories around Jaycen’s experience and I think that is just what he should have done.
There is no reason in particular to think that George Fox University, in crafting a response to these events, looked to the experience of the early church, but if they did, they have every reason to be encouraged. I will mix two accounts here (Luke’s and Paul’s) in the interests of brevity. The issue was how to deal with Gentile Christians. One party said they had to become Jews first, and then they could become Jewish followers of Jesus. The other party said that God had made His view plain by giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles without asking for any other change. They argued about it for a while and then, as good Quakers would have, they came to consensus.
The apostles and elders met to look into the matter and after a long discussion (Acts 15:6), they decided to ask the Gentiles for only those changes which would enable them to meet together as a worshiping community. Or, as Paul, whose side “won” that encounter, puts it, “…when they acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, then James and Cephas and John, who were the ones recognized as pillars [of the church] offered their right hands to me as a sign of partnership. (Gal. 2:9)” 
Those passages came to mind because in the story they tell, the issues were not actually resolved. The commitment to fellowship was made and all the issues, save only the ones that bore on their meeting together as disciples, were pushed to the side. The issues are often decided by later generations, but if fellowship is to be unbroken—if “the university community is to be supportive”—it has to happen now or not at all.
 Actually, St. Paul says they are saints, but his meaning for that term is not the contemporary meaning, so it’s the kind of quibble I put in footnotes.
 The list is a First Century Jewish list so it looks unfamiliar to us. The Gentiles were to “abstain from anything polluted by idols, from illicit marriages, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood.”
 The word translated “partnership” here is koinonia, which could carry a good deal more freight than “partnership.” It is often translated “fellowship,” but it refers, as biblical scholar Raymond Brown says, to the faith that is common among them. They did not break “the common-ness” and so enabled the church to flourish.