The time was ripe for Rosaria Butterfield’s recent book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. The time is ripe because everyone seems to be talking about homosexuality and same sex marriage. The church, or at least some of it, is struggling to be faithful to both the call to mission and a biblical morality. Some parts of the church focus on only one and lose sight of the other.
“I often wonder: God, why pick me? I didn’t ask to be a Christian convert. I didn’t ‘seek the Lord.’ Instead, I ran like the wind when I suspected someone would start peddling the gospel to me.”
While the subtitle focuses on Rosaria’s work as an English Professor, the first chapter makes clear that as an English professor she was a gay activist and lesbian who taught Queer Theory. Hers is an interesting story in many regards. It seems difficult to try and squeeze the first 36 years of a life into a chapter, albeit a long one, but that is what she does.
She was not looking to become a Christian. She felt no spiritual need. She was actually out to get Christianity or at least the Religious Right as part of her need to publish for her job. As she began to read the Bible things slowly changed. Just as important was a new friendship with one of those conservative Christians who happened to be the pastor of a local church. It is an engaging journey as she is confronted with the truth of Christianity.
This was no easy journey since she lived in a world in which everyone agreed with her. She was surrounded by feminism, secularism and homosexuality. She lived in a world that was hostile to Christianity. This is a story about the power of the Gospel to save people who live in such a community enslaved to such a mindset. It took love and truth: heavy doses of both. Remember, God ordinarily uses means to bring sinners to saving faith. There was also help from some unlikely sources like her transgendered friend who used to be a Presbyterian pastor who gave her his copy of Calvin’s Institutes with his own handwritten warning to not forget Romans 1. This chapter would be helpful for those who are homosexual considering the claims of Christ (and those who want to lovingly serve them).
I think I would have appreciated a chapter before this about the making of a radical feminist and gay rights accident. She gives us some of that information in the first chapter. Perhaps she did not want to dwell on her descent (which she viewed as an ascent at the time). I can understand that.
“Obedience comes before understanding. I wanted to understand.”
In some senses, converting was the easy part. After her world shattering conversion (her world) she had to figure out what it all meant for her life. She had already broken up with her girlfriend so that wasn’t the big issue. It was her professional life. She was not just an English professor. When C.S. Lewis converted he initially wondered if he could continue to teach English Literature as though it was some how worldly. Thankfully he realized he could continue to teach English Lit. Her struggle was magnified because it was mixed up with Queer Theory and postmodern deconstructionism. Her conversion was essentially career suicide.
“I was tenured to a field that I could no longer work in. I was the faculty advisor to all of the gay and lesbian and feminist groups on campus. I was writing a book that I no longer believed in.”
Conversion can mean radical changes in how we live and communities in which we find ourselves. She also had to grow into her understanding of herself and her sin. She doesn’t deny that homosexual activity is sinful but she sees it as a manifestation of a deeper sin: pride. Overall I think she handles the Scriptures well here as she makes her point. She’s not trying to avoid the sinfulness of homosexuality (like gay activists), but trying to see it in a larger context.
“Pride combined with wealth leads to idleness because you falsely feel that God just wants you to have fun; if unchecked, this sin will grow into entertainment-driven lust; if unchecked, this sin will grow into hardness of heart that declares other people’s problems no responsibility or care of your own; if unchecked, we become bold in our sin and feel entitled to live selfish lives fueled by the twin values of our culture: acquiring and achieving.”
She was struggling vocationally and relationally. She felt as if she had betrayed her students, friends and colleagues. The people at church were generally accepting but understandably had a difficult time coming to grips with how hard all this change was for her. When she began to confuse her feelings for a man who had helped her they encouraged the relationship. They didn’t ask some of the hard questions she probably needed to hear. Repentance for a homosexual is not jumping into a romantic heterosexual relationship. He was struggling with his own sin but was not seeing even remotely similar progress. Sometimes churches and seminaries fail those who struggle with sexual sin by either being too harsh or too lax (uninvolved). But God was at work to protect her as this man finally realized he shouldn’t be in ministry or married to her.
“One of the complexities of repenting from sexual sin is that its consequence is double-directional, casting a shadow on both our past and our future. It affects the way we remember (and rationalize) and the way we live.”
In God’s providence, the timing was great. She had 2 years of leave from her job lined up to do research and sort life out. She already had a teaching position (part-time) at an urban ministry center near Pittsburgh lined up. Her pastor was able to get her a position at Geneva College as a guest lecturer. She was put into a new, strange to her, community that enabled her to grow and sort some things out.
Rosaria makes her secret thoughts public. Those thoughts include things like the Regulative Principle of Worship, homeschooling, adoption and more. She’s one of those people who is blunt and honest. She’s just matter of fact about them and they fit into her story, for the most part. I don’t agree with all of these formerly secret thoughts.
“What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be ‘healed’ by redeeming the context or genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God.”
Her work as an English professor shows. There are some interesting turns of phrase and vivid images in places. But she is layering the text in many ways. Her story is intended to teach and critique in many places. She has some things to say about conservative Presbyterian circles that we need to consider. We should weigh them, test them and correct ourselves as needed. That is the helpful aspect of an outsider beginning to dwell among a community. They can see all the things we take for granted.
“We in the church tend to be more fearful of the (perceived) sin in the world than of the sin in our own heart.”
I also thought of someone I know pursuing their Ph.D. in English literature. They struggle with the deconstructionism that everyone else seems to take for granted as “gospel truth.” I think her own struggle related in the second chapter might be helpful for her.
“Adoption is not a pathology that marks and plagues people and families for their whole life. But adoption is a complex paradoxical event that combines loss, brokenness, and rejection with gain, connection, and embrace. … Wanted or not, adoption always starts with loss. Adoption always combines ambiguous loss with unrequested gain.”
This is a (usually) interesting and engaging story of how God transformed a life. We don’t have to be so radically different at the beginning for God to transform us. There are less obvious or acceptable ways selfishness controls us that God can transform to make us more fully engaged in what He’s doing in the world. This was a book well-worth reading.